The Orbit 2018 Year in Review

9 photos of Billie Nardozzi in a collage

Rachel Bovier (neé Billie Nardozzi), The People’s Poet

Renowned veterinary doctor Theodore Nugent said it best: “I don’t know where they come from, but they sure do come.” Dr. The Nuge was speaking to a particular feline ailment, but he may as well have been consulting on web metrics.

‘Tis the season for reflection, year-end lists, and sitting on one’s keister instead of hitting the bricks in pursuit of new content. This is that one time per annum when we open the blogging master console and crunch the numbers on what people were actually reading this year.

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

“Into to the forgotten” maybe, but not for Orbit readers. Clairton’s ghost neighborhood.

It turns out that every single day we still get dozens of visitors coming in to read the years-old stories of Clairton’s ghost neighborhood (2017) and the wacky-terrifying antics of Bill Ansell and his Christmas cul-de-sac of nightmares (2016). Somebody from Reddit linked to our Twin Sycamores of Sheraden story (2015) for a page view spike we’ll likely never experience again.

These three non-2018 stories were our most-read of the year. So this time around we’re just going to go with the top articles that were actually published in the last twelve months. We’ll follow that up with our “staff picks” of favorite sleeper posts that showed up in the lower reaches of the list, but we believe deserve another chance at your eyeballs.

The Orbit will be off next weekend, so happy holidays and we’ll see you in 2019.

 

The Hits

1. The People’s Poet: Billie Nardozzi (Jan. 28)

Rachel Ann Bovier aka Billie Nardozzi aka Billy Nardozzi (photo, top) came into our lives more than a decade ago via the ingeniously-D.I.Y. publishing method of running weekly poems in the Post-Gazette’s classified ads. Lately she/he [Bovier/Nardozzi: “I’m still figuring that out.”] has gone even more big time–quite literally–with a full-size billboard that you can’t miss on Bigelow Boulevard. Pittsburgh noticed.

red, white, and green painted storefront for Henry Grasso, Co. Inc. Pittsburgh, PA

Henry Grasso, Co. Inc., one of the last traces of Larimer’s “Little Italy” past

2. Looking for a Lost Little Italy in Larimer (Sept. 23)

From a throwaway line in the movie Striking Distance (see following item), Dennis Farina kicked this Medigan’s gul into a block-by-block, alley-by-alley trolling through Larimer looking for any traces of what was once Pittsburgh’s largest “Little Italy.” The short version: there ain’t much left. But it was a lot of fun looking, researching, speculating, and hearing the community’s feedback.

illustration of scene from 1993 film "Striking Distance" with Lt. Vince Hardy (John Mahoney) and Det. Tom Hardy (Bruce Willis) in police car

Mario Zucca’s fan illustration of the chase scene from “Striking Distance”

3. Take Bigelow! “Striking Distance,” 25 Years Later, Part 1: The Scene, The Meme, The Dream (July 15)

It was just about this time last year–an icy cold New Year’s Day, if this blogger recalls–when the idea came to retrace the Striking Distance “Take Bigelow” chase scene as a prompt for a then-and-now look at two views of Pittsburgh, separated by 25 years. Then we realized that to do it justice, we’d need to wait half a year until the trees were at full foliage and sun was out so that we could actually compare apples to apples.

No matter. That just led the dedicated Orbit staff to a springtime of repeated viewings of the library’s DVD, triangulating locations, and wondering what Jo Christman ever saw in John Hardy. Then Mario Zucca and his amazing original illustrations came into our lives. ‘Nuf said.

2-story cement house with large side yard, Donora, PA

Cement City, Donora, PA

4. Heavy Living: Cement City, Donora (May 6)

Little Donora, 30 miles south-southeast/upriver from Pittsburgh, has had a rough run. The mills shut down a decade or more before its Mon Valley peers and it’s now remembered primarily for the deadly smog of 1948–an environmental disaster so severe it was a major factor in the formation of the E.P.A. [This history is all covered in the terrific Donora Smog Museum.]

But Donora has a fascinating history outside of air pollution and there is a small, but committed, group of local historians and preservationists who work hard to let you know about it.

