Photo by Abbey Reighard
Randy Gilson opened Randyland in his backyard in the 1990s to be used as a community urban garden.

By Abbey Reighard

“Lookin’ good Randy!”

Randy Gilson put down his brush to wave and call out his thanks to the car that rolled by his home. After three decades of giving to the Northside with his paint, his flowers and his smiles — the community came together to give back to him.

Gilson is the owner, creator and self-proclaimed keeper of smiles at Randyland, 1501 Arch St., a community urban garden in his backyard he opened to the neighborhood in the 1990s.

Over the years some of the features at Randyland, like the map of the Northside Gilson painted on the side of his house, have faded and cracked after years of exposure to Pittsburgh weather.

Gilson held a Randyland Kickstarter campaign to raise money to restore the garden, and his goal was $10,000. After fundraising for 30 days, from June 22 through July 22, Gilson received $12,525 in donations from 288 community members and Randyland enthusiasts.

“Thank you,” Gilson said. “Thank you from every fiber of my being.”

With his contagious smiles and his unmistakable sunshine-blonde hair, Gilson may be the most popular guy on the Northside.

“Everybody beeps and stops by,” Gilson said. “It’s really wonderful.”

On the first day Randy began the restoration project, Dan Scarpaci was working construction across the street from Randyland. Scarpaci had heard about Randyland, but had not met the creator before then.

“Randy made my day a whole lot better by just being there,” Scarpaci said. “He’s just a really positive person.”

Sean McKeag, a Point Park graduate, is currently filming a documentary about Randy. McKeag said he had met Randy a few years earlier when he and some friends visited the garden, to take pictures.

“I sent Randy some of the pictures and he loved them,” McKeag said.

Now that McKeag has time to devote to the documentary, he said he hopes to finish the film in the next few weeks.

Gilson said Randyland was “built from smiles” and people can’t help but smile when they visit his one-of-a-kind home. The garden is an explosion of bright color. Gilson and volunteers painted the surrounding buildings, while Gilson has spent years collecting unwanted objects to display at Randyland.

People come to Randyland from a few blocks up the street, while others come from the other side of the world to take pictures, chat with Gilson and to simply marvel at the plethora of color and images that make up the garden. Randyland is open daily, 1 to 7 p.m, and is free to the public.

Gilson learned his selflessness from his mother, a woman who always showed compassion for others despite the hard times she faced raising six children on her own.

Gilson said there had been trouble between his parents, so his mother moved her children from Titusville to Meadville and then to Pittsburgh when Gilson was in third grade.

Gilson remembers how his mother brought her children to the Homestead public school “dressed like [they] were going to bible school.” The school’s principal didn’t think the Gilson children would fit in at the public school.

“There were a lot of gangs at the school,” Gilson said.

Despite the principal’s hesitations, Gilson recalled his years at the school as “an adoption process.” The seemingly rough and tough kids took Randy and his siblings in.

“Those were the best years of my life,” Gilson said. “I made some of the best friends I’ve had in my entire life.”

Even though it was a struggle to support herself and her children, Gilson’s mothers always left open places at her dinner table during Thanksgiving and Christmas. Gilson said his mother invited single mothers like herself and their children to join the Gilson’s for holiday feasts.

“Mom taught me that even though we were poor, other people were having hardships too,” Gilson said.

Gilson said as he got older he began “sneaking” into the yards of his elderly neighbors to cut their grass and trim their hedges. Many of them offered him money to continue his services. Gilson said sometimes he would make more than $100 from one night of work.

“I kept $5 for myself to buy a hoagie,” Gilson said. “I gave the rest to Mom.”

Gilson’s sense of giving has remained. Except for the recent Kickstarter, Randyland is funded almost entirely from Randy’s wages as a waiter at a downtown hotel restaurant and the sales of Randyland merchandise, like the Randyland T-shirts and Randy’s newest creations called “thinkerers.”

Gilson said in the winter when he can’t be out in the garden, he likes to work on his “thinkerers,” which are made from old slate shingles.

Gilson was inspired to create the “thinkerers” while he was contemplating the journey the slate had taken from the mountain to the roofs of the people who settled in Pittsburgh, many of which were poor immigrants.

“I felt like they were saying ‘let me out!’” Gilson said.

The 250 hand-painted pieces each have their own distinctive facial features.

Gilson said one of the beautiful things about Pittsburgh is the love he felt as a child and still feels as an adult from the locals. He describes the Northside as a “people-hood.”

“The Northside doesn’t judge you,” Gilson said. “The people will accept you, care about you and love you.”

Gilson said although he never had children of his own, the community is his family. The children who helped Randy plant and paint 30 years ago return to Randyland with their own children to visit the place that had always made them smile.

“They’re all my kids,” Gilson said. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”

CORRECTION: In the August issue of the Northside Chronicle, Randy’s last name is misprinted as “Gibson” instead of “Gilson.” We apologize to Randy and our readers for the error.