The Orbit 2017 Year in Review

Handmade wooden sign with arrow reading "Neighbor is a Thief" with choir member lawn ornaments missing heads, Ross Township, PA

“Neighbor is a Thief” sign, the headless choir, and a whole lot more in Bill Ansell’s Ross Township Christmas display

Stodgy Orbit editors still prefer the old-school train wreck. It’s clear, though, that with the change in political administration America has officially moved-on from this tired railroad-age metaphor to the more immediate (if ultimately less tragic) dumpster fire. Maybe this was this was year our fears moved from the cataclysmically abstract and right into the alley behind the house.

Yeah, 2017 was a mess. The “hyper-local” Orbit focus didn’t really cross paths with either presidential politics* or #metoo, but it’s interesting that our most-read stories of 2017 trade in their own form of controversy, despair, and isolation. Of course, these themes are always current.

Anyway, as is our year-end tradition, below are lists of the most-read Orbit stories of 2017 along with some “editor’s favorites” from the bottom of the list.


The Hits

1. Ansell Regrettal: A Ross Township Donnybrook (March 6, 2016)

Santa Claus lawn ornament with protest signs against Ross Township leadership

Merry Christmas from Ross Township

That’s right. The Orbit‘s #1 story for 2017 was published in 2016–early 2016, at that. Maybe it’s because we’ve had not one, but two Christmas seasons since this one first ran, or maybe it’s just that people can’t get enough of the heartbreaking and terrifying tale of Ross Township’s Bill Ansell–a man who just wanted to spread his love of Christmas until his neighbors and the township shut him down. Then his thoughts turned from giving to killing.

2. Into the Forgotten: Clairton’s Ghost Neighborhood (Feb. 22, 2017)

abandoned house with spray-painted graffiti "Into the forgotten", Clairton, PA

A house on Lincoln Way, Clairton

Lincoln Way was a quiet dead-end street of pre-war single-family homes until the groundwork for an expansion of the Mon-Fayette Expressway sacrificed the little hollow neighborhood to connect the highway to Rt. 837. What’s left is a sad, vacant, and fascinating stretch of former homes now in various purgatory states between dilapidation and demolition.

3. A Graveyard for Gravestones (May 9, 2017)

dismantled mausoleum in unruly pile, Pittsburgh, PA

The graveyard for grave stones

Where do grave stones go to die? One tends to think that the carved granite and marble markers for cemetery plots will be there forever–but that’s not always the case. Headstones are removed and replaced for all sorts of reasons and they end up here, in the cemetery’s work yard for ultimate processing and disposal.

We got into a lot of trouble over this one with neighbors coming up with some wild theories about what’s going on in there. Ultimately, though, it became a great teachable moment for some of the behind-the-scenes, nuts-and-bolts business of cemeteries.

4. The Front (and Back) Yard Marys of Bloomfield, Part 2 (May 19, 2017)

statuette of Mary in grotto, Pittsburgh, PA

Mary, Ella Street, Bloomfield

A post-long mea culpa on the false assumption that we’d located every (street-visible) Front Yard Mary in Bloomfield with our first go-around. This one includes another sizable handful of Her Blessedness peering back at us through chainlink fence and alley walls. What can we say? The Orbit loves Mary!

5. Water’s Gone Cold: An Elegy for Tea Bag’s (Feb. 12, 2017)

brick wall painted with logo for Tea Bags bar, Pittsburgh, PA

(Former) side wall of Tea Bags with logo/mural, Lawrenceville

Tea Bags grinning, sunglasses-wearing logo, painted on the visible side of its brick building in Lawrenceville/Bloomfield has been a constant neighborhood presence for the last several decades. That all ended at the beginning of the year when the dive bar went the way of Michalski’s and A.J.’s, Salak’s and Ed’s.

By all reports, Tina’s (which just opened in the same space after a lengthy renovation) looks like a pretty nice place with an old-school record-playing jukebox and windows that  actually let customers see daylight from inside the bar. We hope to get there soon. They’ve also amazingly left the old Tea Bags logo/mural on the outside–repainting everything else–so hats off to Tina’s!