There’s nowhere better to put those pieces together than Cement City–a retro-futurist development on the south side of town. The neighborhood was built just about a hundred years ago on technology pushed by Thomas Edison who saw poured-in-place concrete housing as the vision of the future. It didn’t turn out that way, but Donora still ended up with a great little neighborhood.

statuette of Mary with deer statue in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

One of the many front yard Marys in little Presston, McKees Rocks

5. Color Me In Presston: The Front Yard Marys of McKees Rocks, Part 1 (Nov. 18)

If you’ve never heard of Presston, you’re not alone. The little one-way-in/one-way-out neighborhood is just about as cut off from the world as a place could possibly be and still see the skyline of a (semi-)major U.S. city.

There are inevitably many great stories from this edge of McKees Rocks [Presstonians: we’re just waiting for the invitation!] but last month we dug into an old favorite: front yard Marys. Presston has just about as many–house for house–as anywhere we’ve been.

 

The Sleepers

homemade hat with stuffed groundhogs

The world’s coldest fashion show: Groundhog Day at Gobbler’s Knob

Groundhog Gonzo! Fur and Clothing on the Punxsutawney Groundhog Trail (Feb. 11)

To live in Western Pennsylvania and not make the trip up to Punxsutawney for Groundhog Day–at least once–is a crying shame. The yearly event is as wholesome as they come and way goofier than we could have predicted. Orbit staff were there for the whole thing–2:00 AM to daybreak–and came away with an entirely new appreciation for groundhog fashion, “hog heads,” and the collective defiance of winter.

That this story–with some fine writing and fun pictures–didn’t get more attention was a bummer. Maybe people were just groundhogged-out by the following weekend. Now, we’re just in time to get the hype machine going for GHD ’19, so take this op to catch up.

former Plaza Theatre in Pittsburgh, PA

former Plaza Theatre, current Starbucks/Quest Diagnostics, Bloomfield

Show’s Over: Ex-Theaters, Part 1–Mourning the Recently Departed (April 15)

There was a period in the early spring when it was all ex-(movie) theaters: combing through historical maps, cruising the Cinema Treasures site, mentally reconstructing radically-altered façades. That was all in the service of a planned series on what’s happened to all the old movie houses that used to line the commercial drags of every decent-sized town in America.

We got as far as the recently-closed theaters we could still remember from the 1990s–places like the old Plaza in Bloomfield and Cinema 4 in Dormont, Bellevue’s dirty double-screen and the street-straddling pair of Cheswick theaters. Hopefully we’ll get back to this series–heck, we’ll make it a resolution!–as there are just a ton of them out there.

members of 1976 Pittsburgh Triangles World Team Tennis, 1976

Members of the Pittsburgh Triangles of World Team Tennis, 1976

No Room For Squares: When the Pittsburgh Triangles Were Golden (April 29)

Clint Burton was a teenager in the mid-1970s when Pittsburgh had its own squad representing the short-lived World Team Tennis league. He was there on the sidelines, hired by his uncle to be the team’s stats guy, when the Triangles won the league championship in 1975.

Clint’s first-hand account of seat-of-the-pants sports management in a fledgling league, a wide-eyed teenager hanging-out with world-famous sports stars, and filing game recaps to Super-Tiebreaker magazine is a great story we were very proud to tell.

tin can lid painted with sad devil and the words "She's gone", Pittsburgh, PA

tin can pole art, Bloomfield

Tin Can Pole Art, Part 2: A Date with Some Little Devils (June 3)

Who takes the severed lid from a tin can, paints a tiny work of art on it, and then tacks that piece to a utility pole for public consumption? Why, angels must do it, right? And what do these haloed Robin Hoods choose as their subject? Devils!

O.K., the artist or artists involved in this particular genre of pole art may or may not be either divine or particularly pure of thought, but they sure do create interesting little specimens that make for a wonderful ongoing egg hunt.

large plastic tooth painted gold hanging in front of dentist's office, Pittsburgh, PA

you can’t handle the tooth (art)!

Incisor Edition: Dental Art (Aug. 5)

If you haven’t been paying attention, you might have missed just how many giant teeth are out there in front of Pittsburgh’s–and the rest of America’s–dentists, orthopedists, and oral surgeons.

It’s a strange phenomenon that this one medical field chooses to advertise itself with large–often 3-dimensional–renderings of the body part to-be-worked-upon. You don’t see a similar number of outsized eyeballs, spines, feet, ears, noses, and/or throats. There is so much great dental art, we’re already most of the way to a sequel. Hopefully, that’ll give you something to look forward to in the new year.

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).

The Orbit 2016 Year in Review

close-up of golden baby in red onesie, Pittsburgh, PA

Tis the season for year-end lists and the ghosts of blogging past. As The Orbit bids adieu to 2016, our last post of this annum is a little look back at both the year’s greatest hits as well as some overlooked gems.

The former is easy to work out–we’re just relying on straight analytics for page-views. Frankly, we were a little surprised by what the green visored bean-counters turned up in their and ticker-tape results, but the numbers don’t lie–at least, they should be pretty close.

For the latter, our editorial staff selected an equal number of personal favorites that somehow managed to end up in the bottom percentile of the very same stats. Hopefully, you’ll give them another chance.

The Hits

1. Jerry’s Records and the $30 Instant Record Collection (Feb. 21)

used record bins at Jerry's Records, Pittsburgh, PA

Jerry’s Records in Squirrel Hill, home of the $30 instant record collection

“Jerry’s Records is a local institution and a national treasure,” The Orbit‘s #1 story of 2016 begins, and apparently America agreed. In this piece, the crew make the argument for record collecting as cheap fun and cultural preservation while urging you to pick up loose copies of ’80s soundtracks, ’30s jazz, and The Romantics’ In Heat. Nearly a year later, we stand by each and every one of these recommendations and urge you to get your keister down to sit on Santa’s…er, Jerry’s lap and tell him what you want the very next chance you get.

2. Pittsburgh’s Next Hottest Neighborhoods (March 23)

older frame houses with clear blue sky and bare trees, Pittsburgh, PA

NoCarSoSoSlo: one of Pittsburgh’s next hottest neighborhoods

Looking to invest in an up-and-coming neighborhood? Hoping to distinguish a bland urban void? NoSOak, PaHolE/WheBiJIs, and VoBeShaBlo are just three of the suggested rebrandings/”acronames” for less-defined and ripe-for-the-gentrification sections of the city. Get there now and plant some roots before all the parking is gone. Those craft beers aren’t going to brew themselves!

3. More Golden Babies! [or] A Golden Baby Boom! (Jan. 31)

Golden baby hanging from power lines, Pittsburgh, PA

One of the many “golden babies” that took The Orbit by storm in 2016

Our continued coverage of Pittsburgh’s mysterious dangling golden babies “deserves the Pulitzer,” according to one Orbit reader. Four separate stories spread over eight months of 2016 chronicle the strange tale of an elaborate act of street art and/or pranksterdom that goes all the way to the top! … or, at least, all the way to the Department of Public Works. Only the second installment made our Top 5, but check out the whole set if you really want to sort-of know what’s going on.

P.S. The saga of the golden babies is far from over, so hopefully 2017 will bring us another entry in this series.

4. The Pizza Chase: P&M Pizza, Arnold (Oct. 7)

child's head seen over a large pepperoni and olive pizza, P&M Pizza, Arnold, PA

Sunrise over molten lake of cheese. P&M Pizza, Arnold

“There’s more to hair than real hair,” George Willard reminds us in his classic song “Wig Store”. Similarly, greater New Kensington’s pizzerias are happy to let you know there’s more to cheese than real cheese. What they’re cooking up out at the great P&M Pizza in Arnold and across the river at Phillippi’s in Natrona Heights is a defiantly Alle-Kiski Valley concoction of “micro-crust ambiguously-cheesed bar pizza” that ain’t for everyone, but The Orbit calls “absolutely gooey-great”–at least, after a hard morning of pawpaw picking.

5. Street Beat: Who is the Dirty Poet? (March 20)

Photocopy of "It's Always Sunny in New Brunswick" by The Dirty Poet, taped to a light pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“It’s Always Sunny in New Brunswick”, one of The Dirty Poet’s many on-street works, Bloomfield.

