Robert Moses Redux: Our new infatuation with old urban titans

Source: The New Republic
Date: July 11, 2013
Byline: Inga Saffron

His name is less familiar to us now, but Philadelphia’s Edmund Bacon was once as famous as his New York counterpart Robert Moses. A visionary and autocratic planner, Bacon used his political wiles—and the heaps of federal urban renewal cash available during the post-war years—to reshape the bedraggled industrial has-been into something resembling a modern city. Like Moses, Bacon imposed some pretty awful highways and housing projects on a resistant population, and experienced a similar fall from public grace. But while Moses’ end was marked by an elegant tombstone, crafted by biographer Robert A. Caro, Bacon’s legacy was scattered among the recesses of history. A lot of people know him best as the father of actor Kevin Bacon.

This year, Gregory L. Heller finally corrects that lapse with a biography of Bacon. Its modest, folksy title, Ed Bacon, is the first hint that this is a very different book from Caro’s 1974 The Power Broker. Though not as majestic in its storytelling (or, for that matter, in its physical heft), Heller’s book gives us a fascinating—and sympathetic—account of Bacon’s accomplishments. This, in itself, is big news. Until recently, the imperious midcentury planners were invariably cast as bullies, who steamrolled heroic community types and flattened living neighborhoods. Not anymore.

Heller’s biography of Bacon is actually the latest salvo in a campaign that seeks to restore the reputations of the post-war planning titans by casting them as can-do public servants who made hard decisions for the greater good. Heller, who, at 32, wasn’t even born when Caro’s book came out, leaves out the steamrolling and focuses instead on Bacon’s talent for moving complex plans off the shelf and transforming them into concrete-and-steel reality. All histories, of course, reflect their moment, but Heller leaves little doubt that he is using Bacon’s career to impart some lessons for our more lethargic times. You sense that he longs for the days when swaggering power brokers made big things happen.

He is not the only one. The rehabilitation of the once-scorned master builders goes back to 2007, when Columbia University historians Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson organized a three-part exhibition in New York that played up Moses’ accomplishments, while minimizing his roughshod tactics. Rather than killing New York with highways, Ballon argues in the catalogue that his projects helped “strengthen the center city in the age of decentralization, suburban drift, and urban decay.” Heller’s claim for Bacon is virtually identical. This spring also saw the publication of The Planning Game: Lessons From Great Cities, by Alexander Garvin, a Yale professor, former New York City official, and long-time admirer of Bacon who supplied the introduction to Heller’s book. Garvin’s book, which seems intended as a college course book, elevates their arguments into the realm of official history.

The growing respect for Moses and Bacon no doubt resonates with a public in shock and awe over China’s warp-speed transformation into a humming, twenty-first century megalopolis. In the time it takes us to do an environmental impact statement, China seems able to erect sleek airports, miles of high-speed rail, shimmering cultural complexes—whole cities, in fact. Meanwhile, in the U.S., some trains actually run slower than they did half a century ago and Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor is operating at capacity because there is not enough room in the two Hudson River tunnels to add one more train. The notion that America can’t get anything done is a virtual meme.

For anyone reared on the urbanist testament of Jane Jacobs, the newfound appreciation for these autocratic figures is a bit unsettling. Still, it’s hard to deny that a more balanced view was overdue. The demise of the all-powerful planner, which coincided with the general suspicion of authority in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, came at an unfortunate moment for cities: The federal government was losing interest in urban problems. Funding for reconstruction virtually disappeared. And planners began thinking of themselves as managers, rather than heroic doers and visionaries. Peter Park, who fought to undo the legacy of urban renewal during his 16 years as chief planner in Milwaukee and Denver, says “many planners just saw their job as administering zoning regulations and applying for permits.” That stance was as damaging to cities as the overzealous activism of the master builders.

The pendulum began to shift about two decades ago—right around the time cities started to gain population again. City leaders recognized that they needed to start thinking again about big-ticket redevelopment projects. But this time there was no massive infusion of federal cash to pay for construction. Instead, cities have increasingly been forced to rely on a method that Heller says Bacon pioneered: the public-private partnership.

Nowadays those alliances with developers are often the only way cash-strapped cities can afford public improvements. But, as we’ve seen in the controversial Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, the emphasis is often on the private part of the bargain. While the project’s developer made good on promises to build a new sports arena, a public plaza, and rail upgrades, it was slow to deliver the promised affordable housing. More telling, it was the developer, and not the city planners, who shaped the design for the 22-acre site. Government has handed off the details of urban design to the private sector.

Because of the way today’s projects are structured, the most powerful planner in city hall is most likely to be a non-planner, like Michael Bloomberg in New York or former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. In Philadelphia, Heller says, the successor to Bacon would be Paul Levy, the unelected head of the downtown development corporation—exactly the sort of agency that Moses loved. Levy is widely admired as someone who gets things done. But, unlike Bacon, he tends to focus on small, quality-of-life projects. A lot of his effort, in fact, has gone into repairing Bacon-era failures, like the concourses and concrete plazas near City Hall. He has built several new parks that are both extremely beautiful and immensely popular. But it’s worth pointing out that he has been criticized for executing those projects with only token citizen input.

Since the U.S. is unlikely to adopt anything as ambitious as urban renewal again, we can expect our cities to continue the practice of outsourcing complex projects to such independent entities in the coming years, especially as America struggles to renew its infrastructure and realize massive public works projects like high-speed rail. Books like Heller’s biography of Bacon offer important insights on how to get these big projects done. But as much as we may envy China’s efficiency, we only have to look to the Turkey, and the battle over the future of Gezi Park, to remind ourselves that the old top-down model won’t fly in a democracy. Our best hope may be to demand a form of planning where the new, independent master builders and a still-skittish citizenry can work together as equal partners.