The Philadelphia Story

Source: Architect
Date: May 14, 2013
Byline: Ben Adler

Ed Bacon was a bizarro Robert Moses: a mid-century urban master builder who favored pedestrians over automobiles. Yet while Bacon held values similar to Jane Jacobs—and, like Jacobs, promoted his views through articles and books—the two were far from allies. Jacobs criticized the City Beautiful movement and its influence on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which Bacon admired. He in turn viewed Jacobs, who celebrated the tumult of city living and opposed grand master plans to impose order on chaos, as a stubborn naysayer carping from the peanut gallery. Jacobs did, in fact, once literally fire hostile questions from the audience at Bacon when he was speaking on a panel.

Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics and the Building of Modern Philadelphia , a new biography by Gregory L. Heller, presents Bacon as the third pole in the mid-century struggle between Jacobs and Moses for the soul of the American city. Heller, who helped Bacon write his memoirs, has written an entirely sympathetic—and informative, if somewhat plodding—biography that zooms in close on its subject, diving deep into the details of Bacon’s interactions with real-estate developers, politicians, architects (such as his friend Louis Kahn), and other urban planners.

Heller’s biography could just as easily serve as an urban history of modern Philadelphia. Bacon trained as an architect at Cornell University and then at Cranbrook Academy of Art under Eliel Saarinen, father of Eero, with whom Bacon also later worked. After a brief tenure working on planning in Flint, Mich., Bacon returned to his native Philadelphia. He helped found the City Planning Commission in the 1940s and served as its director from 1949 to 1970.

His tenure there suggests that Bacon was born in the wrong era. He opposed the suburban sprawl that he participated in Philadelphia: Bacon planned and promoted highways and I.M. Pei–designed super-block high-rises because that is simply what one did at the time. He did want to protect pedestrians, but conceived of doing so in a comically futurist 1950s way: by removing sidewalks from the roadway and replacing them with garden paths behind buildings. Had Bacon presided over the Philadelphia of Mayor Ed Rendell or any of his successors, he would have simply been another conventional urbanist, championing pedestrians merely by buffering their sidewalks from cars with bike lanes and trees.

We tend to think of the 1950s as the heyday of American cities, and maybe even the sunset of America’s best cities. That’s a narrow view: Even before white flight, riots, and crime hollowed out the nation’s urban cores, the beginnings of mass migration to the suburbs and de-industrialization had already started. It began with the end of World War II, really; Bacon’s entire career was devoted to managing decline, as suburban malls replaced downtown shopping streets. Often, as in the previously undeveloped tracts of far Northeast Philadelphia, where much new housing went up during Bacon’s tenure, his best ideas were boxed in by the prevailing ethos of the time. Bacon wanted row houses with garages in alleys in the back, but the community demanded, and got, garages in front. Bacon wanted transit-oriented development, before the term even existed. For Northeast Philly, the transit never came.

Bacon’s career is an example of a common affliction in politics, where politicians find their principled but risky convictions—for ending the drug war, say, or massive campaign finance reform—only after retirement. It was after Bacon stepped down from the Planning Commission that he found his voice as a strident opponent of auto culture. He tried to organize a global conference on the “post-petroleum” future, even though he never expressed such a radical vision during his tenure at City Planning. (Instead he had said that cars should be grudgingly accommodated, with an emphasis on getting suburban commuters to park them and walk once they arrived downtown).

Bacon’s signature as a planner was a commitment to downtown revitalization. He was a driving force behind Penn Center, a new office tower complex in Center City, a pedestrianized downtown shopping street called the Chestnut Street Transitway, and the Gallery at Market East, which was the first major indoor mall in an American city center and included a large parking garage. He hoped to compete with the appeal of suburbia, in part, by imitating its orderliness. He was in favor of pedestrianism and row houses, but for separating retail from housing and sidewalks from streets.

Some of Bacon’s fixations, like separating pedestrian paths from streets, were downright quirky; Heller’s book would have benefitted from more explanation of them, through images as well as analysis. Bacon was deeply enamored with sunken outdoor public spaces, like New York’s Rockefeller Center. But it’s not clear why. (Space could be made in Ed Bacon by cutting some of Heller’s painstakingly detailed reporting on Bacon’s political maneuverings with other players in mid-century Philadelphia.)

Ironically for a master builder, Bacon’s true legacy in Philadelphia today is not so much in what he built as what he refrained from building. Bacon played the central role in creating what became known as Society Hill. An old corner of Center City, its Colonial-era brick buildings had been clad in aluminum siding and fallen into disrepair. The area had been nicknamed “the Bloody Fifth Ward” when Bacon took office.

Against the grain of the time, which was to tear down and rebuild, Bacon managed to finagle urban renewal funding from the federal government to instead rehabilitate and restore the neighborhood to its former glory. Wealthy families moved in, the historic name Society Hill was revived—thanks to Bacon—and it has long since been one of Philadelphia’s most desirable areas. This wasn’t necessarily painless or heroic work: Although Bacon opposed using eminent domain to displace working-class residents for projects such as highways, he moved plenty of them from Society Hill through different means.

“In many ways, it [Society Hill] was the first true example of the kind of urban gentrification cities across the country have since experienced,” Heller writes. New York’s Greenwich Village and Brooklyn Heights underwent similar changes contemporaneously, as Jacobs pointed out at the time, but Heller’s point is well-taken—and could be drawn out further. Philadelphia’s greatest neighborhood asset today is its vast supply of high-quality older housing stock. Society Hill was ground zero for the process of restoring and renovating those buildings—a movement that has spread in every direction (except eastward across the Delaware River, to the dismay of Camden, N.J.) Bacon, who passed away in 2005, only caught a glimpse of how hip Fishtown and Northern Liberties have become. Today, he deserves some of the credit for it.

Heller’s book covers his career very capably, but it lacks texture and verve. Heller never raises the stakes by setting up the high drama of the mid-century inflection point for American cities and suburbs in the way that Robert Caro does in his epic biography of Moses. Bacon is undoubtedly an important figure in the history of American urban planning, and worth learning about, especially now that his ideas have come into fashion. Bacon’s ideas are every as worthy as those of Jacobs and Moses in that regard.