On The Book Of Bacon: A Q&A With Greg Heller

 

Greg Heller, author of Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia

Greg Heller, author of Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia

Editor’s Note: Greg Heller’s book, Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia—the first biography of the famous city planner—has been published by Penn Press. Nathaniel Popkin reviewed it for Hidden City earlier this month. The official book launch is this Thursday, May 16, marked by a talk and signing at the Center For Architecture from 6–7:30PM. The event is free, but registration is required. Click HERE to do so.

Gregory Heller is not a scholar or an author in the traditional sense; he is a planner and analyst interested in making our cities work better, especially this one. That interest led Heller, employed as a senior adviser at Econsult Solutions, to revisit the life of the man most closely identified with the reshaping of post-World War II Philadelphia: Edmund Bacon. Bacon, the only city planner ever to grace the cover of Time magazine, in his final years became a personal friend of Heller’s.

Heller’s new book, Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia, explains why Bacon earned that honor in great detail. As Heller explained in a conversation after a book talk in Mayfair, Bacon was unusual among city-shapers of the 1950s and 1960s in that he was a planner, not a builder like Robert Moses in New York or Ed Logue in Boston and New Haven. He did not control the purse strings for the projects he advocated, nor did he acquire a single plot of land. The tools he used to remake his city were big ideas, persistence, more than a little showmanship—and a keen understanding of the politics of redevelopment, a quality that set him apart from his peers in planning.

In our conversation, Heller explained how he came to know Bacon and serve as his memoirist, why he wrote the book, and the portrait he chose to paint of Bacon. He also offered some speculation on what Bacon might think of today’s Philadelphia were he still alive.

Sandy Smith: What got you interested in Edmund Bacon’s life?
Greg Heller: After my junior year in college, I got an internship at the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. I was also researching my thesis, which had to do with comparative planning in Berlin and Philadelphia. Everyone at the City Planning Commission told me I had to get in touch with Ed Bacon before he died. I gave him a call, and he invited me to his house [at 21st and Locust].

We conversed for a good while at that meeting, and at the end of it, he asked me if I would take a year off from college and come help him write his memoir. So I took a year off, and every day, I came out to his house and worked on his memoir. It wasn’t really a memoir – it was really a sequel to Design of Cities, his 1967 book on urban design, with some more ideas he wanted to elaborate.

After that, I went back to college and wrote my thesis on Bacon’s planning for the Far Northeast. After he died, a publisher approached me about writing a book on Bacon. [A different publisher, the University of Pennsylvania Press, picked up the project.]

Never one to back down from a strong opinion, then-92-year-old Ed Bacon rode a skateboard to protest Mayor John Street's ban on the practice which made LOVE Park so popular with skaters. On Bacon’s left is Howard Altman, former Editor of City Paper | Image: Edmund N. Bacon Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania

Never one to back down from a strong opinion, then-92-year-old Ed Bacon rode a skateboard to protest Mayor John Street’s ban on the practice which made LOVE Park so popular with skaters. On Bacon’s left is Howard Altman, former Editor of City Paper | Image: Edmund N. Bacon Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania

SS: What was it like working with him up close and personal?
GH: One of the big things that surprised me about him was how much he respected my opinion. And not just me—he respected the opinions of others who came out to the house to talk with him. That surprised me because everyone said he was an egomaniac and listened to no one else. What I learned was that he was actually a good listener and would change his mind if you could persuade him your views were correct. The fact that there were 71 years between us and yet I was able to convince him of things was very meaningful to me at the time.

He hated it when people would not stick up for their point of view. The people who argued with him, Bacon loved, and he would talk with them for hours. The people who gave in to him, he kicked out of the house.

SS: What would you say is the reason Bacon was so influential as a planner?
GH: One of the main themes of my book is that in most cities, the head of the urban renewal program was connected to the funding and the implementation of the policy. It was the redevelopment czar, like Moses or Logue. In Philadelphia, it was the city planning director. Philadelphia had a redevelopment czar; do you know his name?

SS: No.
GH: His name was Bill Rafsky, and he was very good. He was the reason Philadelphia got the second most redevelopment money of any city, after New York. But he has fallen into obscurity, while it’s Bacon who is remembered here. One of the questions I ask in my book is, “why is this?”

SS: And what do you think is the answer?
GH: Ed Bacon went around talking about urban design. He wrote about space, and about moving through space. He wrote about the design of Rome under Sixtus, and about moving through Paris. Whenever he talked, he talked about design. I think it’s an image of himself he sold that was different from what he was really doing. He wanted to be seen as doing design, but what he was really doing was talking to the businesspeople and the politicians, learning how to manage the projects he advocated through the subtle process of policy implementation. What the redevelopment czars had was an understanding of this process. This was something the planners did not have. So here was this guy responsible for envisioning the city on a large scale, but here was this guy who also knew the process of policy implementation.

What I argue in this book is that city planners who understand and see as their role project and policy implementation can be a positive and powerful force, and I think it is a skill that is as rare today as it was in the ’60s. If you want to be an effective planner, you need to have what it takes to put the plans on paper and promote them to various constituencies and build consensus among stakeholders, but you also need to have the ability to bring the political players on board, and I don’t think planners have that understanding. They see the plan as the end of a process, when the plan is actually the beginning of a much longer process.

