Architecture

Reporter to Icon: the Rise of Philadelphia and the Critic Who Covered It

June 12, 2020 | by Ann de Forest

On May 30, the Twin Cities, along with the rest of the country, erupted in protest over the Memorial Day murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis. That outrage occurred three months into a pandemic that had already exposed the lack of a social safety net in this country, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable of our citizens, the majority people of color. In Philadelphia, the public outcry against racial injustice and systemic police violence ended in a frenzy of broken glass, fires, and looting on the retail blocks around Rittenhouse Square. Depending on your perspective, these venerable 19th and early 20th century structures are either emblems of exclusionary late-stage capitalism, prettified warehouses stuffed with globally manufactured future landfill, or elegant vestiges of a commercial economy that no longer exists.

The day after a night of riots and looting, Inga Saffron, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s longtime architecture critic, wrote an article that assessed the long-term damage, drawing a connection between the wreckage on Walnut and Chestnut Streets with the destruction of Columbia Avenue in North Philadelphia during the race riot of 1964. The article, though possibly ill-timed, was nuanced and thoughtful nonetheless. The Inquirer’s headline (or headlines, if you count both the Inquirer’s online and print editions) was not. Saffron did not write either headline. In fact, because, despite technological changes, print newspapers still follow the classic assembly-line model of production in which a reporter passes their chassis of an article ahead to the copy editors and headline writers for the finish work, she never even vetted it. Insensitive and offensive, the print headline “Buildings Matter, Too” led to a public mea culpa by The Inquirer. Journalists of color on staff led a “sick out” protest calling for major reforms, followed by the resignation of the newspaper’s long-time executive editor, Stan Wischnowski.

Architecture critic Inga Saffron’s new collection, Becoming Philadelphia: How and Old American City Made Itself New Again is now available from Rutgers University Press.

This week happens to mark the launch of Becoming Philadelphia:How an Old American City Made Itself New Again, a collection of Saffron’s “Changing Skyline” columns over the past 21 years. Reading through the 80 essays that make up the collection, I was not surprised that she had stepped into the fray last week. For more than two decades, Saffron has used her Inquirer column “Changing Skyline” as a soapbox to speak out on a sprawling range of issues regarding urban life, casting a critical eye on all that she surveys, from mega-projects to parklets. Saffron does not shy away from controversy. She readily stands up to slick politicians and bully developers. She even deflates such beloved Philadelphia shibboleths as the Mural Arts Program and the work of legendary architecture firm Venturi Scott Brown.

Reading through the book I was struck by the irony inherent in last week’s controversy. In Saffron’s work, buildings per se are often the least of her concerns. I can count on one hand the reviews in this collection that focus on what one traditionally might call “architecture” or even, in the broader sense, “design.” As Saffron writes in her preface, she considers herself an urbanist, following the model of Jane Jacobs and Ada Louise Huxtable, the New York Times architecture critic from 1963 to 1982 (and coincidentally the first winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1970, the same accolade Saffron received in 2014). Her beat is best described as the urban fabric, and her finest essays are those that turn over the cloth and reveal the messy, interwoven threads–policy (most notably transportation policy), politics, backroom dealmaking, and, in her more recent essays, economic inequity–that have shaped our city.

That said, the book does contain a few traditional architectural reviews. As a design critic, Saffron gives good snark. Her description of the atrocious Symphony House, admittedly an easy target, made me laugh out loud: “The 32 story mixed-use tower flounces onto South Broad Street like a sequined and over-rouged strumpet.” She similarly skewers a failed casino proposal with a few choice words: “Eye candy whipped up in a blender.” More thoughtful is her blow-by-blow dismantling of the pompously retro Museum of the American Revolution. Her review rightfully focuses on the architecture’s betrayal of the promise in its truly revolutionary programming and exhibition design. She damns both the Barnes Museum and Lincoln Financial Field Stadium with faint praise. Personally, I think Saffron’s obsession with designing for a car-free city blinded her to the Barnes’ sublime serenity. At the same time, her paean to the glassy robustness of the Cheesecake Factory at the corner of 15th and Walnut Streets made me reconsider a building I had watched take shape with the blandest of interest. And that’s what a good architecture critic should do. They invite us to take a second look at our surroundings, to notice what we may have previously ignored.

Just as the term, “architecture critic” doesn’t adequately encompass Saffron’s purview, this book makes clear that the name of her column, “Changing Skyline” is either misnomer or sly wink to her knowing readership. The Philadelphia skyline has changed significantly since 1998, but Saffron has always been far more engaged with what’s happening at ground level. Even her review of our most recent skyline-busting structure, Norman Foster’s Comcast Center, gives a dutiful glance at skyscraper’s spire, contours, and cladding before focusing on the experiential aspects of moving in, out, and around the game-changing addition to the Center City grid. She laments that soaring spire, with its reconfigured 21st century workspaces, does not live up to its lofty promises. Saffron’s concerns are, literally, pedestrian. An avowed walker and cyclist, she is an advocate for the free flow of movement in and around the city. She is at her most rhapsodic describing the carfree Nirvana created temporarily by the Pope’s visit in 2015 and enthuses over the Inquirer’s 2012 move from its isolated white castle of North Broad Street to the Strawbridge and Clothier building on East Market Street. Exposing reporters to the thrum of Center City, she reasons, will infuse the newspaper itself with renewed vitality. Saffron loves the trend toward improvised, outdoor spaces–pop-up parks and beer gardens. From her earliest columns, she has fought for access to public spaces, particularly championing the untapped potential of the Delaware River waterfront. Some of the most engaging pieces in this volume are in two chapters, one entitled “Sweating the Small Stuff,” and the other, fittingly, “The Spaces between the Buildings.”