One dude (and yes: it is a dude) with a healthy set of legs, one big roll of Scotch tape, and a whole lot on his mind has been distributing his poetry throughout Pittsburgh for the last fifteen years. By turns, the verse is loose, personal, true, vulgar, cynical, sly, smart-alecky, profane, and, yes, possibly (but not usually) dirty. You’ve either seen his colored Xeroxes on telephone poles and street light bases or you haven’t been looking.

We tracked The Dirty Poet down, signed the non-disclosure agreements, and filed a pretty tasty piece on the whole deal. Enough of Pittsburgh must have been wondering about this guy too as this poet’s post earned him a spot in The Orbit‘s year-in-review Top 5.

The Sleepers

Up In Smoke: Ex-Snack Shops (April 20)

mural of soft-serve ice cream cones in colorful silhouette, former Tastee Queen, Ambridge, PA

Mural from the former Tastee Queen, Ambridge

This one sure had The Orbit‘s editorial board chortling smugly: we’ll run a story about former munchies supply shops on 4/20! Maybe our audience was just too doobied-up to bother reading the day’s news, but this fun look at a bunch of ex-ice cream parlors, Coney houses, and corner stores featured some great photographs of long-gone snackeries and sure struck our collective smoke-free funny bone.

Muffler Man: The Cadet Cowboy (May 22)

looking up at the giant fiberglass cowboy known as "Sam", Cadet Restaurant, Kittanning, PA

“Sam”, the giant resident cowboy/muffler man of the Cadet Restaurant, Kittanning

It can’t be easy standing thirty feet tall, but Big Sam is lucky enough to know a place with hamburgers just his size. This giant has been vigilantly watching over the fantastic Cadet Restaurant, just outside Kittanning, for more than 60 years. One taste of their mind-melting rhubarb pie and you’ll consider a long-term stay yourself.

Pittsburgh proper doesn’t have a single, legitimate “muffler man”, but there are a handful in the larger region. Not having made it down to see Mr. Tire in Uniontown yet, Big Sam is definitely the most impressive of the species we’ve come across.

An Orbit Obit: The Lost Art of Found Photographs (June 22)

water-damaged wallet size photograph of an unknown girl

A blast-from-the-past found photo

The Orbit goes all blast-from-the-past in this trip down (someone else’s) (psychedelically-distorted) memory lane. There was a time you could find printed photographs jettisoned from car doors, torn up in tear-stained despair, and blown by the wind in almost all manner of public space. That time is gone (sigh), so we were thrilled to have Kirsten Ervin’s amazing park cleanup treasure to clear the cobwebs and blow the mind.

Alien Landscapes: Color Run Cleanup (July 20)

Peak of PPG Place seen through a cloud of yellow dust, Pittsburgh, PA

North Side Pittsburgh: alien landscape

Six months later and we still have no idea what “The Color Run” is all about. That said, if you happen to arrive on the scene of one of these events just after the whole thing winds up, you’ll wander into a weird alien landscape of iridescently-colored swirling winds and technicolor-bathed Star Trek set pieces. The dazed, color-battered participants slog through North Shore parking lots like refugees from some alternate world where Trey Anastasio is sultan and YPPAH is dictum.

Fairywood: The World Without Us (Nov. 20)

fire hydrant in field of tall weeds, Pittsburgh, PA

Former Broadhead Manor public housing project, Fairywood

Fairywood exists as a superlative city neighborhood in many categories: its position is the most geographically distant to both the south and west, it is (perhaps) the smallest by residential population, and, of course, it has maybe the quaintest of names this side of Narnia. All those features drew us to it, but it was the huge plot of land that was once the Broadhead Manor public housing project that really caught our attention.

Today, all the residential buildings of Broadhead Manor are gone, as are its former four thousand residents. But the ex-project’s infrastructure–roads, street lights, sidewalks, fire hydrants–remain in what resembles every post-apocalyptic sci-fi vehicle you’ve ever sat through. Nature is coming back fast and hard to Fairywood and it’s a fascinating thing to see in this limited window before the whole place gets paved-over once again.

Reflections On A Hundred

St. Paul's Cathedral in Pittsburgh reflected in mirrored glass

St. Paul’s Cathedral, Oakland

A hundred! One whole century! What a very round integer!

