Off-the-beaten path and under-the-radar in Silicon Valley

The Six Fifty’s most popular stories of 2017

By Charles Russo

“Surreal.” That’s the big-picture adjective we keep coming back to in our effort to sum up the 365 that were 2017. It’s a term that is just broad enough and plenty weird enough to encompass the very long, very strange trip of these past 12 months.

At the same time, when it came to our charge of covering the San Francisco Peninsula this year, we found ourselves consistently engaged and often enamored by local life in the 650 area code. For as much as the region can get pigeonholed as a parody-worthy tech playground, “Silicon Valley” can be pretty fascinating beneath the surface. The region is a lot of things—with its own fair share of flaws—but it’s far from a singular conception.

This was evident when we pulled up our most popular stories of 2017, which reflected a place that is far more vibrant and outside-the-box than is typically portrayed. And while we indeed covered the Peninsula’s well-known tech culture, it was a more offbeat set of stories that our readers were inclined to gravitate towards.

So from feral cats to a roller rink’s last act, these were our most popular articles of the past year.

A rare look from SQL’s control tower. (Photo by Philip Wartena)

The Secret Life of a Silicon Valley Airport

When it comes to deciphering the difference between popular perception and local reality, we found the culture at the San Carlos Airport (or SQL, as the insiders call it) to be a compelling case study. While the airport is often maligned for the noise created by tech exec charter flights, the aviation community at SQL facilitates a wide range of beneficial services, from dog adoptions to organ transplant delivery.

Even more notable was an energetic and engaged culture of aeronautics, ranging from a locally-funded youth flight program to the many insightful offerings of the Hiller Aviation Museum.

David Lebovitz picking peppers at a Parisian market and other scenes from his previous book, “My Paris Kitchen.” (Photos courtesy of Ten Speed Press)

Veteran food blogger David Lebovitz

The Six Fifty talked with a wide range of engaging people and notable figures in the last year. We caught up with National Geographic photographer Cristina Mittermeier ahead of her Fox Theater presentation in Redwood City and pondered Big Tech’s influence on Democracy with accomplished journalist Franklin Foer. We also profiled pioneering Bay Area broadcaster Belva Davis and discussed outer space with breakout sci-fi novelist Andy Weir. Surprisingly, our most popular talk was with O.G. food blogger David Lebovitz, who got his start in some of the most notable restaurants in the Bay Area, before carving out his own culinary kingdom.

Ahead of his book event in San Mateo this year, Lebovitz chimed in on the early days of food blogging (nearly 20 years ago) as well as his wide angle take on our region’s place in the edible universe.

Late night closeups: animals captured by infrared light; (clockwise from top left) mountain lion, bobcat, deer, and fox. (Photos by Katharina Pierini)

Feral Photography

No story was as popular this year as our profile (and accompanying photo gallery) of local resident Katharina Pierini, who has mastered the use of trail cams to photograph the native wildlife near her home in the Coastside hills.

This article came at a timely moment, when stories of a mountain lion in San Francisco captured nationwide attention. Pierini’s body of work gives an unfettered glimpse into the wild world of Bay Area fauna, showing stunning images and video of cougars, bobcats, foxes, golden eagles and a great many other cunning critters in their natural state.

In addition, Pierini herself was a fascinating figure to profile, who upon first appearance was as solitary and skittish as many of the creatures she captured on camera. But equipped with a dirt bike and chainsaw, she boldly traversed the hills between Pescadero and Davenport to successfully chronicle a remarkable facet of our region.

Retailer-focused advertising promoting the launch of the Atari Video Computer System in the summer of 1977. (Courtesy of Dynamite Entertainment)

The Atari 2600 turns 40

For as much as tech history is celebrated around the region, we’ve noticed that it can often be relegated to the usual suspects. So when the anniversary of Atari’s game-changing 2600 home console came around, we wondered why the trailblazing video company wasn’t embraced more as a classic Silicon Valley pioneer.

So we caught up with video game historian Tim Lapetino, author of the book The Art of Atari, who echoed those same sentiments in pointing out that not only was Atari once the fastest growing company in America, but it epitomized what we have come to know as startup-culture. Yet above all else, Atari played the key early role in launching the popular video game industry as we know it in the world today, a massive business that has come to eclipse the revenue of even Hollywood.

Competitive skater Ashley Clifford has traveled abroad six times for world championships. Here in the U.S., the college student has won 29 national championships. (Photo by Philip Wartena)

Requiem for the Redwood Roller Rink

After nearly a half-century of world famous notoriety, the RRR—Redwood Roller Rink—in Redwood City hung up its skates and closed its doors. Catching up with them in their final days, we found a beloved Peninsula institution that comfortably split the difference between hosting six-year-old birthday parties and producing world class skating competitors.

It was a bittersweet storyline made all-the-more poignant by the wonderful photo essay that accompanied it, portraying the regulars and eight-wheel experts who brought life to the RRR’s hardwood floors. Looking back, this was easily our favorite story we produced in the past year.

Neil Young (left) with his son Ben (center) at the benefit concert in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Erika Carrillo)

Pondering the future of Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit

When October rolled around this year we found ourselves—perhaps like you—feeling like something was missing. Yes, after 30 years of one-of-a-kind performances by marquee musicians for a great cause, the Bridge School Benefit concert was not held this year. So we caught up with Pegi Young and the director of the school to inquire about both the kids and the concert. Through our reporting, we found that the while the future of the benefit is uncertain, it is far from final. More importantly, the school continues to thrive even as challenges remain.

Accompanying this article, we ran a full photo gallery from longtime Bridge School Benefit photographer Erika Carrillo, who has captured many of the epic performances over the years, from Paul McCartney to Metallica, St. Vincent to Santana.

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Sometimes our work is a collaborative effort, hence the "staff" byline. The best of what to eat, see and do on the SF Peninsula.

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