Ansell Regrettal: A Ross Township Donnybrook

Santa Claus lawn ornament with protest signs against Ross Township leadership

Merry Christmas from Ross Township

“A man curses because he doesn’t have the words to say what’s on his mind.” — Malcolm X

This grew-up-in-The-South-where-we-don’t-wear-watches-or-curse blogger has tacitly agreed with Mr. X, though it was mainly because he finds the habit so ugly…and uncreative…and put on. People who cuss a lot always seem like they’re play-acting clichéd roles they’ve seen in tough-guy movies, or they’re trying to impress or intimidate somebody. That said, it would be hard to suggest that Bill Ansell has any difficulty expressing what’s on his mind, and he uses plenty of four-letter-words to do it.

Regular readers of The Orbit will appreciate that this digital publication generally steers clear of both controversy and vulgarity. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that today’s post breaks with past rules, mores, and highfalutin standards with a story all about salty language, neighbor-against-neighbor suburban strife, Christmas gone bad, and one guy who refuses to play by the rules. Those easily offended should probably stop right here.

White pickup truck loaded with plastic lawn ornaments, children's toys, and a portatoilet, Ross Township, PA

“My other car is a sleigh”

In addition to not liking the blue language, we also hate to get scooped. But even though this story has been going around for years, it was new to us. It goes back at least to 2007 when Bill Ansell, a Ross Township electrician, began to have a series of run-ins with his neighbors, the municipality, and the local constabulary as documented in the William Ansell v. Ross Township suit. In a nutshell, the case seems to revolve around Ansell’s over-the-top holiday displays, ensuing complaints from his neighbors, and some amount of legal action. More recently, WPXI ran a report on Ansell re-lighting his uniquely-offensive string of lights. [More on this, below.] Seeing these reports with their blurred images of the offending words and vague reports of detritus in the Ansell yard, we knew we had to see the place for ourselves.

Plastic head on cross with "Security cameras in use" sign, Ross Township, PA

This guy is watching you

And what a sight it is to see! Tiny Fairley Road is really just a paved circle containing seven otherwise unremarkable residences. Bill Ansell’s is the only house sitting in the island formed by the looped street and as such, it has a large, awkwardly-shaped oval plot. About a third of the yard is covered with blue plastic tarps with an array of broken children’s toys and mangled plastic Christmas displays holding down the fabric. At the property’s edge are a series of plastic (mannequin?) heads on staked crosses featuring Warning: security cameras in use signs and hand-written inscriptions like “God’s country.” Ansell’s white pickup truck is parked on the street and comes loaded with a Santa-sized cargo of discarded toys, holiday lawn ornaments, and one portatoilet. The side yard has a chorus of headless carolers, each with a safety helmet over its empty neck hole, and a home-made light-up arrow sign that reads Neighbor is a thief.

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

“Neighbor is a Thief”, headless choir

If it ended there, this would just be an oddball story about somebody getting a little nutty with the lawn decoration. But it is the front of the house that really takes this story from News of the Weird to, uh, Village of the Damned.  There is more playground equipment, one Santa Claus that lights up to appear as if urinating electrons, and then there are the crazy-man banners. Nine large boards, each hand lettered in precise stencils, act as an open hail of rage against what appears to be everyone who’s ever questioned Ansell’s displays: the commissioners of Ross Township, Ansell’s neighbors (and their children), and the Ross police force.

Christmas lights arranged to spell "Fuck Ross Township", Ross Township, PA

The lights that started it all, lit up in the only decent photo we could find [photo: Brody Barbour]

If you’ve followed this story at all, you know that Ansell’s coup de grâce is a string of Christmas lights that spell out FUCK ROSS TOWNSHIP in giant letters that span the full width of the house. We went back at night to get a photo, but alas, they were dark–the township and Ansell seem to have reached some accord on this particular issue. Rest assured, everything else on the property was lit up like some weird prison holiday scene. Huge outward-facing flood lights seemed aimed to catch–or at least intimidate–would-be vandals and assailants. At the same time, bladder-control Santa, the carolers, one headless wise man, etc. had their eyes all aglow in the hopes that Uncle Bill might bring them a new cardboard screed to darken the new year.

