The Orbit 2019 Year in Review

empty retail space in shopping mall, Baden, PA

Lights out: one of dozens of former retail spaces now empty in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden

If it’s the end of the year, you can reliably expect amateur journalists and armchair prognosticators to be looking back, making Top 10 lists, and recounting the themes accrued since January.

At Orbit headquarters, the end of December is when the bean counters in the back room run the numbers and find out what actually got read over the past annum and devote the week to a no-new-reporting victory lap on the year’s well-read stories. Interestingly, this year’s top three–covering a defunct shopping mall in Beaver Country and two extraordinary Mon Valley pizzerias–all came from outside the city proper.

We also take the opportunity to do some additional promotion for other favorites published during the last twelve months. It’s unfair to call these “sleepers” as we have in past, so we’re just going with staff favorites.

 

The Hits

interior of vacant Chinese restaurant in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden, PA

former Chinese restaurant, Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden

1. Lights Out: The Slow Death of Pennsylvania’s Largest Shopping Center (March 10)

The sad, quintessentially-American story of Northern Lights Shopping Center arrived on our doorstep in that most Orbit of ways. There was no research or planning involved; the location wasn’t known or targeted; it wasn’t anywhere on our radar. And yet with one wrong turn leaving the little Beaver County borough of Conway we fell ass-backwards into the ghost strip mall that devoured the Main Streets of Ambridge and Rochester ahead of its own drawn-out peril at the dual clutches of the fall of Big Steel and the rise of e-commerce.

However they got here, the readership for this one was off-the-charts. The result was a total number of page-clicks that equals a significant double-digit percentage of everyone in Beaver County. We don’t know who actually read the story, but it sure brought out the memories … and the squabbling. Hopefully Northern Lights will shine again, somehow.

exterior of Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe, Monessen, PA

Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe, making the same simple pizza in Monessen since 1952.

2. The Pizza Chase: Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe Ain’t Monessen Around (Nov. 24)

If there is a pizza heaven, it may well be thirty miles southeast of Pittsburgh in the Mon Valley. For folks who haven’t spent much/any time in the old upriver steel towns, it can be a shocking reality check that not all of the greater region has enjoyed the same level of post-industrial prosperity Pittsburgh has.

Monessen is as good an example as there is of the fallout that occurs when the mill shuts down and all the jobs–and most of the people–leave town. Some things survive, though, and the mind-bogglingly-good single product of Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe is one of them. Going on 67 years, the little take-out operation in a basement on Knox Avenue makes a pizza that’s like biting into a cloud. It is unlike anything you’ve ever had and it’s absolutely divine.

pizza cooked Mon Valley red top style from Anthony's Italiano, Donora, PA

Mon Valley Red Top: an Extraordinary pizza from Anthony’s Italiano, Donora

3. The Pizza Chase: Mon Valley Red Top at Anthony’s Italiano (March 17)

Literally right across the river from Monessen is the sister used-to-be-steel/forever-in-infamy burg of Donora. The little city has plenty of its own struggles, but none of them are a lack of good pizza.

Anthony’s Italiano has been operating for over 40 years and their basic product is a pie whose crust will blow your mind with its ciabatta-like chewy/airy ecstasy. That said–when you’re ready to leave this planet entirely–step up to the double-decker, cheese on the inside/sauce on the outside “red top.” It’s no mere novelty–the subtle structural switcheroo flips everything you’ve ever thought you knew about taste, sensation, and the meaning of life. Get one as soon as you can.

Steps to Nowhere: The Thomasson of Essex Way, Bloomfield

4. Steps to Nowhere: The Thomasson of Essex Way (July 21)

If you want to point to a reason why The Orbit exists, this document of a set of freshly-painted and redecorated concrete steps leading up the alley side of a blank row house wall is pretty much right on target.

The term Thomasson comes from Japanese conceptual artist Akasegawa Genpei and arrived in our ears via the great 99% Invisible podcast. Ever since hearing that episode we were after bagging a Thomasson of our own, here in Pittsburgh. We did that once already, but this one, from a back alley in Bloomfield, is about as perfect an example as you’ll ever encounter.

tiny candy shop–one of several “tiny doors” temporarily installed downtown last summer

5. Let’s Get Small: Big Ideas, Tiny Doors (June 16)

Arriving as part of last summer’s Three Rivers Arts Festival, the limited art installation of three “tiny doors” on downtown buildings were a terrific hide-and-go-seek during (and after) the festivities.

Anything that combines ludicrous absurdity, urban egg-hunting, and, you know, little things is OK in our book. Hopefully (organizer) Stephen Santa and the gang will keep the tiny spirit going with a new set of doors on another collection of sidewalk-level foundation walls … sometime.

