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Review> The Strategic Idealist
Gregory Heller's new book recalls Ed Bacon, the architect who helped shape modern Philadelphia.
Courtesy University of Pennsylvania Press

Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the Building of Philadelphia
By Gregory L. Heller, foreword by Alexander Garvin
University of Pennsylvania Press, $40

Just as Philadelphia is not New York in miniature, Edmund Bacon should not be mistaken for Robert Moses lite. For one, as Gregory Heller observes in Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the building of Modern Philadelphia, Bacon wanted pedestrians, not cars, to rule the city. He promoted walkable neighborhoods and challenged the suburban ideal. Two, Bacon was an architect, educated at Cornell and Cranbrook, who valued design and experimentation. And three, Bacon—who served as head of the Philadelphia planning commission from 1949–70, a role that included neither the authority nor the funds to demolish and build—advocated comparative restraint in the use of the bulldozer. He was seen as radical early in his career for attempting to limit the displacement of residents, encourage community participation, and selectively preserve historic urban fabric.

Bacon’s ardent, sometimes quixotic quest for a better city bore mixed results, as Heller shows. Ed Bacon argues not for this planner’s heroism, but for his continuing relevance as a strategic idealist. The author—a young planner who previously took a year off college to help the late Bacon complete his memoirs—positions his subject as a pragmatic dreamer who “successfully play[ed] the challenging dual-role of planner-implementer.” Bacon’s particular genius was apparently his ability to pitch grand ideas and then make necessary compromises, straddling the worlds of design, policy, and business with a rare versatility. The planner’s legacy comes into focus through a wealth of historical sources, many culled from the Architectural Archives at University of Pennsylvania.

Gathered into one chapter is the wrenching saga of Penn Center, the urban coup that almost was. By sheer force of persuasion and savvy public relations in 1951–52, Bacon and his collaborators reframed the private redevelopment of a gigantic railroad viaduct in the heart of the city as an opportunity to create a mixed-use civic center bursting with public space. Bacon got the railroad and the public to buy in to something like a three-block-long version of Rockefeller Center with open-air pedestrian concourses and subway stations opening onto gardens. But he lacked the authority to ensure that narrow-minded developers actually built anything more than banal, poorly sited towers with meager plazas and a dingy shopping tunnel. Heller tries and fails to find a silver lining in this lopsided “public-private partnership.”

The story of the restoration and revitalization of Society Hill, a colonial-era neighborhood of handsome brick houses, is much more uplifting. At least if you don’t dwell on the fact that most of the former residents (mostly immigrant and African-American) were soon priced out of their beautified surroundings. Bacon worked at a remarkably fine grain, stretching the definition of urban renewal in the 1950s to allow lot-by-lot evaluation and conservation. A system of landscaped pedestrian spaces snaked between blocks, and new buildings by I.M. Pei decidedly complemented the old architecture and the planned greenway system. Bacon was similarly ahead of his time in steering new housing developments in the Far Northeast section to respect the topography of streambeds.

A compelling chapter called “The Planner Versus the Automobile” tracks Bacon’s ambivalence toward the highway paradigm of his time. Constantly promoting urban alternatives to car culture, he fomented the partial closing of Chestnut Street, a major commercial corridor, to private cars, perhaps taking a cue from a 1955 Louis Kahn proposal. (The complex Bacon-Kahn relationship surfaces several times in the book, leaving me curious for more details.) Bacon held little sway with state and federal highway planners, yet he was frequently dispatched to stormy community meetings to be their public face. In the 1960s, he began to criticize highways and suburbia in interviews—but only outside his official capacity. And by the 1970s, the retired Bacon was openly promoting “The Post Petroleum City,” with streets given over to pedestrians, bicycles, and trolleys, surrounded by farms and forests.

Although Ed Bacon is quite readable and mercifully free of jargon, the writing sometimes becomes repetitive and vague. Value-laden terms like “humanistic” and “progressive” are thrown around without clarification. You encounter mystifying phrases such as, “the changing landscape of urban trends.” Still, this book does what it sets out to do, indicating that things have changed since Bacon lamented in 1986 that planning had shriveled into “a kind of service role.” Heller’s study reflects and contributes to a revival of interest in large-scale urbanism. There are increasingly confident calls for a planning renaissance, as by Thomas J. Campanella, who believes that planning must become “the charter discipline and conscience of the placemaking professions in coming decades.” The stage was set for the present work in a 2009 collection of essays on Bacon, Imagining Philadelphia, also published by the Penn Press. Even more felicitous for the timing of Heller’s book, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission released a document in 2011 called Philadelphia 2035—its first comprehensive plan since the Bacon era.

Gideon Fink Shapiro

Gideon Fink Shapiro is a New York–based architectural historian and a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design.