Yes, today Pittsburgh Orbit trips the old blogometer into three digit land. It all happened in just under one calendar year. We promise to not make a big deal about that date too, but in lieu of any real story today, we’ll take this rare opportunity to reflect on a year in the blogosphere and The Orbit‘s one hundred tiny episodes so far.

reflection of small shops on Craig Street in large glass windows, Pittsburgh, PA

Craig Street, Oakland

Why blog? Frankly, it’s not something this majority introvert ever really considered. The “me me me“-ness of so much blogging is nauseating at best and just plain pathetic (much of) the rest of the time. And what hasn’t already been covered? The answer, it turns out, is a lot. But, you know, a suggestion here, an idea there–next thing we know, we’re up and blogging.

Plus, it’s fun! Roll together a bunch of things we already loved to do (bicycle, hike, explore, take photographs, drink beer, find out about other people, write) and wrap those experiences up in little easy-to-chew bite-sized chunks. It’s a tremendous regular creative prompt and get-out-the-door keister-kicker. We recommend it!

Reflection of the former Mellon National Bank, Downtown Pittsburgh in mirrored glass windows

Former Mellon National Bank, Downtown

Who reads this stuff? A good question! The stats tell us there are site visitors from all around the world, but mainly from the U.S. and Canada (and we imagine most of those are current or former Pittsburghers). Apparently they get here from umpteen different means–social media, Reddit discussions, search engines, email lists, etc.

We’ve gotten a lot of really nice feedback from friends and site visitors, but it’s been most rewarding to connect with the various outside groups, each scratching their own funny itches. Pittsburgh’s bike and pedestrian community seems to check in on the city steps stories, there’s a devoted crew of ghost sign hunters over in the U.K., the street art folks are kept in ready supply, everybody likes to read about their friends, and just about anyone who came across them seems to love the Antignanis. Oh, and every single day someone comes in looking for Jaws.

Reflection of Market Square, Downtown Pittsburgh in glass windows

Market Square, Downtown

Regrets? Yeah, this blogger has a few! For a fellow as music-obsessed as this one, we’ve barely touched the category. We’re also starving for some more food and drink stories (the weird pizza series, notwithstanding). We’ve barely touched the South Hills, the hilltops, and still haven’t made it to Duck Hollow or Fairywood. And gosh darnit, if we’re left without being able to interview Bill Bored about the Cardboards, then this whole thing has been a waste of everybody’s time. (I suppose it won’t have been a waste of Bill Bored’s time.)

University of Pittsburgh building reflected in glass windows

University of Pittsburgh, Oakland

There are also a ton of things that would have made great Orbit obits but either disappeared before we started writing, or we were in the wrong place at the right time, or just couldn’t have done them justice: the old Nickel Bingo Parlor, Chiodo’s–its decades of dangling undergarments and its “mystery sandwich”–(former) White Towers, The Suburban Lounge and their house band The Casual Approach, St. Nicholas Church grotto–ah, hell, the list goes on and on. In any case: forgive us–we’re doing our best. Sigh.

Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh reflected in glass windows

Mellon Institute, Oakland

What’s next? Honestly, the eternal tap of great ideas has run from a gushing main to more of a babbling brook–but it’s still flowing! Maybe this blogger just needs to get up off the thinkin’ chair and put his nose to the grindstone. That said, we’ve got some fun stuff planned around Lent, springtime, weird sports, fried fish, wacky artists, a hunt for the elusive paw-paw, and of course, Cemetober. Keep that Internet web browser dialed-in right here, folks.

reflection-oliver-way

Oliver Ave., Downtown

The Orbit 2015 Year-in-Review, Part 2: The Sleepers

St. Patrick's Day Flood marker, Manchester

On Sunday, we ran our first year-in-review post on The Orbit’s greatest hits for 2015. They’re not all blockbusters, though. In fact, the gap between rich and poor turned out to be pretty huge with the hot dogs outpacing the small fries by a good thirty or forty times.

Looking over the list, we think there are a lot of really good stories that ended up in this statistical gutter. So the Orbit staff took a gander at the underperforming members of the team and made some choice selections to give a handful of these bottom feeders one more chance to exhibit themselves. These may have all tanked at the box office, but they’re Oscar contenders in this blogger’s mind. They’re presented here in chronological order by publish date.