6. “Wild Animal” on the Loose in Bloomfield! (Feb. 28, 2017)

"Wild Animal" art piece made from construction cones and panoramic photographs

Anonymous “Wild Animal” artwork, Edmund Street, Bloomfield

A brilliant, surprise piece of elaborate street art arrived on little Edmund Street in the middle of winter. Despite being right up against the Bloomfield PNC Bank branch, no one disturbed the tableau of a road cone-formed wild cat emerging from a photographed forest for nearly a week. We still don’t know who created Wild Animal (no attribution was left), but we’d love to find out.


The Sleepers

If there can be six hits this year, there can be six sleepers too…right? Sure. Like past years-in-review, here are some stories from the last twelve months that didn’t get the level of attention  like the ones above. Our editors thought these stories deserved a second shot at getting a first look.

Mondo Menorah! Menorahmobile Models Measured (Jan. 10)

mini van with rooftop menorah and "Happy Chanukah" banner, Pittsburgh, PA

Our attempt to cover the bicycle menorah parade this year fell victim to an untimely arctic blast and a (likely-related) participation dropout from the riders. We’ll get them next year (hopefully)!

In lieu, we can throw in this plug for The Orbit‘s coverage of Chabad’s 2016 Grand Menorah Parade in which our writers got acquainted with the array of options available for those who wish to sport a car top, light-up menorah for the family minivan. They come both commercially-available and also in a uniquely-Pittsburgh painted PVC pipe design.

Hold the Cheese: A Pi Day Salute to Ghost Pizza (March 14)

neon sign reading "IZZA" (the letter "P" is burnt out), Natrona Heights, PA

unknown pizzeria, Natrona Heights

It was a novel way to recognize “Pi Day.” Everyone loves pizza and Pittsburghers really love pizza. But even with that favorable business climate, not every pizza shop manages to survive. The unique landscape of many former pizzerias plus general vacancy leads to an ideal climate for what we call ghost pizza–the leftover signage, iconography, and architecture of independent pizza shops that are now shuttered.

Pain’t That America: The Front Yard Patriotism of Gary Thunberg (July 16)

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

One of Gary Thunberg’s many homemade American flags

Gary Thunberg is holiday crazy. Four times a year, he pulls out elaborate sets of homemade lawn decorations that cover the front, side, and rear yards of the Beaver Township home he lives in with his mother. We happened to run into him right around Independence Day, so we were treated to red, white, and blue American flags, eagles, crests, and bombs bursting in air. We sadly missed the Halloween display and we’ll have to hustle to catch Christmas. Learn from our mistakes and catch up with the Fourth of July.

The Orbit’s Summer Vacation Part 1: Considering Portland and Part 2: Coming Home (Sept. 24/Oct. 1)

two men wearing black-and-gold kilts and Steelers jerseys at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh

Steelers fans at a pre-game, Heinz Field

Eight days vacation in lauded, lampooned, and local/organic Portland, Oregon was the prompt for a pair of posts on a bunch of nuts-and-bolts city things they’re doing right out there and a follow-up coming-home love letter to what we love about Pittsburgh.

An Urban Hike: William Street, Mount Washington (Oct. 22)

view of downtown Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington

View downtown and the Smithfield Street Bridge from William Street, Mount Washington

We didn’t cover as many nature stories/tales of the city steps this year, but this was a good one. Little William Street snakes down the side of Mount Washington in a way that both rewards the hiker with several terrific views of downtown and a heady dose of that uniquely Pittsburgh sensation of being way out in the woods when you’re still right in the middle of the city.

James P. Leaf Mausoleum, Beaver Cemetery (Nov. 5)

James P. Leaf mausoleum in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

Colonel James P. Leaf mausoleum, Beaver Cemetery

There’s an old saw that if you haven’t had a “Geraldo moment,” then you’re not blogging. The Leaf Mausoleum was ours. There’s just got to be a great story behind the nutty collection of  rocks assembled to entomb Beaver County civil engineer James P.  Leaf, but after a year of searching, we couldn’t figure anything out.

Regardless, it was still a fascinating construction to go dig around for, observe in a couple different seasons, and ponder on the hows and whys–plus, you’re right across the street from Gary Thumberg’s house! Let us know if you figure something out.

* A notable exception would be our post-inauguration piece “On Making America Great … Again” (Pittsburgh Orbit, Feb. 19, 2017).

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