Head of wise man lawn ornament, Ross Township, PA

Maybe not-so-wise man

The Orbit would love to get Bill Ansell’s side of the story, but frankly, we’re scared of him. The threat “there will be bloodshed” for “enter(ing) or touch(ing) anything on (Ansell’s) property” seems pretty clear. The arrest details from the court case list a number of loaded weapons stored in the house and kept at arm’s reach, including a shotgun and several pistols, so he certainly seems well-equipped for violence. We’ll do our reporting from the public space on the pavement, thank you very much.

handmade protest signs on house, Ross Township, PA

It is a strange, sad scene, indeed. Pittsburgh Orbit has made a theme of celebrating the rapidly-disappearing evidence of life actually touched by the human hand as well as endeavors at creativity and individualism in all areas–hell, that’s why we’re reporting this story. Bill Ansell certainly possesses all of these. But the untethered anger, armed threats of violence, and extreme paranoia are a lethal combination we sadly hear about all the time. These usually end with a candlelight vigil and a Republican call for prayer. Hey–maybe it will work this time! To the fine people of Ross Township, and especially those immediate neighbors on Fairley Road, we feel for you.

UPDATE (16 December, 2016): A previous version of this story included the FUCK ROSS TOWNSHIP photo credited to “unknown/The Internet”. The photographer, Brody Barbour has since alerted us to his authorship and we’ve updated the credit.


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Christmas Under the Bridge

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #2 (under 31st Street Bridge)

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #2 (under 31st Street Bridge)

We are, if the clever Orbit reader has not already divined, kerchief deep into Christmas season. It’s the all-consuming megalopolis of a holiday whose red and green, pine cone-encrusted, jingle-bell-adorned, egg nog-slurping tentacles reach so deeply that even Casey Kasem is banished from the airwaves until after the new year rolls around. Sigh. What to do when a blogger can’t even get any Hot Chocolate with his hot chocolate?

We expect this–and certainly know it’s coming–but had no idea that Ol’ St. Nick’s lords-a-leaping, geese-a-laying influence would extend all the way down under the bridges of the North Side, and yet it does. But we’re here to say that, just like Scrooge, even this bah-humbugging blogger can turn around to The Christmas SpiritTM when and where he never expected he would.

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1 (under 33rd Street railroad bridge)

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1 (under 33rd Street railroad bridge)

Yet another lovely sun-drenched December weekend day and another healthy afternoon two-wheeled constitutional. [Weather gods: why hath thou forsaken this blogger? How long must he wait for 45 degrees and drizzling?] This time the ride took us across the 40th Street Bridge and down to the Allegheny River trail.

It was a most curious surprise to come across. Against the tremendous concrete support for the railroad bridge that spans the Allegheny near Millvale Riverfront Park, rests a spindly, homemade Christmas tree-like sculpture, made of thick wound black wire, a discarded metal stake, and plastic holly. The tree is sparsely decorated with a handful of traditional ornaments, something that looks like a space invader, and one full set of refrigerator poetry. The current offering reads cadaver angels put wealth in the river. We poked around, snapped a few pics, went right down to the water’s edge. It was a fun little surprise, but then we were back on our way.

Refrigerator poetry from trail Christmas tree #1 reading "Cadaver angels put wealth in the river."

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Refrigerator poetry, Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1

So yet another trailside Christmas tree popping out at us just another minute or two further down the trail was starting to feel like a legitimate yuletide miracle. Here, under the 31st Street Bridge, is a medium-size Douglas fir, decked out in red, green, and silver garland, with giant candy cane ornaments, and one drug store Santa hat for a topper. A simple unfurled piece of cardboard includes the cursive Sharpie message Merry Christmas, Thank you.

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #2 (under 31st Street Bridge)

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #2, detail

Here I met M.J., one of a number of people who camp under the on-ramp to the 31st Street Bridge. We talked for a while and I got some of the story on the tree and the group that lives here. The tree was brought in, along with a full Thanksgiving dinner spread, the week prior.

I saw a bag of apples and was heading to The Strip anyway, so I asked if I could pick up some food for the group. Surprisingly, M.J. explained that they were actually doing O.K. with food thanks to regular deliveries from the same organization that provided the tree and turkey dinner. [M.J. didn’t have a name.] I asked what the group’s other greatest needs are and he told me that he wished he could get battery-operated lanterns for everyone. He also mentioned bedding and tarps. So far, this blogger has struck out locating the kind of lanterns M.J. described, [and believe you me, he has tried] but it isn’t Christmas yet!

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1 (under 33rd Street railroad bridge)

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1, detail


Related: Bridgette Wright’s blog post for Bike Pittsburgh details a couple of coordinated efforts to bring “care packs” to Pittsburgh’s homeless communities over the Christmas holiday. They’ll be using bicycles to deliver the packages to locations like this one under the 31st Street Bridge that are inaccessible by automobile.