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The biggest Pittsburgh stories of 2021

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

It's the last day of 2021, so we're taking a moment to look back at the biggest stories of the year, from the WESA newsroom.

COVID-19, year two

The year dawned with fear and hope, as cases and deaths neared their peaks, while vaccinations were starting for health care workers. There was a brief moment in early summer when cases slowed and life almost went back to normal. That moment was quashed by the delta variant, which drove up cases this fall. Now, as WESA’s Sarah Boden reported, omicron is here in Allegheny County, tests are hard to find, restaurants are once again closing due to positive cases and even Ed Gainey’s mayoral inauguration is going virtual.

Health experts say we’re likely on the cusp of a local omicron deluge, but vaccines — and especially boosters — remain protective against severe illness. Fortunately, Allegheny County boasts one of the highest full-vaccination rates in the state, with 66% of the population fully vaccinated (and 85% of the population over 65 years old fully vaxxed), per the CDC.

Year three, here we come. (Also, your mother called, and she said to get your booster.)

A Pittsburgh resident gets a Pfizer booster shot on the North Side.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
A Pittsburgh resident gets a Pfizer booster shot on the North Side.

Schools struggle

It was a rollercoaster for schools everywhere, as educators, school boards and parents fought about virtual education, curriculum and mask mandates. But no local district faced bigger challenges than Pittsburgh Public Schools. As WESA’s Sarah Schneider reported, PPS had no quick answers for a bus driver shortage that left hundreds of students without transportation, and was hit by a drop in enrollment in early grades. And then Superintendent Anthony Hamlet resigned amidst an ethics controversy on Oct. 1.

The latest: The PPS board approved a 3% property tax increase and $668 million budget — with a $56 million deficit — in late December.

The state’s cloudy political future

The past year was a doozy for Pennsylvania’s political scene, thanks in no small part to an ongoing disinformation campaign by former President Donald Trump and his supporters about how the 2020 election was conducted in Pennsylvania. We asked WESA’s government and accountability editor Chris Potter to look back and ahead:

"Change is inevitable, and few places saw more of it than Pittsburgh. The city elected its first Black mayor, Ed Gainey. That historic achievement is all the more notable because it took place as the city’s Black population has dwindled — a years-long decline that was itself a driving issue in his primary victory over Bill Peduto. Peduto hands over a city that he led out of fiscal austerity: Gainey’s challenges will include expanding that prosperity so all Pittsburghers can share in it.

Gainey’s victory was no outlier: Black candidates — women especially — had unprecedented success this year, leading a Democratic sweep of local judicial races. As WESA's Ariel Worthy reported, women of color are playing key roles on Gainey's transition team.

Looking ahead to 2022, the prospects of a conservative restoration loom large, as battles to control state and federal government await. President Joe Biden’s approval ratings are dismal, which may help Republicans retake Congress: Pennsylvania’s own U.S. Senate seat could be a crucial factor in deciding the fate of the Biden administration, and perhaps the identity of the next U.S. Supreme Court justice. And while Democrats appear solidly behind 2022 gubernatorial contender Josh Shapiro, they have very little margin for error. Republicans haven’t united behind a candidate yet, but if they do — and if they can unify their control of Harrisburg — it could have implications for a range of issues that include abortion and voting rights, as well as the outcome of the 2024 presidential race.

But if the climate is tough for Democrats, the political landscape may be a bit less treacherous than they feared, thanks to new political maps being drawn after last year’s U.S. Census. A commission chaired by former University of Pittsburgh chancellor Mark Nordenberg has drawn state legislative district lines that could help Democrats eat into — but likely not erase — the GOP’s current advantage in the state House and Senate. A map of congressional districts, meanwhile, is likely to end up before a state Supreme Court that has previously drafted a map that put the two parties on a more even footing. But Republicans appear ready to contest every square foot of ground.

We can't be certain about what 2022 will bring, except for ongoing disputes about who we are as Americans and who we hope to be. And a boatload of political ads on TV."

Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA

Social justice movement turns to the ballot box

Following a year of social-justice demonstrations in Pittsburgh and across the country, brought on in part by the murder of George Floyd, local activism and calls for policing changes continued in 2021. After eight people were killed in Atlanta in March, including six women of Asian descent, Pittsburghers gathered in solidarity with the Asian community. In April, after police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of Floyd’s murder, crowds gathered in the Hill DIstrict to cheer and express relief at the verdict.

WESA’s Kiley Koscinski caught up with the young activists behind Black, Young & Educated, and Pittsburgh I Can’t Breathe, who rose to prominence during 2020 and focused on justice issues. In May, Pittsburgh voters emphatically approved ballot initiatives to ban no-knock search warrants and limit the use of solitary confinement at the Allegheny County Jail. The BLM mural on the Allegheny River was repainted with portraits of 12 present-day Black Pittsburghers in August. In November, local activists mourned the death of Nique Craft, an outspoken presence at many of the 2020 demonstrations.

Tenant cities

Jay Manning

More Pittsburgh households now rent than own their homes, and landlords control a growing share of the housing market countywide. COVID-19 is testing the health of this market, bringing eviction curbs, rent relief and a revived tenants’ rights movement. WESA’s Kate Giammarise and PublicSource’s Rich Lord partnered on a year-long series of stories exploring these changes and examining responses of the government and other civic institutions.

Substandard housing in the Hill: Seniors in an apartment building in Pittsburgh’s Hill District are worn out: they say lax security and poor upkeep have made their home a source of stress rather than a refuge. In October, WESA’s Margaret J. Krauss reported the residents at Western Manor felt like there was no one to go to bat for them.

Three takeaways from our series on farming

WESA’s An-Li Herring spent a good chunk of 2021 reporting “Farmers Wanted,” a multipart series exploring how Pennsylvania’s agriculture sector hopes to attract more workers as the state’s farming population ages. The expected labor shortage reflects economic and historic trends that limit outsiders’ opportunities to break into the industry.

We asked An-Li to share her takeaways from reporting on the vital farming sector:

  • "The high cost of land often shuts out would-be, first-generation farmers. The experts and farmers I interviewed agree that land access represents the No. 1 barrier to starting a farm.
  • Beyond taking a physical toll, running a farm can involve tremendous financial risk due to the uncertainty of weather and market conditions. The farmers I spoke with were consistent in saying that a passion for the work keeps them going.
  • By making agricultural work less grueling, new technology could help to draw more people to the sector. But it’s expensive to make such changes. Advocates and farmers say the government should do more to help new farmers, and that communities that have been left out of the industry, possibly due to racial discrimination, should pull together to encourage farming close to home."
A chef by training, Subarna Sijapati started a two-year apprenticeship in vegetable growing after COVID-19 forced him to close his catering company in Gettysburg.
An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
A chef by training, Subarna Sijapati started a two-year apprenticeship in vegetable growing after COVID-19 forced him to close his catering company in Gettysburg.

Cultural institutions and restaurants began their return

The region’s cultural institutions and festivals tiptoed back to live performances as vaccinations began to gain hold, WESA’s Bill O’Driscoll reported. Museums drew strong crowds of people eager to get out, while concert venues and some restaurants started requiring proof of vaccinations. Omicron, though, has some hitting pause again.

The eagle has landed

Pittsburghers took flight with the story of Kody, the Steller’s sea eagle with a 6-foot wingspan who escaped his enclosure at the National Aviary in late September and was on the lam for more than a week, making appearances on the North Side. WESA’s Katie Blackley reported that Kody was eventually found in Pine Township and returned to the Aviary. He has not yet returned to public view.

Bird flu: After a mysterious bird disease hit songbirds in Pennsylvania and nine other states this year, state officials asked people to remove their feeders and birdbaths. Researchers are still trying to figure out the cause, but by August, WESA’s Julia Zenkevich reported that cases were declining. A short time later, the state Game Commission said it was OK to put feeders back outside.

Patrick Doyle oversees WESA's digital strategy and products. Previously, he served as WESA's news director. Email:
Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA and 91.3 WYEP, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community.