Source: Philadelphia City Paper
Date: December 16, 2009
Byline: Nathaniel Popkin

The Future is Now

In 1959, planner extraordinaire Edmund Bacon imagined that in 50 years, “no part of Philadelphia is ugly or depressed.” What does the next half-century have in store?

On the first morning of December, milky light streaks the city and the day gets going. I’m on top of Drexel University’s new Millennium Hall, a 17-story residence designed by Erdy McHenry Architecture and structural engineer Cecil Balmond as a model integrating engineering and architecture. The tower, which stands on the rise of 34th Street, is wedged midblock on a small site that previously housed university tennis courts. Clad in offset stainless-steel panels and rotating to manipulate sunlight and views of the city, Millennium Hall seems to move. From the south, the panels give it the appearance of a tall, powerful woman whose skirts shimmer against the wind.

Another effect of the building’s elliptical rotation is to deliver skyline views to every residence, a gift extended and multiplied in the penthouse lounge. Here is the remarkable and unusual vista; on a ponderously clear morning like this one, nearly everything is illuminated — from Overbrook High School to John Penn’s Solitude mansion. In between, on the gridiron: the great stand of Center City towers, Packer Avenue Marine Terminal in the far distance, the Aker Philadelphia Shipyard, the old-school skyline of University City, the rich brown brick and castle tops of West Philly. In the immediate foreground: a marvelous, multilayered web — three passenger trains and a freight train, pedestrians crossing the new Drexel Park, automobile traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway, West River (Martin Luther King) Drive, the Spring Garden Bridge. Here is the transparent, god’s-eye view of people moving through time and space, the real life evocation of city planner Edmund Bacon’s original vision for the “simultaneous movement systems” of Market East.

From here, indeed, it is hard to resist thinking like a god of the city, rearranging and replacing things as I see fit (re-erecting the half-tumbled Drexel Shaft just below might be my first act of magic). Alas, no one has such power, not even Ed Bacon at the height of his career. This quite misunderstood point punctuates a new, rather illuminating book just out from Penn Press — Imagining Philadelphia: Edmund Bacon and the Future of the City. Smartly edited by Drexel historian Scott Gabriel Knowles, the book is the first to assess the ideas and impact of Philadelphia’s legendary city planner, who died in 2005.

Imagining Philadelphia is a series of essays-as-dialog by Knowles, Gregory Heller, Guian McKee and Harris Steinberg (with an afterword by Eugenie Birch), arranged as responses to an article written by Bacon, “Philadelphia in the Year 2009.” Bacon’s 1959 essay was published in Greater Philadelphia Magazine as “Tomorrow: A Fair Can Pace It.” The fair refers to the 1976 World’s Fair and Bicentennial, the fair that would never come to be. The heart of this book is Knowles’ carefully knit story of the fair’s unraveling, and what that tells us about the limits of a master planner. Ultimately, like all of us, the author wonders, “Where are we now as visionaries?”

A Salesman of Ideas
In 1959, a world’s fair must have felt blisteringly possible, and even necessary. In a fair, as Knowles explains, Bacon sought, and thought he had found, a natural extension of his efforts “to liberate William Penn’s grid from over a century of industrial-age clutter and to make the city simultaneously auto-, pedestrian-, and investment-friendly.” Bacon had been a student of world’s fairs; he lectured on their impact on host cities and their role as progenitors of urban change. So in advancing the idea of a world’s fair, nothing less than the future of the city was at stake. Philadelphia would be its leading American example, “the key prestige city of the country.”

“What could be more natural,” he reasoned, “than to establish, as a national policy, the idea that the United States will receive the world in Philadelphia in 1976, and that the location of the Exposition will be downtown Philadelphia? In this way the reconsideration of the ideas of 1776 will occur in the place where they were originally formulated, and the world will determine, by observation, that the vision of [the American display at the 1958 World’s Fair in] Brussels was not a dream, but a driving force that led to the actual reconstruction of Philadelphia as an unmatched expression of the vitality of American technology and culture.”

Having orchestrated the remarkably successful 1947 Better Philadelphia exhibit, with its 30-foot, manipulable model of Center City, Bacon had come to realize the value in producing a tangible icon of the possible city: It gave people a sense of wonder, control and participation in determining the future. Bacon, as Gregory Heller notes in his Imagining Philadelphia essay, “believed that an effective planner had to sell his ideas actively in a persuasive way.” That’s the key to understanding Bacon’s impact, according to Heller, president of the Ed Bacon Foundation and author of a forthcoming biography. Bacon, he says in an interview, was “not purely a planner — he was a planner and implementer. He was a salesman of ideas.”

Bacon surely wanted to show off. By 1959, the redevelopment of Society Hill, Independence Mall, Penn Center and Eastwick in Southwest Philadelphia — all projects Bacon had conceived or influenced — were complete or under way. A new urban model (though not without detractors and not without significant compromises) was emerging. Now to complete it: “The form of the city then [in 2009] will be set by the nature of the ideas we generate now.”

