Editor’s Note: Conceived by Ed Bacon and others in the 1950s as a “city within a city,” the 3,000 acre New Eastwick, in the marshy low-lands of the city known as the Meadows, would break ground in spring 1962 as the largest Urban Renewal project in the nation. The $78 million project would combine industrial employment for 20,000, residences for some 60,000, greenways, recreation, and schools. Critically, it would be racially integrated. But the project was challenged from the start by the already racially mixed residents of the Meadows, who resented the top-down planning process. New Eastwick would require condemnation of the existing neighborhoods, home to some 20,000 people, and destruction of a traditional, albeit old fashioned semi-rural way of life. As groundbreaking began, it was clear the project would suffer from endless compromise and a shift in Federal government priorities and never achieve the original vision. University of Virginia scholar Guian McKee, author of The Problem of Jobs: Liberalism, Race, and Deindustrialization in Philadelphia, has studied Eastwick closely. I caught up with him for a phone interview in January. Dominic Mercier took his camera around the neighborhood a few days later.
Nathaniel Popkin: This is the end of the reign of expert planners–and really the beginning of community-based advocacy that would take over city planning the late 1960s and 1970s.
Guian McKee: I would say it’s certainly the last point you can really conceive of doing a top-down approach at this scale. This is one of the first cases of organized opposition to an Urban Renewal project. That, along with the failure of the Urban Renewal program at the federal level. In the 1940s and 50s, you could assume the community would be docile. After this you can’t assume it again and of course the Civil Right movement complicates matters more.
NP: But this isn’t the end of Urban Renewal.
GM: Urban Renewal as a program does keep going in the 1960s. It’s really the period when the greatest number of Urban Renewal projects came to fruition. The difference is they’re contested from this point forward.
Eastwick as a high modernist, rational planning approach is going to be contested at the community level and now by intellectuals [from every ideological angle], like Jane Jacobs and Martin Anderson. You now have grass roots resistance and intellectual rejection. These things take time to work through the system. And some actually happen.
It’s more complicated than people rise up and Urban Renewal fails. It’s a slow transformation. Professionals reject the approach. Projects do get built, but show limited results. People don’t like what’s produced. All that takes a good decade to play out.
NP: So what is Eastwick like in the 1950s?
GM: Eastwick in 1950s, I would say there is an area of relatively dense, pretty high quality row homes, just a couple decades old. Some of them exist today, closest to the rest of West Philadelphia. The majority is very much less dense. It’s called the Meadows, essentially a wetlands, very rural environment, country landscape, owner-built houses passed on to children, with small farms or large gardens, with the propensity to flood. The flooding is a justification for Urban Renewal. The area is not connected to the sewer system, another feature that led the area to be classified as “blighted.”
NP: But this was a beloved place, or at least idealized, and now the residents, without having a say, are forced to leave.
GM: The conflict is between the reality of the lived experience clashing with urban planners’ views as to what constitutes a good neighborhood. It was a close community, everybody knew everyone else, with a strong sense of place. If you said you were from the Meadows it had real meaning. And there was a relatively high level of racial integration. Without romanticizing it, it actually had a diverse community.
NP: But the top down approach engendered a forceful response.
GM: The opposition delayed the project for a long time. in the 1950s they would show up with their model and say this is what we’re going to do for you. This emboldened this sort of community response: I think that’s probably true.
By the early 1960s there is a civil rights movement in the urban north and one of the strengths of that movement is that they’re thinking very comprehensibly about the issues facing blacks. Eastwick in a sense is a comprehensive response.
There is also a national sense that Urban Renewal is going wrong, it all kind of links together. After Eastwick, there is an awareness, a mounting sense you can do something–speak up, organize collaboratively to stop bureaucratic processes–something that really does resonate today. In 1970s, a new generation of professionals emerge, community planners took over the field. But at that time you’re constrained by the city’s fiscal crisis. But there is a much more participatory process in the design of playgrounds, the greenway, the participatory phase is real but has limits.
NP: But under reform mayors Clark and Dilworth and with Ed Bacon as planner, there was an interest in creating a modern city.
GM: With the Clark and Dilworth reformers, who came into power in 1952, they began to think of it as a demonstration project of what a new, planned city could be. That urban renewal could be put to work for middle and working class people. The concept was a city-within-a-city. This was the place where they would pioneer those ideas.
NP: It didn’t quite work.
GM: There’s still some real accomplishment. The idea of high modernist planning in a reform liberal context never really reached its goals. Built–by 1970, 1,654 homes, by 1982, 4,022 homes, three shopping centers…library, a greenway. Construction continued into the 1990s. But it was a slow, ongoing process, and there was a lot of criticism. They cleared in first decade vast amounts of land, a vast open area, and so if you looked at it, it looked like a real failure.
Some of what was planned does get built, a fairly large component of affordable middle income housing, warehouses, build out of industrial parks. In the sense of the city’s ability to plan, it was too ambitious and that sense it failed. But by bringing infrastructure, transit, it created the capacity for additional growth over the years.
NP: The way you tell it in the article in the Journal of Urban History, Eastwick is full of complexity. Illiberal means–racial quotas, in other words–for liberal ends, integration.
GM: There were significant positives: racial integration most of all, which took a tremendous degree of racial management. They were essentially using quotas, limiting the African-American population, playing with price range and who they were selling to. They never lost site of the goals. But this is the period when quotas became illegal.
At least in a limited way it did kind of work and we shouldn’t romanticize the racial integration of Eastwick, pre-Urban Renewal.
NP: Architecture, urban design: it’s very much a product of its period, and not in a good way.
GM: You really have to like that style of modern architecture. They implemented the superblock design concept. The idea is you would integrate the auto into the urban context. You don’t create through streets, you manage traffic through design. It’s in the paradigm of single-use planning: residential here, industrial here, shopping here. They did create the concept of greenway, which would allow you to walk from your house to work to the park to the shopping center. But I don’t think that ever worked. You still have Island Avenue tearing through the neighborhood, separating the residential from the commercial.
In my observation, nobody walks. The biggest flaw is that they weren’t thinking about integrating uses so people wouldn’t have to drive. So it’s not really walkable–it’s not a traditional urban neighborhood. They did build enough density to make transit viable.
NP: 50 years later, what are the lessons?
GM: If I have to find a lesson it’s you do have to have a way to assert a larger vision, a bigger picture direction of the city, and link that to neighborhood needs. We’ve at times lost the capacity to think big. Part of what works in Eastwick is that it was an honest response to demographic trends facing the city in the 1950s. That has to be balanced with a quite nuanced approach to community’s needs, identify their goals–pursue the broader vision in way that isn’t as destructive.