Changing Skyline: Edmund Bacon, doer

Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: May 23, 2013
Byline: Inga Saffron

A new biography of the great city planner is welcome and timely amid today’s visions of urban design.

Philadelphia is a city that struggles with certain disadvantages. It is not easy being stuck midway between the nation’s financial and political capitals. It doesn’t regularly produce winning sports teams. We don’t have enough corporate giants headquartered here, or enough of the philanthropists who trail in their wake.

But the most inexplicable shortcoming, it’s always seemed to me, was that there’s no biography of Edmund Bacon.

Bacon was not merely the greatest urban planner Philadelphia ever produced, he was also one of the greatest characters to figure on the city stage in the 20th century. Operating in the master-builder tradition, Bacon essentially used the force of his personality to prod a crumbling, has-been, industrial city into accepting the redevelopment he believed would reposition it for a modern future – tearing down the “Chinese Wall” railroad viaduct to build a modern office district, revitalizing Society Hill to preserve middle-class living in Center City, creating the nation’s first urban mall. A biography is crucial to understanding where the city stands today – and where we might go from here.

Now, at last, we have a road map. Gregory L. Heller’s new biography, modestly (perhaps too modestly) titled Ed Bacon, is a good start at filling in the vast gaps in Bacon-ology. Heller, an unabashed Bacon admirer, has a perfect resumé for the job. An alumnus of several local planning agencies, he worked as an assistant to Bacon in his final years and had access to his papers before his death in 2005, at 94.

Bacon belongs to a trio of swaggering big-city planners who came to prominence after World War II, when cities were beginning to feel the effects of suburban flight – the abandonment of houses and factories, a vanishing job base, and growing concentrations of poverty. Like the other two giants, Robert Moses in New York and Edward J. Logue (a Philadelphia native, incidentally) in Boston, Bacon faced the daunting task of reconstructing a city that had let itself go for decades.

The three were lucky to work at a time when Washington operated a spigot to deliver dollars to cities. They also had an overwhelming confidence in their ability to fix what was wrong. Unfortunately, much of the federal largesse went to destructive urban renewal projects, like public housing towers and downtown highways. The clear-cutting of whole neighborhoods frequently left cities worse off than when they started. By the late ’60s, as people like Jane Jacobs began to question the government’s top-down planning, the master builders were vilified for their imperious ways.

Over the last few years, however, there has been a noticeable shift in how the three are remembered. Along with building the bad stuff, they also created infrastructure that made cities more livable and competitive, including new office districts, parks, and thousands of middle-class housing units.

The three planners are now increasingly seen in a more nuanced way. To anyone who has sat through endless meetings debating whether to paint stripes for a bike lane, it has become clear that consensus planning has its own weaknesses. Moses, Logue, and Bacon are increasingly admired as doers. They didn’t just produce plans; they actually built stuff.

What’s interesting about Heller’s account is that he doesn’t buy into the revisionist narrative of Bacon as an all-powerful master builder. He sees him primarily as a design visionary with a deep understanding of how cities ought to look and function. His greatest strength was as a “marketer of ideas.” Heller comes to the startling conclusion that Bacon didn’t actually do everything he gets credit, and blame, for.

As Heller walks the reader through Bacon’s big renewal projects – from Penn Center to the Gallery on Market Street to Society Hill – he takes pains to sort out the differences between Bacon’s vision and the final results. Even though Bacon gradually learned the political skills necessary to move his ideas forward, he always had to make deals with more powerful city officials and private developers, with the results often being decidedly second-rate.

Take Penn Center, the clutch of bland slab towers across from City Hall. Bacon’s concept was totally original: A Rockefeller Center-like ensemble of buildings linked by submerged, open-air, pedestrian promenades and lined with upscale shops. But the plan proved too novel and too expensive, and what we got instead is mediocre office towers and a gloomy underground concourse that, to this day, has been unable to rent all its retail space.

The question is, how much was Bacon to blame for the result? While Heller is good at giving us a straight-ahead narrative, he shies away from evaluating Bacon’s accomplishments.

As bad as Penn Center is today, might it have been worse had it actually been built the way Bacon dreamed? Today, Philadelphia finds itself trying to repair the damage done by many projects that Bacon oversaw, like the Gallery’s fortress walls and I-95’s waterfront canyon. Even if Bacon wasn’t totally responsible for their final form, Heller’s lack of critical evaluation is frustrating. Heller’s claim that Bacon was skeptical of highways is also hard to accept, given his championing of I-95 and the failed Crosstown Expressway that was meant to replace South Street.

Bacon was clearly at his greatest when he bucked the conventional wisdom of the times, as he did in Society Hill. Unlike Boston, which flattened 90 acres of its downtown for blank-canvas redevelopment, Bacon worked more surgically. He saw the value of renovating and marketing Society Hill’s historic homes to middle-class owners. That approach to repopulating cities is now standard.

Heller’s Bacon biography arrives just as Philadelphia is finally seeing a resurgence of planning under Mayor Nutter and planning director Alan Greenberger. Their ambitions have been impressive, their execution less so. But if Bacon couldn’t get things done when the federal tap was flowing, what should we expect from them?

By studying Heller’s account, we can learn much about how Bacon navigated the political shoals to successfully realize as many projects as he did. It may not be clear whether his accomplishments ultimately left the city better prepared for the future. But those questions can be answered in the next book.