But Bacon knew his vision would fall short without significant support from the federal government. A world’s fair would provide the political cover and financing to build the rest of his dream: Market East as the center of a region-wide, integrated transit system; a circuit of expressways around Center City; Chestnut Street as the world’s classiest pedestrian promenade dazzled by “open-sided electric cars with striped awnings”; and to decisively reverse white flight and suburbanization.

From 1976, Bacon looks confidently ahead. “By the year 2009,” he imagines, “no part of Philadelphia is ugly or depressed.”

He Ripped Its Heart Out
From the 17th floor of Millennium Hall, right on top of Bacon’s imagined 1976 World’s Fair riverside amusement center, this is just how the city appears. Fifty years of neighborhood dissolution is invisible, the one-in-four rate of poverty silent, addiction and desperation smothered by the glass. Bacon wrote convincingly of designing for people in place, but he often reverted to thinking of the city as I see it here, as a chessboard. “His favored solutions [to problems of poverty] and his understanding of the city itself,” writes Guian McKee, a University of Virginia historian, in Imagining Philadelphia, “relied on a model of physical determinism: the idea that manipulation and improvement of the built environment of homes, streets, commercial areas, and open spaces could strongly influence, or even control, social and economic outcomes. … The problem was not that Edmund Bacon cared only about design: it was that he believed far too deeply in its power.”

The power is evident in his network of Society Hill alleys. These are graceful, carefully proportioned spaces that caress, delight and surprise. Modern architecture is employed skillfully, certainly proudly, but the overall sense, one of the great pleasures of Philadelphia, is of being in infinite time, in an organic city. The opposite is of course true — and it speaks to the deep ambiguities of Bacon’s approach. His plan for Society Hill was hoisted upon a hot, cluttered, pulsing neighborhood, perhaps what had once been the most dynamic of the early republic. He ripped its heart out to make it beautiful, so that wealthy people would feel comfortable moving back to the city.

“[W]hat did Bacon ultimately want to motivate Philadelphians to do?” asks Christopher Klemek, a George Washington University historian and co-founder of Poor Richard’s tour service, in a 2007 assessment of Bacon in Context magazine. “Nothing short of reviving the heart of the old Quaker City, reinvigorating Philadelphia’s stagnating downtown. … Yet that goal was deceptively simple, for Bacon thereby asked his contemporaries to buck a powerful national trend, not to abandon a great American city, but instead to relinquish their suburban dreams.”

Heller notes that Bacon employed a well-to-do Society Hill woman, Connie Fraley, to market the neighborhood. He would bring prospective buyers from the Main Line to her apartment so they could imagine living there. But, says Heller, “She hated what happened to the neighborhood.”

For this reason, Klemek, author of the forthcoming Urbanism as Reform (University of Chicago Press), is broadly critical of Bacon as a designer, calling his major downtown projects very possibly “the least interesting sites in contemporary Philadelphia. In every direction from Center City,” he writes in 2007, “it is the areas just beyond Bacon’s reach, precisely the areas he didn’t touch, that exhibit the most viability and attractiveness today.”

But McKee and Knowles, particularly, caution us against assigning undue power (and therefore blame) to Ed Bacon. That, too, is one of the most striking ambiguities of Bacon’s legacy. Despite his reputation and despite the myth of the master planner, Bacon wasn’t ever very powerful. He wasn’t an ally of reform mayors Joseph Clark and Richardson Dilworth, and was often out-maneuvered by the city’s strong development coordinator, William Rafsky, Clark’s closest adviser. Later, he was confronted by a swell of neighborhood-based activism.

Planners, indeed, were often left powerless. As Arcadia University historian Peter Siskind, who is at work on a book called Landscapes of Liberalism (Penn Press), says, “Private housing developers and corporations usually dictated development. Even when government did play an important role, those creating public policy often dismissed or only selectively listened to the professional planners. A lot of fascinating plans were produced during the 1950s and 1960s that were ignored because they were out of step with the market realities and political priorities of the times.”

The Question of 1959
Which brings us back to the question of 1959 — or 2009, or 2059: Where are we now as visionaries? Today, the most striking vision comes from ambitious institutions of education and medicine, and from media and design innovators. Yet, in no small way, we rely on ourselves, a fragmented pulse of neighborhood dreamers, of do-it-yourselfers. Heller is one. As a managing director at The Enterprise Center, he’s building the Center for Culinary Enterprises, a food-industry incubator in an abandoned supermarket in West Philadelphia.

But, as Knowles goes on to ask, “Is it desirable or even possible to employ … far-reaching visions?”

“This is actually where Bacon’s legacy is strongest,” says McKee. “Wherever he had an opening, he set out a vision of a city that could be different and better (or so he claimed), and in the end he managed to get at least some of it built, and in fact some of it was better. Ideas do matter in getting people to at least consider a future that can transcend the limitations of the past. To be willing to think big and not be defeated going in. The constraints will continue to be real, and not all of it will work, but some of it might, and in fact probably will — because Philadelphia, for all its problems, has real strengths, too.”

