Friday, October 30, 2009

Imagining Philadelphia



By Greg

As I mentioned in my previous post, there is a new book out called "Imagining Philadelphia: Edmund Bacon and the Future of the City," in which I have a chapter. The premise of the book is this: Ed Bacon, Philadelphia's famous former city planner wrote an article in 1959 called "Philadelphia in the Year 2009," imagining his hometown 50 years hence. Bacon has been referred to as a visionary countless times, still there are few writings where he predicted the conditions of a future date in this way.

Now that it is in fact 2009, the book looks at how effectively Bacon's vision matches the reality. The original article is the first chapter of the book. The rest of the chapters use the article as a jumping off point to look at Philadelphia's historical development, where we have come since 1959, and where we may take Philadelphia over the next 50 years. The book is edited by Drexel University professor Scott Knowles, who also has a chapter in the volume. Other chapters are by Guian McKee (University of Virginia), Eugenie Birch (University of Pennsylvania); Harris Steinberg (Director of Penn Praxis), and me.

Even if my writing were not included in the book, I am sure I would feel this was a pretty cool project. I hope you will order a copy and give it a read. As a teaser, here is the text from my talk the other night at the book launch event during the Design on the Delaware Conference.


Remarks at Design on the Delaware – October 28, 2009
By Greg Heller

I want to thank Scott for putting this book together, and thank you all for the opportunity to be here this evening.

To chart Philadelphia’s future we need a firm grasp on how we got here. Considering the significance of Philadelphia’s post-World-War II era of planning and development, there is shockingly little written about it. Thanks to Scott’s leadership, we are beginning to change that. This book is not a definitive work. It is the tip of a massive iceberg that many Philadelphians did not even know existed.

Ed Bacon’s 1959 article, “Philadelphia in the Year 2009” – the basis of this book – is a snapshot in time. My chapter puts the article in context, telling the story of Bacon’s life experiences leading to the writing of the article and giving a brief description of the 46 years of his life that followed. The chapter contains a synopsis of a long and fascinating life story that I tell in greater depth in a forthcoming biography that I have authored.

Bacon’s early life is characterized by his Quaker family, conflict with his overbearing father, and a childhood split between city and country life. He went to college at Cornell, then embarked on world travels ending up in Shanghai. Returning to Philadelphia, Bacon worked briefly for a local architect before being accepted at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, under the tutelage of the Finnish architect-planner Eliel Saarinen. Bacon’s stay at Cranbrook was brief, however; Saarinen sent Bacon on assignment to the industrial city of Flint, where Bacon worked for several years.

Bacon was highly influenced by some new friends: Oskar Stonorov, Lewis Mumford, and Catherine Bauer – who were important figures in shaping the future federal priority on subsidized housing. Bacon began to believe that neighborhood design and housing could impact social conditions.

In Flint Bacon delved into local politics, mobilized grassroots organizations to lobby for better housing conditions, and was instrumental in gaining a federal earmark for housing funds. It was in Flint that he met and married his wife, Ruth. However, the powerful establishment thought little of the tenacious Bacon and his quasi-socialist ideas. In 1939 Bacon found his position eliminated, and no hope for a future in Flint.

Bacon returned to Philadelphia where he got a job as director of a nonprofit housing advocacy organization. He also became involved with a new young people’s group called the City Policy Committee. Through a long process that established the Committee’s legitimacy, the group successfully influenced City Council to create a modern city planning commission in 1942.

With World War II raging, Bacon quit his job and joined the Navy, where he was part of the Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Upon returning home, Oskar Stonorov convinced Bacon to work with him on designing a massive city planning show – the 1947 Better Philadelphia Exhibition.

To work on the exhibition, Bacon was brought onto the City Planning Commission’s payroll, where he remained after the show was over. After one director left and another died in office, Bacon was invited to become planning director in 1949. He accepted. In 1951, largely thanks to the work of the City Policy Committee’s members, Philadelphia gained a new charter and Joseph Clark was elected Mayor, marking the beginning of the reform era in Philadelphia government.

Bacon’s focus early in his tenure as planning director was on building communities with sound planning and better housing to improve the neediest areas of the city. The 1949 federal housing act presented cities with massive resources for urban renewal. However, Bacon rejected the popular notion of wholesale bulldozing of slums – arguing for a more sensitive approach that valued neighborhood preservation. Working with designers like Stonorov and Louis Kahn, Bacon tried to apply a philosophy of urban renewal that Architectural Forum characterized as “Clearing Slums with Penicillin, Not Surgery.”

Through the 1950s, Philadelphia proved successful in attaining substantial funding and attention, attracting the eyes of the nation to projects such as Society Hill, Eastwick, and Penn Center. However, research reveals that Bacon’s role in these projects was surprisingly limited. Bacon is often compared to development czars in other cities, like Robert Moses in New York, and Ed Logue in Boston. However, except for a brief period in the late 1960s when Bacon served in a dual capacity, he was not a development czar; he was the planning director.

Philadelphia had a development coordinator in the 1950s named Bill Rafsky, a man known for his skill in lobbying for federal funds, and his close relationship with the mayors. Rafsky steered the city’s redevelopment program in ways that Bacon disagreed with, but had little ability to change. Why then when Philadelphia gained international acclaim, was it Bacon who became the face of an era? This is a principle question that I seek to answer in my chapter.

When we study Bacon’s actual role we see that functionally Bacon was a department head with limited power and access to funds. However, through his own initiative he was continually putting himself in the spotlight to sell the media on Philadelphia’s progress. He sought out businessmen and high-level government officials, to convince them of certain ideas that he wanted to see realized.

I argue that Bacon’s success was rooted not primarily in his skill as a physical designer, but in his abilities as a salesman of ideas. He learned to market planning ideas effectively to powerful decision-makers, gain buy-in, and make the ideas resonate in the public consciousness. This was a tremendously powerful skill that other planners and designers of the era lacked or never knew was necessary. I state in my chapter:

Renowned Philadelphia-based architect Louis Kahn said, “If your ideas are right, they—the businessmen and the politicians—will come to you.” Bacon, in contrast, believed that an effective planner had to sell his ideas actively in a persuasive way. Kahn called Bacon “A planner who thinks he is a politician.” Kahn was largely right. Bacon spent his career taking new or existing ideas, filling them out into compelling concepts, and marketing them to key decision makers.

Bacon’s ability to work with governmental and private-sector players can be traced back to his days in Flint, where he carried out forays into politics that turned out disastrously. However, he learned from his mistakes, and after his experience with the City Policy Committee, Bacon was thoroughly familiar with how to work with powerful decision makers. The Better Philadelphia Exhibition taught Bacon how a strong visual image, marketed the right way can change people’s perceptions and expectations.
The evolution of Bacon’s skill as a salesman of ideas is a major thread of my chapter.

Penn Center – one of the projects for which Bacon is most famous – presents a strong example of Bacon’s salesmanship strategy. By the early 1950s Philadelphia west of City Hall was divided by the “Chinese Wall,” the Pennsylvania Railroad’s massive viaduct. Ideas for removing the wall and building a new civic space went back decades.

It is important to recognize that the City did not have jurisdiction over this land. It was the private property of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Bacon saw that in order for the Railroad to develop a major civic project – rather than selling off the land piecemeal – someone would have to convince the conservative executives that it was in their best interest to do so. While it was not in Bacon’s job description, he took on this task.

Initially Bacon worked with a committee of the American Institute of Architects chaired by Louis Kahn to conceive a vision to present to the Railroad. However, Kahn left for Rome, and Bacon decided to abandon the committee and find a new partner. He selected a young architect named Vincent Kling, who was experienced in working with corporate clients, was friendly with several members of the Railroad’s board of directors, and had already been hired for separate work with the Railroad. These factors were no accident. Bacon chose a partner who could help him reach the right people and sell his concept.

With Kling’s help, Bacon engaged in negotiation with the Railroad and its real-estate broker, and in 1952 when the Railroad announced that the Chinese Wall was coming down, Bacon followed with a presentation of what should replace it. However, while Kling and Bacon gained a certain amount of leverage through the power of persuasion, their efforts only went so far. As it turned out, the Railroad hired a New York developer and New York architect who created a design that was criticized universally in Philadelphia, including by Bacon. It was a major cohesive project, but few of Bacon’s design ideas made it to the final product.

Penn Center is but one example of how Bacon’s major role was selling ideas, and attempting to reach powerful decision makers. He took a similar tact throughout his career, marketing concepts to the business community that controlled the interests in what became Market East and Society Hill. Bacon ended up becoming associated with these projects, but other players, whose names we rarely hear, were arguably much more instrumental in actually carrying them forward.

I argue in my chapter:

Bacon’s strength, and the key to understanding his successful initiatives, was his ability to comprehend the power structure and work through the right channels to advance his concepts. Bacon promoted his ideas to decision makers and then (if he was successful) stepped away as others carried out his visions. Through this tenuous process, it is apparent how easily development projects evolved differently than Bacon planned.

In the late 1950s, Bacon assembled a Center City Plan for Philadelphia. Using vibrant images and diagrams, the plan connected disparate projects and visually showed them interlocking, forming one complete vision for Center City. This too was Bacon’s salesmanship at work. Society Hill’s Greenways ran into Independence Mall, which flowed seamlessly into a vision for the Market East shopping center, traipsing all the way to Penn Center. Center City was not a collection of projects; rather a single, cohesive vision.

This complete image of Center City was one that Bacon started to sell to the media, to audiences when he gave speeches, and in his own writings, including the “2009” article. Eventually Bacon landed on the idea of a major celebration of America’s 200th birthday as the greatest venue of all for selling Philadelphia on a massive scale. The 2009 article is the first significant instance of Bacon publicly articulating this total concept. Through the 1960s Bacon would hone his pitch and sell it through presentations, articles, and a film to venues across the globe.

In 1964 Bacon was highlighted as the key player of Philadelphia’s renaissance, with his face on the cover of Time magazine. While Philadelphia’s revitalization had a long ways to go, with still unproven results, Bacon had succeeded in selling Philadelphia to the nation, and selling himself as its lead figure. As his recognition grew, so did his local influence.

Ironically, Bacon largely failed at selling himself. Case studies of his work, his writings and speeches show a man obsessed with developing a successful methodology for empowering communities and helping citizens plan for themselves. Yet, Bacon is often recalled as a dictatorial, top-down planner. Perhaps due in-part to Bacon’s high profile and his forceful and argumentative demeanor, he was not able to effectively practice what he preached.

Another goal of my chapter is to tell parts of Bacon’s story that have not been well told. For example, as expressed in the 2009 article, Bacon’s focus on housing and community development never waned. Throughout the late 1950s and 1960s he wrote and spoke prolifically about the need to build mixed-income, mixed-race communities. He despised high-rise public housing projects, and in the 1960s spearheaded a concept for America’s first scattered site public housing program.

Yet another side of Bacon that is not well known was his crusade to rid the world of automobiles, and his vision for a Post Petroleum City. Bacon started but never finished a book on this topic – imagining a world where people travel only by foot, bike, or transit. In 1966 he explained, “there is a ‘revulsion’ against the automobile and the destruction it does to cities and the countryside. The car is losing its luster as something worth sacrificing for.” Later he attempted unsuccessfully to organize an international conference on the post-petroleum city.

Bacon certainly had his faults, and they were substantial. He was intensely focused on physical design, and paid little attention to policy areas like education and workforce development. He could be unapologetically stubborn in his approach. Bacon did not foresee the extent of American urban decline that would occur in the 1970s and 1980s, and failed to prepare for this period.

Still, in the 2009 article, Bacon imagines a future Philadelphia that invests in a world-class downtown, has thriving neighborhoods, and slowly attracts back the middle class. Today, while cities like Detroit seem headed for the grave, Philadelphia appears on track for the kind of rebirth that Bacon envisioned in 1959. Clearly modern individuals and institutions play an important role, but it is hard not to wonder whether the 1950s and 1960s era actually laid a stronger framework for eventual success than we often give it credit.

Bacon’s role in Philadelphia was hugely significant. However, he was not a power broker, enabled to build physical projects at his whim. In many of the projects of the 1950s and 1960s Bacon was a much more minor player than we have come to believe. To appreciate Bacon’s contributions, he should be recognized as a planner who masterfully understood the dynamics of how society makes decisions – the art of getting things done. I will end this talk the way I end my chapter:

Edmund Bacon’s fame and his lasting influence largely stem from his ability to forge the link between planning and implementation, creating a new role for the city planner as both an active civic participant and salesman of ideas. This was just as rare a feature for planners in 1959 as it is today. The challenge for planners in 2009 is to understand and excel at this subtle art of selling ideas, inspiring decision makers to adopt ideas and transform them into a vivid reality.

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