H.W. 46 FT. 3-18-1936 (Jan. 31)

Our very first blog post–and what a good one to kick off with! The story of stumbling across a strange painted rune reading H.W. 46 FT. 3-18-1936 wrapped around the sharp corner of big former factory building in Manchester. The consideration of what that awkward code might mean and the hand-to-forehead revelation of what it actually signifies is what this blog is all about. Check this one out, or prepare to get washed away when the next big one comes.

The Over-the-Wall Club (April 12)

Bloomfield rowhouses seen over a wall

There were a number of “stories” this year that were really just excuses to package up like-minded photographs we enjoyed and crack wise in one way or another. Among these was a fun one on how great snow and trains look together, a bunch of things that ended up (on purpose or otherwise) with the colors of the Italian flag, and a first visit to the great Forest Hills landmark ex-atom smasher.

In The Over-the-Wall Club, we introduced a very Orbit theme of what’s on the other side? A low-brow and low-clearance street-level pondering of both grass-is-greener pedestrian curiosity and the invention of mysteries of the everyday. Get out of the car, bring your coffee mug, and let’s get together over-the-wall.

A Visit with Jimmy The Greek (April 19)

New Chapel, where Jimmy "The Greek" is entombed, Union Cemetery, Steubenville, Ohio

If you can’t use your blog as an excuse to visit the mausoleum of a disgraced sports betting guru/TV football prognosticator like Jimmy “The Greek”, well, you’re doing it wrong. This Orbit day trip took us out into bright spring sunshine, over the state line, (technically two state lines) and led to a bonus Russian Orthodox onion dome church visit for a story that ended up running the following week.

Get to the Point (April 22)

Man pointing from Ohio River to Pittsburgh's highpoint

Ben Blanchard introduces our readers (at least, a few of them) to the quasi-sport/weird hobby of “highpointing” through an Orbit-organized bicycle-based trip from Pittsburgh’s lowest to highest points (we’re talking altitude here–we never made it to see Fungus at Thirsty’s). Along the way we get some nice vistas of the river, trails, Riverview Park, and, of course, the highest point in the city of Pittsburgh, just past Observatory Hill. Then we went for beers at a bar called Rumerz.

Post No Bills (Sept. 6)

brick wall painted with "Post No Bills" message plus print-outs of famous Bills taped to the wall, Pittsburgh, PA

The best stories are ones that take a left turn. This post started as a little musing about college kids in Oakland repeating what’s by now a common benign prank you can see all over the place and turned into a fun little exercise suggesting, asking–hell: begging–for a new generation to take it up a notch and do a Pittsburgh version. [Comedy 101, dudes: it’s yes, and…] [You really couldn’t think of our mayor Bill Peduto?] As far as we know, no one has taken The Orbit up on this recommendation, but then it wouldn’t have made the sleepers list if anybody had read it!

Poli-Science: A Double Ghost Exposed in Squirrel Hill! (Oct. 7)

Ghost building with a ghost sign for Approved Lubrication, Pittsburgh, PA

A perfect Orbit story, gift-wrapped in a re-seeded vacant lot and majorly-weathered ghost sign at the site of the longtime Squirrel Hill institution Poli’s. It had everything: a tragedy, a ghost building, a ghost sign, an obit we wen’t qualified to author, and one awkward vestigial pedestal with no clear future, but many possible uses and outcomes. If it’s not obvious, this blogger really liked this story, even if our readers didn’t hep to it the first time around.

Allegheny Cemetery: Halloween Graves (Oct. 18)

grave decorated for Halloween, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

We spent a great deal of October cruising Pittsburgh’s glorious cemeteries and ran a bunch of different stories on our adventures. This one on the weird, redundant, and debatably in-bad-taste phenomenon of decorating grave plots for Halloween that happens every year at Allegheny Cemetery was a lot of fun to report and write. Apparently not so much fun to read.

