Hey Philadelphia, the SS United States Is a Rusting Money Pit

How much more money are people going to spend to keep afloat a background prop for people eating at Chick-fil-A?

SS United States. Photo | Jeff Fusco

SS United States. Photo | Jeff Fusco

One of the longest bon voyages in modern Philadelphia history surrounds the SS United States, the derelict eyesore complementing the concrete prairie near Ikea along Columbus Boulevard in South Philly. Repeatedly, the SS United States Conservancy has sounded the alarm, saying that this historic relic would be scrapped unless Philadelphia came together and sunk millions into the rusting money pit.

According to the organization, it costs $60,000 a month to keep the ship afloat as a background prop for people eating at Chick-fil-A. And now the conservancy is pleading with Philadelphia to again save the oxidized fossil.

“If progress toward a new sales option or an infusion of funds does not occur by October 31, 2015,” says the organization, “we will have no choice but to negotiate the sale of the ship to a responsible U.S.-based recycler.” In other words, the ship is heading toward scrapyard oblivion like it’s stolen copper wire out of an abandoned house.

Oh, I can already hear the polite society gasps at that one. I mean, who hasn’t stripped copper wire? (Answer: Probably people willing to sink millions upon millions into a hole for no apparent reason.)

It’s not the first time that the ship desperately needed funds to stay literally afloat. Philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest donated  a whopping $5.8 million himself back in 2010 to save the ship, too. Despite Lenfest’s past generosity, the ship is yet again imminently doomed. And all the millions of dollars that went into this pointless statue, monies that could’ve been spent on actual economic development, are about to vanish overnight.

This endeavor to save the ship is the dictionary definition of a boondoggle, a millions-of-dollars misadventure surrounding something most Philadelphians have never heard of or cared much about.

“As you know,” the conservancy states matter-of-factly, “the SS United States is the latest and most advanced ocean liner ever built in her namesake nation.” I actually did not know this.

“Launched in 1952, the ship was developed as part of a top-secret Cold War project to build the fastest ship in the world. She still holds the transatlantic speed record and is an iconic symbol of America’s post-war power, pride, and innovation.”

First things first, top secret Cold War era projects usually weren’t so great. For instance, between 1946 and 1948, the U.S. government “deliberately infected nearly 700 Guatemalans – prison inmates, mental patients, and soldiers – with venereal diseases in what was meant as an effort to test the effectiveness of penicillin,” according to the New York Times

What a wonderful, grand era!

Still, putting aside the human experimentation and threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, if you ask me, a better “iconic symbol” of America’s post-war power, pride, and innovation would be an actual middle class in this country.

You know, by investing in people, accepting short-term losses to build something over time. Besides, I don’t believe that most everyday Philadelphians know or care to know any of this, at least the people I hang out with. Most of those folks are wondering where the good jobs are.

We’ve all heard those rumors about a casino going into the ship, which got everyone excited because of the possibility for those jobs. And we’ve all heard the protests of historians, about the poetic grandeur of the ocean liner, as if that actually means anything to people on the margins or street level. It’s interesting conversation just like learning about the transcontinental railroad is interesting.

What it isn’t, though, is a job creator or, frankly, anything worth millions more dollars of anyone’s money. History ought to be preserved and archived. It’s vital for us to know where we’ve been to know where we’re going. Digital archives are wonderful for this, as are photographs and videos and all sorts of other newfangled technological whizzbangs.

This entire hullabaloo is a perfect example of why rich people are strange and ought not be trusted, generally.

See, we live in a society where nobody, allegedly, has any money. We have derelict public schools, and we hear disingenuous statements from millionaires about how money is tight so they can’t hire anyone for anything.

Yet, they apparently have been able to sink millions upon millions upon millions of dollars into a scrap heap that hundreds of retail workers have to ride by on the bus as they go to work every single day.

It’s silly, if you ask me, and indicative of the need to redistribute wealth a lot more in this country.

I mean, if we’re cutting food stamps or jobs or literally closing public schools but saving the SS United States simply to delay its inevitable scrapyard doom, we need to take a good, hard look at our personal priorities and figure out just what we want our society to look like.

Do we want to be a living, breathing society full of actual human beings? Or, do we want to be the remnants of a once great nation full of impoverished people and project playgrounds for the rich?

Let this damned thing die.

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