Delaware River

Posted by Ellen

Twenty years ago, the SS United States was tied up to a wharf on the Delaware River in South Philadelphia to rust away next to Home Depot and Ikea and the cars whizzing by on Columbus Boulevard. The plan was to eventually ???

Once upon a time, this was the largest and fastest ocean liner on earth. Building it was the forty-year obsession of a man who never spent a day in school studying ship design; William Francis Gibbs was a lawyer by training, but in 1913, a year after that thing happened with the Titanic, he left his law practice and started drawing sketches for a bigger, better, safer, faster passenger ship.

The ship is 980 feet long, more than 100 feet longer than the Titanic.  It's divided into 20 watertight compartments reaching almost fifty feet above the waterline, and it's designed to keep on sailing even if as many as five of the compartments are breached and flooded. It's also virtually fireproof; the only wood on board was in a Steinway grand piano.

When the SS United States was finally constructed after World War II, certain of its design features, including its four propellers and the shape of its hull underwater, were classified military secrets, in case the ship were ever refitted as a troop transport. Its maiden voyage from New York to Rotterdam–during which its engines ran at about about two-thirds of full speed–took less than four days, setting an Atlantic crossing speed record that was only broken by subsequent SS United States crossings.  To this day, no other ocean liner has ever been built that could sail any faster.

But air travel, of course, waits for no ship. In 1969, the SS United States sailed for the last time under its own power. After idling for a while in New York, it was towed to Ukraine, where it was stripped of all its fittings (and of the asbestos that had helped make it so fire-resistant). Eventually, it was tied up a pier in Philadelphia, designer Gibbs's hometown, where business plan after business plan for the hulking hull never could attract the hundreds of millions of dollars that would be necessary just to stop the rust and turn it into something commercial, perhaps a floating hotel that would never leave the pier.

A nonprofit conservancy organization, meanwhile, has had to raise $60,000 a month just to keep the rusted thing afloat. This year is the final deadline, they say; if the money for a real plan doesn't show up this year,  the ship will finally have to be scrapped.

At the moment, there's a new plan: Crystal Cruises, a Hong Kong–based cruise line, has taken over the monthly maintenance costs and signed an option to buy the ship within a year. The company says it is currently studying the feasibility of restoring it as a luxury cruise vessel, which could cost something like $700 million.

So maybe she'll sail again. Meanwhile, you can get a really good view of what's left of the SS United States from the parking lot outside Longhorn Steak House.

Posted by Ellen

Spruce Street Harbor Park, at the foot of Spruce Street on the Delaware River, is Philly's latest pop-up beer garden. A couple of months ago, this was an unused dock behind the highway; a couple of months from now, it will probably return to nothingness. But for the summer of 2014, thanks to landscaping and logistics from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, it's drawing crowds.

It's also drawn a lawsuit, from folks who would rather the crowds spend their money in established bars and restaurants. Plaintiffs claim that the "special event" loophole in the city's liquor laws was never intended to legalize semi-long-term operations like the Horticultural Society's beer gardens.

The idea behind the pop-up gardens was booster-ish. By demonstrating the potential of vacant lots around town, it was hoped that developers might invest in permanent improvements. Meanwhile, people could enjoy themselves under the stars.

But with the lawsuit looming, somehow, it just seems like we can't have nice things any more.

Posted by Ellen

Down at the far edge of South Philly, in the land of the Big Box Stores, floats the biggest box of them all, the old SS United States.

She was the biggest and most luxurious ocean liner ever built, more than 100 feet longer than the Titanic. There is more aluminum in her hull than in anything else on the planet. When she traversed the locks in the Panama Canal, there was just two feet of clearance on either side.

On her maiden voyage in 1952, she shattered the trans-Atlantic speed records in both directions. But 1952 was near the wrong end of the era of gilded passenger liners, and the SS United States has now spent more than half her life quietly rusting away at pierside in Philadelphia, across the street from an Ikea store that could probably fit comfortably in her ballroom.

That's an exaggeration. Most likely, her ballroom could only hold Best Buy.