Greg Heller’s: Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia

Source: Philadelphia Weekly Press
Date: May 1, 2013
Byline: Nicole Contosta

Most Philadelphians have at least heard the name Ed Bacon. They may know him as the 92-year-old daredevil who skateboarded across Love Park to demonstrate his opposition to the legislation eventually outlawing it. Or they may know him as the father of popular actor Kevin Bacon.

But to those interested in urban planning, Ed Bacon remains nothing short of a visionary. President of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission from 1949 to 1970, Bacon’s long list of credits includes Penn Center, the transit orientated shopping of Market East as well as the restoration of the Society Hill neighborhood.

“Bacon is viewed as the face of urban renewal,” explained Greg Heller, the author of the first-ever biography on Ed Bacon from a coffee shop Friday, April 26th. “But why is that?” Heller asked, getting to the basic premise behind Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics and the Building of Modern Philadelphia. “Why is it that in other cities, like New York, Robert Moses is viewed that way? But Moses was a developer,” Heller said, adding, “and Bacon was planner.”

It’s a story that’s unique to Philadelphia,” Heller continued.

And as Heller’s 296-page biography illustrates, Bacon is credited as the face of urban renewal because, “he helped shaped policy. Bacon was a salesman and a marketer of ideas.”

Take for instance Bacon’s involvement with the planning for Penn Center. As shown in Heller’s biography, Bacon’s role in Penn Center both demonstrates his ability to put the right people together to make the project happen. And it also shows the fact that Bacon had almost no control of the project’s final design. It’s a reality that repeats itself throughout Bacon’s career. After all, Bacon was a city planner—not an architect.

Today, many credit the construction of Penn Center as contributing to the downtown as a transit hub as well as the growth of the area’s high-rise commercial district. Before its construction, Penn Center was part of the Chinese Wall owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad. Initially, developers suggested replacing the wall with “junky stores,” Heller explained. Not wanting that to occur, the Planning Commission got involved.

Then, like today, those involved had to attract financing for the project. Architect Louis Kahn originally designed a model for Penn Center. But according to Heller, Bacon didn’t necessarily believe Kahn’s model could attract developers able to secure financing. “So he went around him and asked Vincent Kling to come up with the preliminary models,” Heller said. “Vince Kling,” Heller continued, “was a very good looking, charismatic man. He had the connections. He knew how to talk to people on corporate boards.”

In the end, “Kling’s model was very similar to Kahn’s,” Heller explained. “But it was smaller. It was one block in size with three buildings. It was the kind of size that could attract investors.”

Penn Center’s developer and architect were both from New York, Heller said. “Many People view Penn Center as ugly and say that Bacon failed,” Heller said. But they don’t realize that Bacon had little control over the building’s final design. “Physically, Bacon designed almost nothing,” Heller

explained. “His skills rested in his abilities as a master planner.”

Heller’s biography also sheds light on the sharp contrast between some of Bacon’s private and public views. According to Heller, “Bacon demonstrated some hypocrisy when it cam to the Crosstown Expressway.” Never constructed, the highway would have cut through South Street and Lombard Street, displacing residential neighborhoods and business districts. “Bacon attended many community meetings defending it,” Heller said. “He would say things like, ‘as long as Mayor Tate supports it. I support it.’”

However, according to Heller, “There’s evidence that Bacon opposed the Crosstown Expressway. There’s also evidence that in private, he lobbied the state against it.”

Why did he publicly support the Crosstown Highway when privately he opposed it?” Heller asked. In Heller’s opinion, part of that occurred because “Bacon felt strongly about keeping consistent with city’s party line and its goals. He served on four mayoral administrations. And this, in and of itself is unusual,” Heller said. Moreover, Bacon also took a “critical, long-term [approach] to the re-development of Philadelphia. He may have determined that Philadelphia couldn’t compete if a project was bogged down by too much opposition,” Heller explained, adding, “Bacon really wanted Philadelphia to re-emerge as a world-class city.”

Heller’s interest in Ed Bacon first formed while completing an internship with the Planning Commission as a college student Wesleyan University. There, colleagues told him, “I had to meet Ed Bacon,” Heller explained. After meeting, Bacon, Heller continued, took him out to lunch and asked if Heller would write his memoir. Heller took a year off from college to complete it. When Bacon died, a publisher asked Heller to write a biography on his life.

“I began writing the book in 2007,” Heller said, noting that in the end, another publisher, University of Pennsylvania Press printed it. While researching and writing the book, Heller worked full-time. From 2006-2009 he was a Design Analyst at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. From 2009-2012, Heller was the Director of The Enterprise Center Community Development Corporation, where he managed the development of the Center for Culinary Enterprises, turning a vacant 13,000 square foot building into one of the nation’s most comprehensive food-business incubators. Currently, Heller is a Senior Advisor at Econsult Solutions, Inc., where he consults on economic development and urban reinvestment projects.

“Bacon was a very skilled planner,” said Heller of how the visionary influenced his life. “What Bacon had to do was very subtle. Many people do not have Bacon’s unique brand of skills.”

For the next month, Heller will read and discuss his book at a number of venues citywide. For more information: