Wednesday, December 3, 2008

“We cannot rest until ...

(Note: You have to read to the end of this post to discover what the title means)

We had a very successful awards ceremony last night to announce the winners of the 3rd annual Ed Bacon student design competition. Congratulations to all of the winners from Penn, Cornell, and Temple. I hope to have photos up on edbacon.org soon.

In the meantime, I thought some of my readers might be interested in my remarks from last night, talking about the connection between this competition, Ed Bacon, and the history of Ludlow's urban renewal planning in the 1950s and 60s. Enjoy!

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Good evening and welcome to the third annual Ed Bacon Awards Ceremony. I’m Greg Heller, and I have had the honor to serve for four years now as President of the Ed Bacon Foundation.

We are gathered here tonight, for the third year in a row, to reward the hard work and bright ideas of the next generation. We are here tonight to celebrate the future.

When I stand up here each year, as a Philadelphian, I feel very humbled. One hundred thirteen students, from across the U.S. have spent their time focusing their energy on the future of our city.

It is really remarkable when you think about.

For three years in a row, this program has provided an urban design competition for students across North America, confronted those students with Philadelphia’s challenges and opportunities, exposed Philadelphians to new and exciting ideas for our own city, and brought us all together for one night each year, to celebrate the concept and reality of envisioning the future.

This program has only been possible with your support. And so, some thanks are in order.

[SKIPPPING AHEAD] ...

At this point, I would like to take a moment to talk about the significance of this year’s competition. In choosing Ludlow as the focus of REBUILD | REVIVE, our board of directors selected a site that was much more complex than in past years.

We challenged students this year to deal with the deep-rooted obstacles and opportunities of a living, breathing neighborhood. Ludlow is a distinct community, but it is also a place that exhibits problems similar to those in other parts of Philadelphia, and urban areas across the U.S.

As in past years, the site of this year’s competition has a strong connection with the Foundation’s namesake, Edmund Bacon – Philadelphia’s former planning director.

Ludlow was part of one of Philadelphia’s earliest urban redevelopment areas in the late 1940s. Two decades later, it was the target of some very creative, but ultimately less-than successful renewal approaches. John Gallery, who was working at the Planning Commission at the time, will tell you more about that a bit later.

The point I want to touch on is that Ludlow was an important focus of a lesser-known side of Ed Bacon’s work in Philadelphia.

Today Bacon is largely remembered for major downtown projects that he had a hand in. However, those who worked with him know that much of his career was dedicated to the problems of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, and especially the issue of low-cost housing. In fact, prior to his long tenure as planning director, Bacon headed the Philadelphia Housing Association, and before that, led a housing council in Flint Michigan.

Throughout his career Bacon attempted to discover the best approaches to the problems of housing and community renewal in disadvantaged areas. The success of that era’s programs is certainly debatable. However, it is clear that throughout Bacon’s career, he attempted to push Philadelphia’s redevelopment program away from the bulldozer approach, focusing instead on the rebuilding of older areas.

At a talk in Cleveland in 1949, Bacon said, “The very nature of urban blight itself is complex, elusive, difficult to define. The mere spending of money, clearance of areas or building of projects doesn’t necessarily constitute a valid attack on urban blight. … [W]e should involve the people of the neighborhood in the planning process itself. … Rehabilitation should be used wherever appropriate, closely tied in with clearance and new building.”

Just as he opposed wholesale bulldozing of buildings in many of these redevelopment areas, Bacon also opposed the clearance of people.

In 1965, at the National Planning Conference, Bacon said, “We propose to avoid the approach to urban renewal which is actually just the removal from the neighborhood of one group of people and the substitution of another. We propose to face squarely the real problems of the very worst areas and to carry our action programs to meet them.”

Then, the next year at Shippensburg State College, Bacon said,

“The time has come for a new concern for the underprivileged, for a fresh approach to the problems which surround them.”

Specifically talking about Ludlow in 1966, Bacon acknowledged that “Conditions here are pretty terrible and there is a large number of vacant and open houses,” but he believed it was possible to develop an affordable housing solution that would “give new hope to the neighborhood… without any dislocation … [and] would set a high standard of maintenance in each block of the community.”

The results of Philadelphia’s urban renewal program of the 1950s and 1960s are mixed. In some parts of the city, redevelopment succeeded, and we have long forgotten that some communities were once-desperate. In other cases, despite innovative approaches, some of our neighborhoods face the very same issues today that they faced forty years ago.

Today, Ludlow has received a new jolt of energy, thanks to the work of organizations like APM. However, there are still enormous challenges that need to be overcome. Philadelphia today needs fresh thinking and innovative ideas, compassionate and comprehensive strategies for harnessing Ludlow’s potential, and empowering its residents.

Here we see the connection between past, present and future. The work of the students in this room is the next iteration of a decades-long process. These students represent the promise of a new generation of urban thinkers, planners, designers, and leaders.

Tonight, by supporting the work of the next generation, we are paving the way for a new focus on the problems of our own time. I will leave you with one more quote that I think captures the essence of why we are here this evening:

“We cannot rest until every block of our cities is pleasant, healthful, beautiful and inspiring.”*

Thank you all for being here tonight to share in this celebration of ideas.

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* Edmund Bacon, Quoted in "Students Urged to Focus on City Frontier," The Evening Bulletin, 10/23/1967.

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