Interestingly, Ed Bacon, the salesman, didn’t consider himself a visionary. “Visionaries don’t get to see their ideas built,” he said in 1988.

And, as Heller notes, “When I knew Bacon in his final years, he was thrilled by Philadelphia’s progress. Essentially, many of the concepts that he predicted in his ‘A Fair Can Pace It’ article are occurring, though decades delayed.”

Perhaps Bacon’s was the confident stance of 1959, when — despite the loss of notable factories like Philco and Rohm and Haas — this city manufactured the world’s most powerful computer, when its port handled the most in-bound cargo in the nation, when it remained an economic giant. All the smart planner had to do, it seemed, was seize the opportunity.

Then, as the 1960s took hold, gradual economic change became an unraveling. Racial tension and discontentment and broad democratic protest mounted. Bacon — and his fair — were essentially drowned out. Fifty years on, we inhabit the sediment of that prolonged storm. Gone is a powerful, concentrated private sector (and its tax revenue); gone is the possibility of a single, compelling government vision.

Harris Steinberg, director of PennPraxis, the University of Pennsylvania School of Design agency charged with synthesizing often discordant dreams into a “civic vision” for the Delaware Waterfront, concludes Imagining Philadelphia with his own prayer for the city, the reflective “Philadelphia in the Year 2059″: “The civic engagement process was often loud, raucous, and not always polite,” he writes. “Yet, through the haze of conflicting opinions and, at times, bellicose voices, we were able to arrive at common ground.”

Now, PennPraxis’ plan is the city’s official blueprint for the development of the waterfront. But the experience made Steinberg reticent to pronounce a single, unifying vision for the city. In an interview, he says, “I struggled with the whole idea of a 50-year vision, and thought of the city as I do my children and what I would hope for them. Therefore, it’s about a vital, functioning, welcoming, innovative, healthy city — and less about a physical vision. … It’s focused on the sum total of its parts rather than a big, sexy idea …. That’s why I end with [William] Penn’s Prayer for Philadelphia.If we’re not articulating the issues and working toward solving the problems, we risk irrelevance and extinction.”

Bacon, I think, would have admired Steinberg’s immense savvy, determination and idealism. Both men, of strikingly different temperament and fueled by opposite strategic impulses, have tried to hoist the city forward.

Yet, I also wonder if Bacon, the salesman, might push Steinberg to nail down a single, deeply resonant, perhaps even sexy idea — a torch to light the way forward. In “Philadelphia in the Year 2009,” Bacon writes, “I have tried to show … that a strong idea has a life of its own, and can become a dominant factor if it is clear enough, and if the leadership is stimulated to action.”

So, looking forward with Bacon eyes, what idea might we find?

The Sum of the City
Let’s return to Millennium Hall, Drexel’s new high-rise dormitory. The building isn’t at all perfect, particularly in the way it seems to loom over the soft, quiet streets of eastern Powelton Village. It feels a bit like a Martian waiting, just waiting, for the right moment to snatch the unsuspecting college professor from his study. But a building that can be a Martian and also, from another angle, a strapping woman, is not merely a building. It is a work of interpretive sculpture.

To set a useful contrast, just walk to the next corner. Towers Hall is a perfectly adequate, functional and not entirely unattractive 15-story dormitory. That’s all. It need not — it really can’t — do anything else. We might say Towers Hall represents the belief that a building, or a city, works best when assigned a clear function. Such a belief emerged from the same Modernist impulse that produced Ed Bacon.

Millennium Hall, of course, is also a dormitory. But already, it’s three other things, four if you count the extraordinary and delightful gift of the penthouse view. The architects, on their Web site, say that because its design integrates — privileges, even — the role of engineering, the building is also meant as a conceptual monument to “the fundamental pedagogy of Drexel’s historical roots.” Because it expands the range and possibility for structural rotation, it’s a learning model. By ably, and interestingly, contrasting with the 19th-century city around it, it exposes, rather than diminishes, what’s special about the neighborhood. As such, it peels itself away to reveal and frame the surrounding streetscape. Finally, and not surprisingly, it is green, designed to maximize solar gain in winter and to cool itself in summer. In sum: It lives, it performs.

It therefore commands our interest.

The city we inhabit today isn’t much like Millennium Hall. It works sometimes, and for certain people, quite wonderfully (and for others very poorly). That’s obviously no longer enough. No, the city of tomorrow, of 2019 or 2029 or 2059, will likewise be a city that performs. Here’s an idea that borrows from, but transcends, Edmund Bacon’s instinct to extract value from a world’s fair. Sure, the city that performs is functionally efficient, delightful, inspiring and beautiful. But in much larger part, it requires us to ask a fundamental question about the power of the city to transform the human condition (and the power of people to transform the city): Is the sum of Philadelphia greater than its parts?

We’ll know we’ve landed in the future, in the city that performs, when we can confidently respond, yes.