Peculiar Pittsburgh

Why Pittsburgh’s Poetess pulled her iconic Bigelow Boulevard billboards

Where have you gone, Rachel Bovier? A city turns its lonely eyes to you.

Rachel Bovier's Thanksgiving billboard at the corner of Bigelow Boulevard and Herron Avenue.

Rachel Bovier's Thanksgiving billboard at the corner of Bigelow Boulevard and Herron Avenue.

ROSSILYNNE CULGAN / THE INCLINE
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Where is Pittsburgh’s premier poet?

Nineteen months after a billboard at the corner of Bigelow Boulevard and Herron Avenue first proclaimed Billie Nardozzi — now Rachel Ann Bovier — the city’s self-appointed poet laureate, Bovier is gone — in billboard form at least.

For the last year and a half, Bovier and Lamar Advertising have placed a new, hand-crafted billboard at the Polish Hill intersection monthly, offering passersby a photo of Bovier smiling serenely, a quote meant to inspire or, at a minimum, reassure, and Bovier’s home phone number for anyone who wanted (or needed) to talk.

“Put the ‘freeze’ on hate and the ‘heat’ on love,” read one month’s offering. “‘May’ your troubles be few and your triumphs be many,” read another.

The billboards quickly developed a loyal following among a curious if not mostly captive audience at one of the most heavily trafficked intersections on one of the city’s most heavily trafficked roadways — our “crosstown autobahn,” if you will.

But last month they disappeared, and as of Friday, an ad for a vape store had taken her place.

In a phone call with The Incline, Bovier said Friday that she could no longer afford the billboards. She declined to discuss the costs — as did an account executive at Lamar Advertising — but said she tried hard to prevent this outcome: applying portions of her pension as a state liquor store system retiree, using her credit cards and even selling off some of her musical instruments to keep the campaign going as long as she could.

“It was the last thing in the world that I wanted to do,” Bovier said of ending it.

She’s already received numerous phone calls and social media messages asking where the billboards have gone.

“People are calling and saying they see [the billboards] aren’t up, and that they’re shocked and hope they can see them again,” Bovier relayed. “They’re like concerned, and it’s so nice, but they’re like worried that maybe something happened to me.”

For anyone wondering, Bovier is doing just fine: She’s the subject of an upcoming documentary, is working on a forthcoming book of poetry and one-liners, and continues to work part-time as a cleaner at a hotel in Green Tree, the borough where she’s lived for 25 years.

Her home is just a stone’s throw from the offices of Lamar Advertising, where Bovier struck up a conversation with an ad rep one day that ultimately spawned the billboard campaign.

Ryan Hoey, the Lamar Advertising account executive in charge, said their agreement spanned June 2017 to November of last year. Copy was changed monthly based on various themes, many corresponding with the season or an upcoming holiday. “May Your Christmas Have Blissness,” for example.

The last billboard — one with a Thanksgiving theme — came down in the first week of December.

The first billboard, a giant pink one, posed a simple question: “Who is Pittsburgh’s premier poet?”

A month later, an updated version of the same billboard provided the answer: “Billie Nardozzi, Pittsburgh’s Premier Poet.” (Billie Nardozzi later changed names to Rachel Nardozzi and then to Rachel Ann Bovier, a nod to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ maiden name.)

Bovier said the billboard’s Bigelow Boulevard location was suggested by Lamar. So was the “premier poet” line.

For years, Bovier paid the Post-Gazette $50 a piece to publish her poetry in its classifieds pages. She said she recently resumed the practice. The submissions, much like the billboards, always included a home phone number for anyone who wanted to chat.

A tribute poem Bovier wrote for Mayor Bill Peduto was hung in Peduto’s office Downtown. A Wall Street Journal profile in 2015 said similar tributes written for the Queen of England, the Prince of Wales and Conan O’Brien all garnered thank-you notes from their subjects.

For many, Bovier’s billboards were just as endearing — a public art project with cumulative emotional hooks and a saccharine motto for whatever ailed you; two-dimensional pep talks that wished passersby a happy holiday or offered them charming, fortune cookie-style assurances that despite the traffic and the stress and the weather or whatever was going on at home, work or in the world, it was going to somehow be okay.

They were mass communication that felt private; something personal in the most impersonal of settings.

“Every time I saw the billboards, they lifted me out of my crappy mood,” Emily Nagin, managing editor of the Oakland Review, wrote in a piece for the Michigan Quarterly Review. “I started looking forward to driving down that stretch of road.”

In an email to The Incline on Friday, Nagin added, “I’m really sad to hear the billboards have stopped, especially because I don’t think I got a chance to see November’s.” Nagin continued. “Everything about those billboards felt so quintessentially Pittsburgh — just really strange and specific and full of this oddball goodwill that used to be easier to find in this city. […] I’m going to miss knowing her picture and her words were there.”

Some admired the billboards silently. Others called Bovier to let her know.

“Sometimes it was guys who had had a couple of drinks coming home from the bar at like 2 or 3 in the morning, and they’d say, ‘Hey Rachel, we saw your billboard. Keep it up,'” Bovier recalled. “Then there were serious ones just saying they appreciated it and that they looked forward to driving past.”

She added, “I can’t believe it drew that much attention and love.”

Bovier said she wants to find a way to get them back up but acknowledges she probably won’t.

“They were the greatest investment I ever made in my life,” she said, somewhat ruefully. “They really helped with my poetry fans, including some jobs I got from it. Lamar Advertising was so very patient and understanding of my financial situation.”

Bovier added, “I am so grateful and appreciative of how many really and truly enjoyed them and looked forward to them.”

For those who’ll miss the billboards now, Bovier offers the upcoming documentary about her life and a host of upcoming projects as consolation.

If that’s not enough, Bovier says her phone line is always open.

Want some more? Explore other Peculiar Pittsburgh stories.

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