For more than 20 years, architecture critic Inga Saffron has chronicled, championed, and critiqued Philadelphia’s changing urban landscape for the The Philadelphia Inquirer. | Photo courtesy of Ken Kalfus

Saffron’s biggest bugaboo is Philadelphia’s “obsession” (her term) with parking. Ahab-like, she has absorbed that obsession as her own. “You can’t have a nice parking lot and a nice place to stroll at the same time,” wrote Saffron in 2001 to protest the “strip-mauling” of the former Schmidt’s Brewery site in Northern Liberties. This could well be her mantra. For the most part, Saffron’s commitment to exposing the life draining force that is a parking garage, whether it undermines the redesign of grand public spaces like Independence Mall or disrupts the human-scaled rhythms of a block of newly built row houses, are revelatory. “Every one of these faceless garage doors is like a dagger in the body of the city,” she writes. After reading that, you’ll never look at a garage the same way again. What developers claim are a necessary evil, and then pretend to render invisible, Saffron outs as obvious and obtrusive, and she argues, not as necessary as most people think.

Before Saffron was an architecture critic she was a reporter. From the very start, she approached criticism with a reporter’s instincts. Rather than simply assess architects’ visual proposals, she attended policy and planning meetings, where she traced the dealmaking behind the big urban projects that would ultimately shape our city’s future, for good and for ill. One of the delights of reading through Becoming Philadelphia was to discover what a policy wonk Saffron is. Many of her columns written during the Rendell and Street administrations read more like political exposés than design criticism. As painful as it is to relive those “pay to play” days, to lament the misspent money and under-the-table deals, and to recall all the grandiose plans and failed promises of the end of the last century (the Disney Hole, the dispiriting parade of never-realized visions for Penn’s Landing, etc.) the inclusion of those essays here helps make the case inherent in the collection’s title. In the decades Saffron has been writing criticism, Philadelphia has indeed become a more vibrant and livable city. 

If you have a job, a place to live, health insurance, and disposable income–and are white–that is. 

The city’s successes that Saffron celebrates have come at a cost. Not all Philadelphians get to share in the shift from “dying to dynamic,” that she touted in her 2010 essay inaugurating a promising new decade. “There’s clearly been a mellowing,” she says of that first decade of the new millennium. “Cities and suburbs no longer see themselves as enemies. Race is less of a polarizing issue, and cities are safer than they’ve been in decades.” From today’s perspective, it’s hard not to wince when reading that, or another sentence, later in that same essay: “Surely the boom’s most profound legacy is the enlargement of the downtown core and the incorporation of a ring of surrounding neighborhoods: Queen Village, Bella Vista, Fairmount, Northern Liberties, Fishtown, Powelton Village, and University City. … [so] you can now embark on an hour’s walk in any direction from City Hall without encountering significant urban blight.” There is no mention in this article of the longtime residents displaced by this voracious, ever-expanding core.

To be fair, Saffron is not the only urban booster who saw the re-energized city through their rosy, white, middle class glasses in 2010, and she acknowledges her blindspots in the book’s introduction. “Today,” she writes, “it feels a bit indulgent to spend time reviewing towers for the wealthy. Looking back, I realize I may have focused too much on …issues of urban form and not enough on issues of equity…” Now, she says, she finds herself “devoting more columns on the unintended consequences of Philadelphia’s success.”

The former Union Baptist Church at 12th and Bainbridge Streets where world renowned African American contralto Marian Anderson learned to sing. The historic Black church was demolished with little acknowledgment or protest in 2015 for luxury condominiums. | Photo: Michael Bixler

An entire chapter of the book is devoted to “Building the Equitable City,” with perceptive essays on the loss of Black churches in gentrifying Graduate Hospital and on Philadelphia Housing Authority’s socially destructive, heavy-handed clearcutting of Sharswood and the after-effects of the demolition of South Philadelphia’s MLK Towers, both African American neighborhoods. And, in one of the finest essays in the collection, Saffron’s reporting skills and wonkiness fuse to illuminate the very unsexy topic of title entanglements as a root cause of gentrification. “Tracy Anderson has spent all of her 56 years in Point Breeze, much of it playing a game of musical houses,” the article engagingly begins. After introducing Anderson’s inter-generational family of women and the various homes they have passed along to one another, Saffron walks readers through the obscure, legalistic world of property title in a clear and fascinating probe into the minutiae and bureaucratic red tape that can lead a family to lose their homes, particularly in neighborhoods under intense development pressure.

