What Edmund Bacon saw and failed to see

Dec. 2

By Elise Vider

For PlanPhilly

In 1959, with the postwar economy booming and Philadelphia growing, Edmund N. Bacon composed “Philadelphia in the Year 2009.” Imbued with the optimism of the time, Bacon’s essay predicted great things for the planning chief’s native city.

“By the year 2009,” he wrote, “no part of Philadelphia is ugly or depressed.” Instead, there would be “a continuous band of good housing” and suburban flight reversed; the riverfronts would be alive and quality parks and open space would abound. Chestnut Street would be “one of the great shopping streets of the world” with air-conditioned, moving sidewalks downtown. In 2009, Bacon wrote, well-kept factories in industrial parks provide jobs and healthy work environments, the universities and public schools thrive and, in City Hall courtyard, Kabuki dancers frolic. 

Prescient in many ways, and wide of the mark in others, Bacon’s essay, recently re-discovered by Drexel history professor Scott Gabriel Knowles, is the basis for “Imagining Philadelphia: Edmund Bacon and the Future of the City” (University of Pennsylvania Press), one of the first clear-eyed assessments of Bacon’s long and influential career. The essay itself, in which Bacon argues for a World’s Fair in 1976 as a means to the ideal city of 2009, appears for the first time in 50 years, along with companion pieces setting the context for Bacon’s 1959 musings, critiquing his legacy and looking ahead to the next 50 years.

In the essay, and arguably in his career, Bacon’s biggest failure was to anticipate Philadelphia’s long period of decline. De-industrialization was beginning, the city’s population had already peaked and the social, cultural and political turmoil of the 1960s was imminent. Yet as late as 1955, Bacon’s plan for the Far Northeast was overwhelmingly residential, “making no provision for employment needs, either in that section or in Philadelphia as a whole,” writes Guian McKee of the University of Virginia.

In his contribution, McKee is sharply critical of Bacon’s lack of foresight, especially since by 1955, the city’s commerce director was sounding counter-warnings of Philadelphia’s industrial collapse. “Bacon and his planners anticipated that the city would retain at least a stable level of population and employment over the next quarter-century. For them, the key to successful planning lay in a reduction of housing density and an overall emphasis on design excellence … In contrast, Walter Phillips and his staff of economists and industrial development experts saw a bleaker future in which obsolete, crowded factories would interact with a changing economy and a racially segregated population to create an environment inhospitable for economic survival, much less growth.”

Bacon also failed to understand how racial strife and social upheaval would alter the city, especially vivid in the planning for the Bicentennial and the ultimately-abandoned 1976 World’s Fair, “so toxic that it hurt the city,” says Knowles, whose essay focuses on “The Debacle of 1976.” (Knowles is also editor of the book.)

“Could [Bacon] have predicted that Philadelphia was going to continue its long, bitter period of economic decline, accelerating population dispersal to the suburbs, and that by 1976 the city might not be up to the challenge of hosting the world? That by 1976 the flow of dollars for ‘big idea’ projects might dry up and leave a portfolio of unrealized dreams to remind everyone of opportunities lost? That a new generation of young planners might find the visions and the methods of his generation confining? These possibilities were not outside the scope of understanding for an urbanist as sophisticated, curious, and talented as Bacon,” writes Knowles.

Yet Bacon also expressed some forward thinking in the 1959 treatise. Besides presenting a litany of projects that he had on the drawing boards (the Gallery at Market East, the commuter tunnel and the ultimately-failed Chestnut Street Transitway) , the essay looks ahead to a park along the Schuylkill River, cultural tourism, enhanced regionalism, “the staying power of the brick row house” and preservation of “old and loved landmarks.” (Bacon’s record on preservation is mixed; despite the triumph of Society Hill, there is also a suggestion that the Mantua neighborhood undergo “clearance for rebuilding.” “Perhaps no single phrase in ‘Philadelphia in the Year 2009’ would seem so reasonable when it was written and look so troublesome in retrospect,” writes Knowles.)

Equally significant to physical planning in assessing Bacon is the process by which he operated. One of the goals of the seminal 1947 “Better Philadelphia Exhibition” was to engage the public in planning, and throughout his career Bacon wrote of the need for citizen input. Yet his career coincided with decades of top-down planning for large-scale urban renewal funded by a gusher of federal dollars and his methods struck many as autocratic.

“He was an open-minded guy at a time of top-down planning,” says Knowles. “He was open to community input, certainly more than Edward Logue [in Boston] and Robert Moses [in New York] were.”

The parallels, especially to Moses, run deep in Bacon’s career, but the contributors argue that it is a poor comparison. McKee writes that “Bacon lacked the concentrated authority over planning and renewal that these men held in their respective cities.”

A more apt comparison might be Frank Lloyd Wright, or even, as Knowles suggests, Benjamin Franklin. Both, like Bacon, were charismatic and forceful in their personalities and, like Bacon, enjoyed sufficiently long lives that they could somewhat mold their legacies. Bacon, who died at 95 in 2005, “lived long enough and was actively intellectually engaged enough that he could shape what people thought of him,” Knowles observes. “He did not go quietly into that long planning night.”

From the vantage point of 2009, when hopes are high for a return to intelligent city planning, assessment of Bacon’s legacy is mixed. In his contribution, Harris Steinberg of PennPraxis asserts that Bacon’s “planning legacy is a checkered one in which sweeping, grand physical plans often trumped subtlety, nuance, social values and human scale.” McKee concludes that “what Edmund Bacon never fully grasped was that in the complexity of urban reality, design itself could be an instrument of destruction as well as salvation.”

But other contributors point to Bacon’s primary influence as a purveyor of big ideas. Gregory L. Heller, who is working on a Bacon biography, writes that Bacon’s lasting influence stems largely from his ability to sell big ideas to the media, the public, and ultimately, to decision makers. To Knowles, “He was ultimately the Philadelphia planning provocateur … And even his adversaries never questioned that he was committed to cities.”

Elise Vider is a freelance journalist who has an extensive background in city planning and historic preservation.

Contact the writer at elisevider@yahoo.com

Previous related PlanPhilly stories about Ed Bacon:

Re-urbanization of Market East a winner

Ed Bacon’s call for a post-oil economy

Bacon’s Better Philadelphia, circa 1947


The Ed Bacon Foundation: http://www.edbacon.org


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