Summer 2013 Book Quarterly: The Philly Edition

Source: Philadelphia City Paper
Date: June 14, 2013
Byline: Bryan Bierman

One of the most influential men of 20th-century Philadelphia, Edmund Bacon changed the shape and scope of the city as we know it. From Penn Center and Market East to an invigorated Society Hill, his thumbprint is still visible, not just in Philly, but abroad. It’s quite rare for a city planner to be an internationally known celebrity, but Bacon was just that. His revitalizing work in the ’50s and ’60s became a blueprint for urban planning and landed him on the cover of Time. Gregory Heller’s Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics and the Building of Modern Philadelphia is a no-frills look at these achievements and the uphill battles it took to get there.

And there were many battles. Part of Bacon’s brilliance was his gift for bringing the city’s ideas to the public, using free exhibits, presentations or newspaper ads, though he continually fought with businessmen, politicians and occasionally the public in order to see his plans through. His visionary work in knocking down the city-dividing railroads known as the “Chinese Wall” was a years-long clash that ultimately culminated in the creation of Penn Center, the heart of our business district.

Heller’s book is more of an in-depth account of Bacon’s work than a biography. (For instance, his Navy years, where he saw combat at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, receive only a passing reference.) The later chapters in which Heller recounts his time spent around Bacon is where the man’s personality really shines through. When the city intended to ban skateboarding at LOVE Park, a 92-year-old Bacon hopped on a board himself in protest. It’s often dry, but Ed Bacon is an informative look at our city’s history.