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.
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.
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.
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?
The posture of number 6, who's been playing football this season for the Electrons of Ben Franklin High School, is ambiguous. Perhaps he's a kicker focusing on the ball on a tee; perhaps he's just unhappy about something in the game, or something unrelated to the game. Certainly, he's not celebrating.
But the evening the picture was taken, on Philly Photo Day in mid-October, the Franklin Electrons won a big game; they beat perennial city powerhouse George Washington–at G.W.–on their way to an undefeated regular season and a Philadelphia Public School AAAA championship.
Had the picture been snapped this weekend, however, interpretation would be straightforward. Yesterday, Franklin, the public high school champion, faced off against Saint Joseph's Prep, the city's Catholic school champion and last year's state champion. The Hawks of Prep crushed the Electrons, 44-27.
The magic is over now; there will be no trip to states, no undefeated miracle season. Still and all, they made a pretty good run of it, those Electrons of 2014.
All 1,903 pictures snapped for Philly Photo Day last month can now be viewed online. We've selected a few to post here from time to time, just to remind y'all that things were really jumping that day in the City of Brotherly Love.
Every day in Philadelphia, houses are declared dead, mostly after long years of painful dilapidation and decay. If they don't collapse or crumble of their own weight, they are demolished, eventually, without ceremony; the machines show up, and the trucks haul away the pieces.
Until Saturday, 3711 Melon Street in West Philly's Mantua neighborhood was no different from all the others. It had sheltered families since 1872. The last owner was Leona Richardson, who bought it in 1946 and brought up her son Roger there. Mantua was a good place to raise a family; the neighbors were poor, but they looked after one another, and they had stores, schools, churches, a post office, a movie theater, a firehouse. The houses were small and already old, rotting, cracking, always needing some kind of repair, but a single mother like Leona Richardson could afford to buy a home of her own in Mantua, and could live there comfortably and see her son grow up and get an education.
Eventually, Miss Leona paid off the house on Melon Street and bought another place a few blocks away, where she lived until her death in 2002. Even before she died, the old house was becoming harder and harder to keep up; after she died, it was basically abandoned. Today, shells of houses like 3711 Melon Street are offered for sale in the neighborhood for $30,000; they languish on the market; nobody thinks they're worth that much. They're 140 years old now, and in recent years they've been better homes for rats than for people.
People have tried to find shelter in them, of course. Drunks and addicts have used them when they could. Drug wars have been fought in and around them. Neighborhood children died in some of these empty houses.
The neighborhood as a whole was grievously wounded, losing families and homes and businesses and city services, and when finally the worst of the houses were sold for scrap, ripped apart and hauled away, the wounds in the fabric of the neighborhood became scars, marks of permanent disfiguring damage. Now only weeds grow tall where once families had flourished. There are more and more gaps in the blocks of rowhouses, ugly gaps, like missing teeth.
But the passing of 3711 Melon Street last Saturday did not go quietly. A proper funeral was observed, complete with flowers, organ, remembrances, eulogy, black armbands, folding fans, food, and "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." There were printed programs, with color photos of the deceased. And when the machine tore into the house, pallbearers were at the ready, accompanying the dumpster load of what was once a home to its place of final repose.
Needless to say, the funeral for 3711 Melon Street was observed in such a public manner because politicians and community organizers were wanting to draw attention to some of their work. The ground on which the lost house had stood will become part of a parcel slated for development as affordable housing. "Plan, or be planned for," several of the speakers told the gathering.
"I've learned that you can tell a lot about a person," one of the speakers noted, quoting the very recently departed Maya Angelou, "by the way she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, tangled Christmas tree lights."
The neighbors of Mantua have had to handle a hell of a lot more than those three things. Our thoughts are with them as they deal with this fresh loss.