The D.I.Y Graves of Highwood Cemetery, parts 1 & 2 (Oct. 30, Nov. 1)

handmade grave made of 2x4s with photograph and Hennessy bottles, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Another story from “Cemetober” that had so much to talk about we broke it into two parts. Hell: we even pitched this one to one of the many local alternative weeklies (ahem), but those bastards couldn’t even write this blogger back! Phooey!

Anyway, this pair of posts on the deeply-affecting, minimal, highly-personalized homemade grave markers found deep in the back of Highwood Cemetery on the North Side raised all kinds of interesting ideas. The expectation of “permanence” in a grave, the marker’s relationship to the living, and the seemingly inverse correlation between amount of money spent on the headstone vs. recency of visitation among them. If you’re going to check out any one story on this list, consider making it this one.

Mystery of the Tip Top Chop Shop (Nov. 25)

Bob and Mike Moskal in Monroeville woods

Talk about a blog-based roller-coaster ride! The tantalizing tale of a (pre-suburbia) Monroeville hilltop hillbilly underworld chop shop, its post-incarceration deep woods junkyard, and the inevitable nature-without-man image of trees growing through Studebakers was as in-Orbit as they get. Unfortunately, by the time Moskal & Son led us back to their old haunt, the place had been scrubbed clean…almost. But then it still turned into a fun story! … and then nobody read it. Sigh.

Step Beat: When Tullymet Sylvan (Dec. 9)

View from the top of the Tullymet St. city steps, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Now, in part 1 of this year-in-review we talked about how much people like the city steps stories, but then we ran this really nice one on the neglected Tullymet Street steps and nobody gave a tinker’s dam! There’s just one explanation for that: step snobbery! Yeah, you heard me–if they’re the longest steps or you’ve got Romeo o Romeo calling from the landing, sure. But you try to talk anyone into hiking Hazelwood and you’ll get the same pass our readers gave this story. Freakin’ step snobs.


See also: The Orbit 2015 Year-in-Review, Part 1: “The Hits.”

The Orbit 2015 Year-in-Review, Part 1: The Hits

View from Rising Main city steps, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Half-way up Rising Main, the longest set of Pittsburgh city steps

Statistics, man. People get a computer and suddenly everybody cares about their numbers. Phooey.

It is the final days of 2015 and ’tis the season for geese-a-laying–not to mention year-end lists-a-making. We decided to finally peek at The Orbit‘s digits and find out what people were checking out (and not checking out) and turn that insight into a little two-part year-in-review on what happened over (most of) the last twelve months.

To talk about actual numbers would be truly pathetic, so we’ll generalize here. In Part 1 we’re looking at the ten most popular Orbit blog posts for 2015, based on WordPress site statistics for individual post-views. We’ll follow-up on Wednesday with staff picks of some of the more, ahem, under-appreciated stories from the year.

1. Step Beat: Rising Main, The Longest Steps (June 14)

People love the steps! That is totally gratifying! Years ago, this urban hiker’s first attempt at blogging was going to be a site entirely devoted to mapping, photographing, and yes, blogging about Pittsburgh’s 750-ish sets of city steps. That fine plan, just like Cop Rock, fizzled all too quickly–and it probably deserved to. The steps are great, but there’s just not enough to go on about for a new story every week.

But at Pittsburgh Orbit we’re able to include some good city step stories without (we hope) having to dredge the river. These seemed to make their way out into Pittsburgh’s bicycle and pedestrian communities and two of them turned up in the top reads of the year, so that suggests the people are with us on this one. The Orbit‘s #1 story for 2015 is about Rising Main Way, the longest set of city steps in Pittsburgh, and one of the longest sets of urban steps in the country.

2. You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yetta: The Mosaic Houses of Spring Hill (June 3)

A row of frame houses with mosaics covering the basement/foundation walls, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Every man, woman, and child–not to mention gopher, raccoon, and honey bee–in Spring Hill seems to have dialed-in The Orbit to read this story on the terrific little set of old-school wood frame Victorian houses with custom mosaics embedded in their Yetta Street foundations.

We can only assume that artist Linda Wallen has a lot more friends than this blogger does. It’s her mosaics that decorate the Yetta Street houses–as well as other infrastructure–in Spring Hill. On our (long) list of to-dos is to get back there and find out what she’s up to for next year.

