- Photo by Frances Sansig Rupp
- Wanted Poster: Henry Redd Uppington
"Do you know who Henry Redd Uppington is?" I beseech, as I cautiously loiter in front of First Lutheran Church on Grant Street near a garbage receptacle that bears his chiseled image. I query several passersby, but no one says "yes." It’s as though he never existed.
Yet, in the heart of Downtown Pittsburgh, where there is a trash can, there is the creased, abraded and sooted image of Henry, and I need to know what happened to him.
The fictitious warrior against waste was created in 2011 as a part of a marketing campaign designed to encourage clean streets and support the work of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership’s Clean Team. They commissioned Henry as a superhero specialist who focused on eradicating the tobacco confetti and lipstick-stained Lucky Strike leftovers that lined our fair city’s streets. His name was an obvious homage to the "redding up" that those of us in Pittsburgh are so fond of doing.
Unfortunately, his lore was a little less-than-heroic. "He wears a cape, and a tool belt filled with cleaning supplies," reported the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review at the time. The PDP also called for submissions to rename this threat to city-sullying scofflaws. That’s because he was given only a "Joe Citizen" placeholder name, "Henry Redd Uppington." The lucky person who invented the perfect superhero moniker for mild-mannered Henry would receive an iPod Touch and other prizes.
The PDP fastened 150 cigarette urns onto existing city refuse cans as part of this campaign. And then the image of the caped and leotarded Henry — the superhero-without-a-superhero-name — was slapped onto each urn. In hindsight (and you’ll see why this is a great pun in just a second), Henry was for all intents the poster hero for proper cigarette butt disposal, and opening the floodgates to a rechristening was probably not the wisest maneuver: "Buttman." "Henry Redd Buttington." "Bluntman." You get the idea. Never mind it was already confusing that "Redd Uppington" already rang like a genuine, Pittsburgh, filth-slayer, superhero name.
Diana Nelson-Jones wrote a story for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and described his character in a manner that may have also foreboded his doom: "... he has that typical lantern-jawed, thick-thighed Aryan thing going on ..." adding that he looked like he could "dropkick you into Fayette County if you threw a cigarette butt." Nelson-Jones clearly touched a nerve — no one wants to be dropkicked into Fayette County.
In my tireless search for this caped crusader of litter crimes, I contacted Joe Wos, the erstwhile former director of The Toonseum, who helped to create the backstory for Henry. He relayed only a tale of intrigue without any real answers. After mentioning that he and Henry had never been seen together at the same time, he ended abruptly: "That is all I can tell you without revealing too much of the story."
An official statement from Mayor Bill Peduto was equally shrouded in enigma:
"The ledger of classified Pittsburgh facts — passed down to every mayor and kept in my secret stairwell — says he went to clean up the B-25 lost in the Mon and was never seen again. Luckily, we’ve had an army of other litter-battling volunteers to replace him."
In reality, Henry has languished on city streets since 2011, as though he is waiting for a P1 bus that never comes. He still lacks a superhero name and public appearances by the costumed sentinel of sanitation have never materialized. Henry has gone up in smoke, both figuratively and literally. Leigh White, PDP’s vice president of marketing and communications, offers this explanation: "Like all marketing campaigns, there are some that are more successful than others."
Still, the words of Wos and Peduto haunt me.
Pittsburgh, unlike Gotham, evidently has no place for a superhero, only the weathered images of the idea of a superhero, forever in limbo, and stuck with only a civilian name.
In some ways, Henry has become nothing more than the litter that he was dreamt up to keep off our streets. Did Henry exist, or was he nothing more than a Zen koan? Who is a superhero without a superhero name?
It is Henry’s grim fate to be the failed avenger of tidiness. In Pittsburgh, the real heroes are thousands of volunteers, whether they are working with the PDP, scout groups or neighborhood organizations. What a great gift to live in a city where a cleaning crime fighter isn’t actually necessary. This is the truth I accept.
While we may never know exactly what happened to Henry, I do know this: In Pittsburgh, superheroes never die. Their advertising campaign posters just slowly fade away.