Review of “Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia”

Date: May 31, 2013
Byline: Steven Ujifusa

In his new book Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), Greg Heller does a superb and thorough job highlighting this master planner’s many accomplishments (and shortcomings) as Director of Philadelphia’s Planning Commission. As an undergraduate, Heller got to know Edmund Bacon intimately before his death in 2005, taking many long walks with the crotchety, opinionated, passionate former public official. Yet we find in the book, the result of nearly a decade of research, a balanced assessment of Bacon’s life and career emerges.

It’s a common misconception that Bacon was the “Robert Moses of Philadelphia.” Heller skillfully debunks the myth — Bacon was very much his own person. He was definitely strong-willed, but Heller’s Bacon is not the ruthless egotist of Robert Caro’s Moses. Both were notoriously cantankerous men, especially in their later years. Bacon’s hope for the city lay in neighborhood redevelopment and rehabilitation rather wholesale demolition and continuous highway construction. The demolition of historic structures that took place under Bacon’s tenure could be called surgical compared to the Dresden-like havoc which Moses wrought in the South Bronx and the Lower East Side. Bacon was definitely a modernist, but he was not an ardent disciple of Le Corbusier. Compared to other planners, he largely respected his city’s historic fabric. Yet it is telling to learn that Ed Bacon was reluctant to return to his native city in 1939. After graduating from Cornell’s architecture program, he traveled the world and cut his teeth as a planner in Flint, Michigan. Philadelphia was in dire straits even then; Heller says that Bacon saw the city as a “corrupt and backward place” with broken streetlights, undrinkable water, and once-prosperous neighborhoods sliding into shabbiness.

In 1949, Ed Bacon was appointed Executive Director of the City Planning Commission, a position he would hold for the next thirty years. Raised by middle-class parents in Powelton Village, Bacon was a New Deal Democrat: principled but not ideological. This pragmatic approach caused public clashes with purists such as architect Louis Kahn and preservationist Charles E. Peterson. To Bacon, the private sector should be the driving force behind development projects, with local government serving as a facilitator or moderator. A lifelong Quaker, Bacon was a strong believer in urban living– he spent most of his married life in a townhouse on the 2100 block of Locust Street. Unfortunately, his sincere efforts — in the short term, at least — had relatively little immediate impact on stemming the tide of industrial and middle class flight out of the city.

Yet with persistence must come patience, and Bacon’s ideas have borne fruit in our day. Even if large swaths of Philadelphia continue to be plagued by abandonment, poverty, and crime, Heller reminds us that Bacon’s vision of a renewed, vibrant, and walkable Center City has largely come to pass. The themes of consensus building and collaboration — rather than authoritarianism — run throughout his career, although not always consistently. Moreover, Bacon did not silkily manipulate the marionette strings of power and patronage to enrich himself or his friends. Trained as an architect, he was a vision person rather than a money person. His professional nemesis was the city development coordinator Bill Rafsky, who brought literally brought home the bacon from Washington, D.C. and controlled where increasingly limited federal dollars went. At the end of the day, Heller points out that the secret to Bacon’s success was his “total vision of the city,” and being absolutely relentless and persistent in achieving that vision.

Heller also describes how Bacon continued to seek the spotlight even in retirement, and at times his legendary persistence crossed the line into the histrionic. In the early 1980s, he wrote blistering editorials about the erection of Liberty Place, the first building to break the “gentlemen’s agreement” that prevented structures from rising higher than Billy Penn’s hat atop City Hall. For Bacon, the brassy Helmut Jahn-designed towers were a violation of the Quaker City’s sense of modesty. “The integrity of the city is not for sale,” he melodramatically proclaimed in 1984, “Maybe Athens will build a sixty story office building next to the Acropolis.”

Bacon lost, the towers went up, and the Phillies were cursed for twenty years.

Finally, Heller captures his subject’s eccentricities and at times endearing quirks. These include performing tai chi exercises in the middle of meetings or his having his Penn students simulating San Francisco by “making spectators walk up several flights of stairs, arriving at the top floor to find one of the presenters dressed like a ‘Flower Child’ playing a guitar and distributing R-rated fortune cookies.”

And who can forget that October 28, 2002, when the 92 -year- old Bacon declared, “I conceived Love Park…And now, in total defiance of Mayor Street, I will skateboard in LOVE Park!” He did just that, with plenty of handlers and reporters in tow, of course. Both Moses and Bacon loved publicity, but it’s hard to imagine Moses being so whimsical and purposeful while performing an act of civil disobedience.

To Heller, Bacon’s greatest achievement is the rejuvenation of Society Hill in the 1960s, which he envisioned as an historic place for modern urban living, rather than a living museum. The neighborhood was his answer to snug (and often smug) suburban living, and Bacon proved to be a master salesman, getting Main Liners and Chestnut Hillers alike to purchase derelict historic homes for cheap and renovate them. As the Philadelphia Bulletin reported: “In Society Hill, he [Bacon] said, some old buildings have been preserved and rehabilitated. He contrasted this approach with that of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which, he said, evicts people and tears down homes.”

This biography is a must-read not just for those interested Philadelphia history, but anyone who cares about American urban history and the charismatic people who shape our cities. The showman planner Bacon might have been erratic and combative, especially when it came to defending his own work, but he was also brilliant, devoted to his calling, and truly in love with his native city. To the end of his very long life, he never did stop trying.