SS: Which raises some interesting points about the new city zoning code, which City Council is already reshaping to suit its interests. If the Planning Commission had people with political understanding on it, do you think we’d see a different outcome?
GH: Political actors do what they think is in the city’s best interest and in their best interest. If the people who developed the zoning code want to see it survive in the form they created it, they have to get into the politics and understand how to influence the political actors who shape the policy.

To put this in the context of Ed Bacon, he didn’t say, “Well, I put this plan on the shelf, and someone came along and did something with it.” He saw himself as a player in the policy implementation process. With each of his projects, he ultimately lost the ability to influence them in any meaningful way, but up to that point, he was able to to influence how his ideas were implemented.

SS: Which of Bacon’s projects do you think came closest to his original vision and which were furthest away from it?
GH: Society Hill was closest. Furthest was the Far Northeast. Now that I’m thinking about it, it may have actually been one of the redevelopment areas like West Poplar.

Another point about these projects is that almost all were public-private partnerships. For instance, you had something like Penn Center, which was all private real estate. It was owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad, and the city had no jurisdiction to be planning for it. What the railroad wanted to do was sell it off piecemeal because that part of Market Street had no value at the time and the railroad thought it would get what it could for its low-value property. Bacon felt that it should be a new civic center and the core of a new business district west of City Hall. I tell the whole story of how this played out in my chapter [on Penn Center], but at the end of the day, the railroad hired its own developer out of New York and its own architect out of New York to design its own buildings.

Everyone thought they were ugly. Ed Bacon thought they were ugly. Louis Kahn thought they were ugly. Joe Clark [mayor of Philadelphia at the time] thought they were ugly. But it was private property. So assessing Ed Bacon’s legacy on the architecture of Penn Center completely misses the point on what his role in the process was, because what happened was that Penn Center did get built as a unified project, and it did become the seed that gave birth to Philadelphia’s high-rise central business district west of City Hall. Bacon’s vision was to have this as the core of a new business district, and at getting it realized he was very successful.

Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia, by Gregory L. Heller, available now from Penn Press

Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia, by Gregory L. Heller, available now from Penn Press

Now, I don’t want you to think that this book is all complimentary of Bacon. Others who have written about him wrote only what he told them. I said to myself as I started this project that I would only write what he told me if I could back it up with actual facts elsewhere. Bacon told a story about himself that was not entirely true. He was a great salesman and marketer, and the legend he created rests partly on his own salesmanship.

One of the things I talk about in the book is his hypocrisy on several projects. The most obvious one is the Crosstown Expressway [a depressed freeway that would have run in the block between Lombard and South streets, forming the southern leg of a downtown freeway loop]. So in the late ’60s, Ed Bacon was going to community meetings arguing in support of the expressway, and at the same time he was giving private interviews in which he was saying that the car had lost its luster as something worth fighting for and that it was destroying our cities and suburbs. And when Mayor [James H.J.] Tate stopped supporting the Crosstown Expressway, so did Bacon.

Why did he believe so strongly that automobiles were bad for the world, yet he was able to go to these meetings and advocate for an expressway he didn’t believe in? I have a few theories. One was that he was very loyal to the mayors he served under, and maybe that was the reason he was able to serve under four mayors, including one Republican [Bernard Samuel, who first appointed him to the Planning Commission in the late 1940s]. But I have another theory also, which is that Bacon had this visionary idea, which was that Philadelphia could get to this place where it was competing with international cities like Paris, London and Rome, and that he saw Philadelphia’s worth in the 1960s as on this continuum leading to a time when it would be this world-class city. And if there were bumps in the road or projects that stalled out, it would impede its progress to that point he saw in the future. So I think that Bacon was willing to compromise [his views] too easily at times because he looked beyond the controversies of the present toward that future where Philadelphia would be.

SS: How about today’s Philadelphia? Is it that city Bacon envisioned?
GH: It’s a lot closer than the city that emerged in the ’70s and ’80s. In the late ’60s, Philadelphia, like many cities, saw race riots and disinvestment, and the ’70s and ’80s were a time of urban decline across America. So I think that the trends of today, where the population is rising and we’re attracting residents from New York, and there are all kinds of development projects happening around the city, there’s all kinds of reinvestment, this is more like the environment Bacon envisioned.

SS: What do you think he would recommend people do differently today if he were still alive?
GH: Probably the same thing as when he was alive, which was recommending that people not be afraid to have visionary ideas, not be afraid to stick to them and promote them, and not be afraid to make those ideas real.

* * *

For more on Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia, visit its official Penn Press page HERE.

For more on Gregory Heller, visit his web site HERE.

About the author

Sandy Smith has been engaging in journalism and its hired-gun cousin, public relations, in Philadelphia for nearly 30 years. He started award-winning newspapers at the University of Pennsylvania as part of a team and at Widener University all by himself. He has a passionate interest in cities and urban development, which he gets to indulge as editor-in-chief of the Philadelphia Real Estate Blog, and in trains and mass transit, which he indulges wherever and whenever he gets the chance. (You may know him as "MarketStEl" if you lurk on Philadelphia Speaks.)

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