Philadelphia

Posted by Ellen

Today, Philadelphia is a town of winners, at least to the extent that Eagle-ness rubs off on regular people. But this room in center city Philly was filled recently with a bunch of losers.

The girls, mostly about twelve years old, were guests at a birthday party held in an escape room. If they had managed to solve all the riddles and puzzles within a set time, they could have escaped the room and been deemed winners. But they failed.  So it goes.

Posted by Ellen

When Philadelphia's Northeast Manual Training School opened its doors in 1905, the idea of a public high school to prepare poor boys to work in modern industrial trades was progressive, even radical. But Philly was booming with industry--in fact, just a block over from the new school building was the Quaker Lace factory, with over a hundred clattering power looms that could be heard in every classroom.

The building itself was collegiate Gothic in style, with gargoyles all around and a crenellated turret in the middle.

The school changed its name and mission several times; it became a comprehensive high school, originally for boys only, named Northeast, until 1957, when a new Northeast High School was built in the new residential district closer to the edge of the city.

Then the building became Edison High, which achieved a particularly sad notoriety: no other high school in America outdid Edison in graduating young menwho were killed in the Vietnam War. Sixty-four Edison alumni are memorialized on a bronze plaque outside the school.

But since 1992, Edison High School has operated in a different building a few blocks away, and that's where the bronze memorial sits today. The original school site was used briefly for a bilingual middle school and then abandoned altogether, like almost all the mills, factories, and foundries that surround it.

In 2010, the lace factory burned to the ground, in an eight-alarm blaze attributed to arson; it is said that drug dealers in the neighborhood burned the long-abandoned structure because they believed police were using it as an observation post.

In 2011, the old Manual Training School building also burned, in a fire also deemed suspicious in origin. The site was under contract to a developer who wanted to put a shopping center there.

Remains of the school were demolished a few months later, but the gargoyles, it was said, were carefully preserved for use somewhere else. Where? We have not been able to find out.

Posted by Ellen

No idea what this was all about, but it's Philadelphia.

Posted by Ellen

They go to market, of course. Above, in Tartu, Estonia; below, here in Philly at Reading Terminal Market.

Posted by Ellen

An old skyscraper, the Art Deco Suburban Station building from 1930, peeks out at left from behind Philadelphia's newest and tallest skyscraper, the Comcast Center, completed in 2008. Reflected in the angled blue glass of the Concast tower are the upper floors of the Mellon Bank Center across the street.

Behind the 'scrapers is lots and lots of city sprawling into the night across the Delaware Valley.

Comcast is currently building itself a newer and even taller tower, which is rising off to the right of the buildings seen here. The lower floors will be occupied by Comcast and Telemundo, and the upper floors will be rooms with a view in a Four Seasons Hotel.

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

This sketch from an 1878 Philadelphia city directory shows the factory and storage yard of Williams Marble & Slate Manufacturing Company. It's the building we live in these days; a long time ago, perhaps in the 1920s, the factory was converted to residential use and divided into twelve apartments. The stable and storage sheds were torn down and the land sold to a rowhouse developer. The industrial presence in our part of town near the Schuylkill River has slipped into an industrial past.

Williams was once a thriving stone works, specializing in slate mantelpieces and stovetops. In 1876, it exhibited its products at the Centennial Columbian Exhibition, America's first World Fair. The slate and marble were quarried in the mountains of northeast Pennsylvania and floated downs the Schuylkill on barges to Philly's emerging heavy-industry area along the river–basically, the young city's backyard. Wharves and workyards hereabouts handled coal, building stone, and brick-clay from off the barges, and Irish immigrants poured into the neighborhood to work on the docks and in the factories.

All the factories are gone now. The brickyard is a park and community garden.

We live on the second floor, in the corner with the big chimney.

Posted by Ellen

Detail from "Tropical Rainforest with Waterfall" by Ana Uribe (1999), a mural in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia.

Posted by Ellen

Seemed to take a long time to get through the whole month of November, when too many days looked just like this. Actually, though, this photo was taken way back in mid-October, for Philly Photo Day, by Donna Henry.

What are all those birds waiting for? Spring?