 

ORBIT STAFF FAVORITES

spray paint rendering of the British flag on cement wall, Sharpsburg, PA

Union Jack tribute to Def Leppard (c. 1983), Sharpsburg

Precious Metal: The Disappearing Legacy öf Hard Rock Graffiti (March 3)

There was a time when giants walked the earth. Abbreviated to just single power words, their names are legend: ZeppelinPriestDokkenMaidenKrokusCrüe. Burnouts, D-20 rollers, and teenage hair-farmers alike analyzed Tolkien-meets-toking mysticism, tapped and plucked modal riffage on second-hand battle axes, and armored themselves in a suburban denim-and-studs couture. Umlauts döminated every pössible occasiön. Yes, it was the very best of times.

The penance for an enviable life rich in metal mullets, keg beer consumed by a river, double bass drums, and a perpetual soreness in the neck and ringing in the ears was to pay tribute to one’s idols in the most public, lasting, and respectful way: half-assedly spray-painting their names on dimly-lit concrete walls. Some of these precious original anthropological traces from hard rock’s golden age survive … if you know where to look.

elaborate diorama of Easter bunnies at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Rabbit rabbit. Big bunnies at Kraynak’s, Sharon.

Animatronically Correct: Hopping Down Kraynak’s Easter Bunny Lane (April 21)

Flowers pop in full bloom way ahead of schedule as fairies mingle with enormous fuzzy caterpillars. Giant Easter eggs dangle from tree limbs while an array of butterflies lift off in a spectacularly-coordinated squadron. An indoor forest is filled with the world’s most cuddly cavalcade of bunnies and geese, pigs and lambs, bears, owls, and raccoons.

Existing somewhere between the topsy-turvy psychedelic overload of the Wonka Chocolate factory and the kind of über-wholesome family entertainment one would see in a Christian cartoon program, Easter Bunny Lane–an annual technicolor fantasia set up in Kraynak’s outdoor superstore in Sharon, PA–is worth the Easter-season trip.

Kathie Hollingshead’s “Peep All Night” from Art All Night 22

Art All Night 2019: A Roundup with Reflections on 22 (May 5)

Art All Night, the community empowerment project-masquerading-as-(literal) all night art happening celebrated its twenty-second annual event in April. For anyone who’s been on the inside (ahem), you know that’s an amazing achievement for an all-volunteer “organization” with no permanent leadership, no guaranteed location, no board, no funding, and no profit motive.

The once rag-tag, shoe string, is this going to work? event has morphed into something incongruously expected, routine, and arriving like clockwork while continuing to be radically inclusive, completely nonjudgemental, and absolutely vital. Perhaps the biggest feat of all, Art All Night still manages to find available, unused real estate in a Lawrenceville that has way gentrified itself past the event’s original environs.

KISS super collector Bruce Gleason in his New Kensington home

The Collectors: KISS and Tell with Bruce Gleason (June 23)

American glam/hard rock group KISS has been strutting, licking it up, and shouting out loud constantly since the band’s inception in the early 1970s. In that time, they’ve also been the most product-placed and merchandised musical act to ever debit your Visa or Mastercharge.

Bruce Gleason was a first-wave KISS fanatic who bought the records–along with posters, toys, and games–as they were released during the band’s “in paint” heyday and never stopped. This story of one man’s devotion–some might say obsession–to collecting the memorabilia and ephemera of “the hottest band in the land” was one of our favorites of the year and made us think long and hard about all the oddball stuff inhabiting space at Chez Orbit.

Perhaps the world’s finest “off hole,” bus lane, downtown Pittsburgh

Waiting to Go Off: In the Street, On Target, and Under the Bus with Off Hole (July 14)

A warning: once your eyes begin to train on “off holes,” you’ll never be able to unsee them. The phenomenon of manhole covers, striped with lane markings and crosswalk paint, and reset askew from their original alignment is something that exists everywhere. Just try to walk a commercial block or drive any through-street and not encounter a few specimens.

Like so much in life, the subtle variances in angle and texture, placement and accidental design make every one of these random occurrences unique. This is the story of one man’s quest to document them all–or, at least, share the ones he and the Off Hole community have tripped across, in Pittsburgh and way beyond.

The truth is out there … but it’s probably not at the Kecksburg UFO Festival

Out of Orbit: Falling to Earth at the Kecksburg UFO Festival (August 11)

Little Kecksburg, a rural community 40 miles east of Pittsburgh, was the perfect spot for a UFO to crash land. Far enough in the country to have few eyewitnesses but close enough to city resources for federal authorities to swoop in and make off with the evidence before anyone could figure out what had happened.

Some will tell you that was exactly the sequence of events in the little Westmoreland County town on Dec. 9, 1965. Whether it’s true or not, paranormal and unexplained phenomena “experts,” truth-seekers, and the like have made “Pennsylvania’s Roswell” a crucial destination ever since. That devotion spawned the annual Kecksburg UFO Festival held every August. The Orbit finally made it out there this year and filed a report with a lot of green, man.

 

That’s it. Good reading and we’ll see you in 2020. Happy new year, y’all!

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