Regrets? We've had a few
April 13, 2012By Peter Crimmins
The sinking of the Titanic could be described as not just a failure. The ship's promise, the hubris of its engineering, and its final collapse could be described as "epic fail." We went to find some other things around Philadelphia that fit that pattern.
The Camden-Philadelphia aerial tram
The enormous concrete pillars standing at Penn's Landing, like a triumphant arc to the Delaware River, cost $17 million. They were the first steps toward an $80 million aerial tram spanning the river. It was part of a planned colossal shopping and entertainment complex -- 600,000 square feet -- to be built by the Simon Property Group
"The reason why it stopped, I believe, had to do with the stalling of the Simon Group plan, which included the Please Touch Museum on the top of a seven-story parking garage, which the tram was going to land on top of," said Harris Steinberg of the urban planning project PennPraxis. "With the seven-story landing not there, the trajectory of the tram would have to change, and the project ground to a halt."
There is still nothing developed on Penn's Landing, only a confusing system of pedestrian ramps and those pillars standing as a totem to decades of failure to develop the area into a promised vibrant waterfront space. However, no cloud is without a silver lining.
"Imagine if the Gallery were magically transported to the waterfront. That would be the scale of development, and facelessness of development that you would have seen if the Simon Group had built down there," said Steinberg. "We don't have to contend with that now. In many ways, we were spared from our worst instincts."
The Philadelphia Blazers
In 1972 a new professional hockey league was invented -- the World Hockey Association. The Philadelphia Blazers were competing for a fan base against the Flyers, a team already on their way to legendary status.
The Blazers could not get the Spectrum for their home opener, so they built an ice rink inside the old Civic Center in West Philadelphia. It was the big debut of a brand-new team in a brand-new league.
Mayor Frank Rizzo was there, and Derek Sanderson was the captain of the team.
"They built the boards four inches too far from the last pipe. The ice stopped before it reached the boards," said Sanderson. "You couldn't shoot pucks – you'd lose them. I said to [referee] Bill Friday, 'We can't play!'
"He said, 'This is the home opener, we've got to make this go!' So we went out for warm-up, and it sounded kind of tinny. If you make ice too fast, an air pocket develops under the surface. Whoever was the engineer at the time, he didn't know how to make ice.
"They drove the Zamboni out, boom! Right through the goal crease. Ice sticking up two or three feet on the sides. Wow -- there's no way we can play now. Bill Friday says, 'That's it, we gotta call this off.'
"As captain of the team, and the highest-paid athlete at the time, I figured it was my obligation to go out and apologize to the people that came. I remember the mayor said, 'Derek, see ya.'
"I said, 'You can't leave!' He said, 'Huh! This is a disaster. I've been around long enough. I'm out of here.' He snuck out of the stands and was gone.
"People are irate. I go up and get the mic from the penalty box and say, 'I'm Derek Sanderson and I'd like to apologize for the poor planning. We never expected this to happen.
"' Ping! The first puck goes off the glass. Then it started a whole idea. One came, 50 came. I'm telling you, these pucks were coming from all over the building, and they were throwing them.
"I said, 'All right, that's it, I'm out of here. You think it was a problem getting in here with only one entrance to the parking lot? Try getting out. I'll be in the dressing room," Sanderson said. "See ya!"
The Blazers lasted one season in Philadelphia.
As originally conceived, the national Bicentennial celebration in 1976 was going to be centered in Philadelphia, and the city went all out. New museums were built around Independence Mall, including the African-American Museum and the Living History Center Museum.
But things started to unravel. Instead of a centralized national celebration, events were scattered in cities around the country.
"There was also the fiasco of Frank Rizzo at his most abrasive and headline-grabbing," said historian Mike Zuckerman. "He declared he couldn't vouch for the security of the city and terrorists would no doubt try to disrupt the proceedings. There was a great police mobilization. There was never a shadow of terrorist attack."
Mysterious bacteria originated in the ventilation system of the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel. Later named Legionnaires' disease, it killed several people. Tourists stayed away.
There was precedent. A different citywide party had been planned 50 years earlier for the nation's 150th birthday -- the Sesquicentennial. Philadelphia built fairgrounds in South Philadelphia, including a Colonial village which became Packer Park. Nobody came to that celebration, either, and the venture went bankrupt almost immediately.
"There are pictures of the many parades that they had," said historian Stevie Wolf. "There are no people watching. Great big floats going down the street, and nobody is looking at them."
The Sesquicentennial celebration tried to re-create the wild success of the Centennial Exposition in Fairmount Park when an estimated 20 percent of the entire U.S. population visited Philadelphia in 1876. It is remembered as shining moment in Philadelphia history even though it, too, was bankrupt in the end.
Earthlink attempted to create the first citywide wireless Internet access-network in the country, called Wireless Philadelphia, spending $17 million on a system that never worked right, and was ultimately abandoned. The city's new "Digital Philadelphia" initiative is struggling under the legacy of its predecessor. TechnicallyPhilly.com has a handy, interactive timeline of Wireless Philadelphia.
Rebuilding after MOVE
After the firebombing of an activist commune in West Philadelphia established by MOVE accidentally caused the burning of an entire city block and the deaths of 11 people, the city rebuilt the neighborhood with low-income housing. The substandard construction of those houses quickly deteriorated.
New Era Philanthropy
In the 1990s, a nonprofit investment company called New Era Philanthropy was touted as the best new model for charitable giving, attracted $500 million from 1,100 charities and nonprofits, including the University of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and this organization, WHYY. After six years, it was revealed to be a Ponzi scheme.
If there were no epic failures, we'd have to make them up
During the last 100 years, the memory of the Titanic has been manipulated to fit almost any political argument. It took less than a week for writer Henry Adams to use the sinking of the ship to express his pessimism toward the republican presidential primary campaign. Over the last century, the Titanic has been invoked to express opinions -- often on both sides of the same issue -- about women's right to vote, the distribution of wealth, creeping secularism, and almost anything that fits the bill. Or not.
"It's interesting to note that, as far as historians have been able to discover, nobody really said ahead of time that the Titanic was unsinkable," said Steven Biel, author of "Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster."
"It's only after it goes down that the claim starts to be made that the ship owners and passengers all believed or said that the ship was unsinkable. That's a great example of how an event becomes mythic," Biel said.
Drama aside, Philadelphia's problems may not be titanic.
"You want epic fail, look at something like Charleston, firing on Fort Sumter [starting the Civil War] from which it never recovered," said historian Michael Zuckerman. "What was once one of the half-dozen greatest cities in America was reduced to trifling consequence. Something like the collapse of the auto industry in Detroit. Those are epic fails. You don't stay the fifth or sixth biggest metropolitan area in the country if you're suffering epic fails."