3. Graceland North: The Antignani Estate Sale (Nov. 4)

mural with naked male and female figures, tree with snake wrapped around its trunk, and a stag

The true tale of mystery couple Arthur and Alfreda Antignani proved to be a big draw for those, like The Orbit, that first discovered them via the over-the-top posthumous sale of their North Hills estate. The Antignanis lived large–and loud–in a shag-carpeted, gilt, mirrored, leopard printed, tchotchke-bedecked, and go-go mannequin-inhabited Bacchanalian suburban pleasure palace that would have made Elvis blush. Take a last look here.

4. Allegheny Cemetery: The Shark Grave (Feb. 6)

Shark grave marker, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh

A tip for our fellow bloggers: if you want to up your visitor rate, start posting about something you can legitimately tag with #jaws or #sharkweek. The story of Lester C. “The Shark Grave” Madden’s Jaws-shaped grave marker turned into a feeding frenzy for the “fin freaks” who ate up this story like a great white hopped-up on chum, eyeing a bonfire’s worth of Martha’s Vineyard teenagers. And just like big teeth, they never seem to get enough (and ol’ Quint ain’t around stick ’em this time).

5. Unread: The Record Label Next Door (Sept. 2)

Chris Fischer, Unread Records & Tapes

Chris Fischer has been pressing the Record and Play buttons while cassette spools roll and mailing the results out in manilla envelopes for a couple decades now (he started young). Along the way, he’s encouraged, promoted, and influenced a generation of guitar-wielding scratchy folk…like…ish lads and lasses to lay their souls down on magnetic tape and black plastic. We sat down with him and talked about Unread Records’ epic recent Public Coffin release.

6. Step Beat: Romeo & Frazier (May 17)

Street signs for Romeo and Frazier Street intersection, Pittsburgh, Pa.

More city steps! The intersection of Romeo and Frazier Streets in South Oakland features a street lamp, road signs, two sets of city steps, and a whole bunch of trees, vines, and weeds (but no cars). The Orbit opines on the nature of what makes a “street,” the changing utility and value of city steps, and casts some serious aspersions on how much rope may be skipped at a house with Tibetan prayer flags hanging on the front porch.

7. Nun of the Above: Corita Kent at The Warhol (Feb. 26)

Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent show at The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh

Sister Corita Kent, the radical art nun whose big tent quasi-religious messages questioning war and materialism via pop-art product manipulation and screen printing has very little to do with Pittsburgh except that The Andy Warhol Museum hosted an absolutely terrific career-spanning show of her work early in the year. We checked it out on the opening night, raved about it, and (we can only assume) The Warhol’s re-postings ended up sending a lot of people into Orbit.

8. An Orbit Obit: Where the Buffalo Roamed (Dec. 2)

sidewalk painting of purple and white buffalo with painted fence

This summer, Jeremy Reymer painted a series of buffalos on the sidewalks around the front and side of his Lawrenceville home. Before we could even run a story about the proud creatures, they were gone with the power-washing force of the city’s Graffiti Busters unit. This Orbit obit laments the loss of this fine collection of street art and muses about why the neighbors would have been offended enough to call it in, as well as the not so simple philosophical question what is graffiti?

9. A Wooden Street! (Aug. 30)

Section of wooden street in Pittsburgh, PA

That’s pretty much what this one is about: the very rare sight of a street made entirely of wooden blocks (plus us winging about having been scooped by local public radio). It’s the last wooden street in Pittsburgh and one of the last handful in the United States. Roslyn Place is also right off Ellsworth Ave. in Shadyside. So, if you’re like this blogger, you’ve probably been within feet of it (or, at least, driven past it) many times without ever knowing it was there or stopping to check it out. Here’s another chance to make that right.

10. A Tiny Castle in the Strip District (May 22)

homemade model of a castle mounted to a brick wall

One tiny red castle, complete with a helipad and Mexican flag, mounted high on a brick wall in an alley in The Strip District. We’re not sure what it’s about or who came up with it, but a whole lot of people e-stopped by to check it out. It’s still there (although predictably weathered since this story ran in May), so, you know, get down there and check it out while you can.


Check back on Wednesday for The Orbit’s 2015 year-in-review, part 2: “The Sleepers.”