He Taught Us To “Read” The City

 

The late Seymour Mandelbaum with Oscar Gandy at Penn | Photo: Annenberg School for Communication

The late Seymour Mandelbaum with Oscar Gandy at Penn | Photo: Annenberg School for Communication

I suspect (I hope!) our readers are appreciative of Hidden City’s manner of deconstructing, framing, and humanizing complex issues. A superb example of this is Christopher Mote’s lengthy explanatory story on the conflicts in Kensington over the two monumental bank buildings at Front and Norris.

The person who first taught me to “read” the city in this way by asking why things are the way they are and who wants them that way, was Seymour Mandelbaum, the affable urban historian who taught in Penn Design’s City and Regional Planning Department. Mandelbaum, with the heart of a novelist and the warmth of a rabbi, promulgated the idea that if city plans and the planning process were interpreted–interrogated, pulled apart as narrative–we would as a society be better able to understand and imagine the way we wish our cities to be. Mandelbaum died yesterday, but he leaves with me the very basis of my approach to understanding the city. It was in his class, “Imagining Cities and Regions,” exactly 20 years ago, that I first began to see the city as an imaginative exercise. Mandelbaum had another, more personal role in my life: it was there in his class, in that basement classroom in Meyerson Hall, that I met my wife Rona Buchalter.

In recalling him this morning she said, “I was really struck by the tone of the class. Rigorous but warm. Smart but never pretentious. Respectful of the students but not deferential.”

That tone resounded even in Mandelbaum’s most important article of planning theory, “Reading Plans,” which appeared in a 1990 issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association. In that article, Mandelbaum used the 1988 Plan for Center City to portray the planning process as something that–in order to have wide meaning and impact–needs to be interpreted and deconstructed, not merely accepted–and then ignored.

“From the first, I called my scheme ‘Reading Plans.’ I soon recognized that the title was either confusing or annoying,” he wrote with characteristic self-deprecating humor. “Talk of helping people ‘read plans,’ my (usually friendly) critics insisted, was infantilizing. Worse, it smacked of an imperious class attitude that might be barely acceptable in a high school English class or a literacy program for adults. Outside those instructional settings, it grated against ordinary democratic sensibilities, they said.”

“Mandelbaum reminds us that plans are based on some story, some narrative, of the future that will be created,” wrote UMass planning professor Elisabeth Hamin, in the journal Planning Theory.

Indeed, Mandelbaum saw a narrative in the growth and development of a city; he saw protagonists, antagonists, and hidden agendas. What if all that was exposed in the process of making and implementing of a plan?

He went on, in the article “Reading Plans, “it was not difficult to think of the Plan as a literary text–rather like a novel, a social science monograph, an advertising brochure, or a historical narrative–that might be illuminated by the craft of critical reading. Why, however, stop with ‘easy’ cases? Couldn’t that craft also be engaged, I quickly wondered, to help readers interpret much sparser documents, such as the budgets and regulations that in many settings are the only ‘plan’ that really matters?”

I hope, professor, in a small way we’re fulfilling this desire.

About the author

Nathaniel Popkin is co-founder of the Hidden City Daily and author of three books of non-fiction, including Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (with Peter Woodall and Joseph E.B. Elliott) and two novels, Everything is Borrowed and Lion and Leopard. He is co-editor of Who Will Speak for America, an anthology forthcoming in June 2018, and the senior writer of the film documentary "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment."



Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
Appetite For Deconstruction: North Philly Nonprofit Tackles Three Pressing Issues With One Program

Appetite For Deconstruction: North Philly Nonprofit Tackles Three Pressing Issues With One Program

May 17, 2019  |  News

Philly Reclaim brings sustainability, historic preservation, and job training together with its architectural salvage program. Kimberly Haas has the story > more

Arson & Archway Raise Awareness Of A 19th Century Architect

Arson & Archway Raise Awareness Of A 19th Century Architect

May 14, 2019  |  Vantage

Pauline Miller takes us on a journey from Old City to Mount Moriah Cemetery where the work of architect Stephen Decatur Button struggles for longevity > more

A Fond Farewell To Paley Library At Temple University

A Fond Farewell To Paley Library At Temple University

May 10, 2019  |  Last Light

Paley Library closed its doors to the public on Thursday after serving Temple University for 53 years. Michael Bixler says goodbye to the mid-century modern library with this photo essay > more

In Kensington, Old Textile Mill To Be Revived With Apartments

In Kensington, Old Textile Mill To Be Revived With Apartments

May 7, 2019  |  Vantage

Gotham Hosiery, once the country's most popular pantyhose manufacturer, quickly rose to fame and crashed even faster. Now, the nearly 100-year-old mill at 2nd and Norris is getting a residential makeover. Rob Masciantonio dives deep into the history of the old textile mill and details on plans for redevelopment > more

Al Capone's Cell At ESP Keeps Conservators On Their Toes

Al Capone’s Cell At ESP Keeps Conservators On Their Toes

May 2, 2019  |  News

At Eastern State Penitentiary, layers of history reveal more mysteries inside a famous gangster's old prison cell. Kimberly Haas has the details > more

Op-ed: Lessons Learned & Magic Found At Neutra's Hassrick House In East Falls

Op-ed: Lessons Learned & Magic Found At Neutra’s Hassrick House In East Falls

April 30, 2019  |  Soapbox

In this personal essay Jefferson University architecture student Shannon McLain gives a passionate account of the student-led effort to preserve a mid-century modern home on Cherry Lane. > more