This 2017 article struck me not just for its clarity, but for its humanity. Saffron’s plunge into the property title labyrinth compels because she leads with a story about a living, breathing human being–a Philadelphia resident whose life is affected by the urban issues that Saffron covers.

Another brilliant, and now heartbreaking, piece from 2016 on the fight to save Jewelers Row, similarly begins with a slice-of-life moment on a Sansom Street sidewalk, where two men, an Israeli and ethnic Armenian, who, Saffron tells us “fought on opposite sides of the Six Day War,” kibbitz and share lunch. The “de facto mayors of the block” become our guides to the intricate ecosystem of the oldest diamond district in America, “an interconnected world where everyone does business with everyone else and million-dollar deals are confirmed with a handshake.” Saffron draws readers into the lives of the merchants and artisans of that district and then pulls back to showcase the “eclectic jumble of buildings” that support the Jewelers Row ecosystem. Both these stories, written late in Saffron’s career, show a maturing of voice and perspective. Stories like these demonstrate that she can listen as well as look, that her ear is as sensitive as her much-lauded “good eye.” I was impressed, and moved, by the heart in these articles, and I look forward to reading more columns in this humanistic vein as we reimagine what kind of city Philadelphia should become in the future.

Where five historic properties once stood on Jewelers Row is now a big empty hole. | Photo: Michael Bixler

In the spirit of a Saffron review, I do have a few nits to pick. Throughout this book I found myself longing for annotations and updates. My review copy is papered with yellow Post-it notes repeating the same question over and over: “What happened?” The first chapter, “Suburbanization of the City,” is replete not only with developers’ and politicians’ names long since forgotten, budget figures, and zoning codes, but also with ill-starred or half-baked projects–casinos, hotels, entertainment complexes–whose ultimate fate I can’t recall, and I’ve lived in Philadelphia for more than 30 years. I imagine anyone newer to the city would feel even more stymied. I know that such annotations are not typical of a book like this (although Ada Louise Huxtable’s collections, which I pulled off of my shelf for comparison, do contain useful indexes), and that their inclusion or omission are the editor’s, and not author’s, responsibility. Still, I can imagine a book equivalent of a director’s commentary on a DVD, with Saffron saying something like: “Phew! That was a god awful project. So lucky we dodged that bullet,” or acknowledge inconsistent and unexplained changes of mind and heart. They could hypothetically read, “Yes, back in 2008 I touted the 10-year tax abatement as the city’s salvation, but by 2014 the demolition crisis made me rethink my position and realize the abatement had created a monster.” And updates would help make a case that Saffron’s criticism has been a potent form of advocacy. If readers knew, for example, that the planned 2007 expansion of Fox Chase Hospital into Burholme Park never happened (I had to look that one up), they might conclude that Saffron’s column railing against that poorly-conceived project ended up having real impact.

In a year other than 2020, the publication launch of Becoming Philadelphia this week would be a celebrated event, not just for her fans, but for all of us who love and care about the city and its future. The pandemic health crisis, the social upheavals, and the racial injustice revelations during these past few months may sadly have already rendered this collection of newspaper columns outdated. Even the book’s upbeat subtitle How an Old American City Made Itself New Again (possibly written by an editor and not the author) carries the ring of historic artifact.

But outdated does not mean obsolete or irrelevant. Although not organized chronologically, Becoming Philadelphia spans from the days of the Rendell and Street administrations, when “pay to play” development policies were shaping the city, to the end of the last decade when a self-confident Philadelphia saw itself worthy to be courted by Amazon. Why the collection concludes with Saffron’s impassioned 2017 plea to the mega-corporation is one of the book’s most head-scratching mysteries. For students of cities, the collection as a whole should provide instructive lessons in late 20th and early 21st century urbanism, a catalog of what were considered failures and triumphs before our understanding of what a city could and should be shifted. Assuming that we all survive 2020, I imagine that whatever Philadelphia does become will look different than the city captured in the pages here. I also expect that Saffron will stick to her soapbox,“Changing Skyline,” and continue to at once chronicle and catalyze that change, though hers needs to be just one among many voices and perspectives.

In the book’s introduction, Saffron gives us an origin story of sorts. Returning from a post in the war-torn Balkans in 1998, she was shocked to find that the burnt-out hulk of One Meridian Plaza, an urban renewal-era skyscraper destroyed in a deadly fire in 1991 was still standing, a blemish on the city directly across from City Hall. “The city’s inability to rid Philadelphia of the eyesore became a metaphor for its lassitude and limitations,” she writes. That unsightly ruin inspired a fervor in her. Horrified and heartbroken, she knew that Philadelphia could do better. To the surprise of her editor, she asked for the architecture desk, an unwanted beat. Over the next two decades, Saffron would make it her own, redefining architecture criticism in Philadelphia according to her own expansive, urbanist, public-spirited vision. In the 20-plus years since, she has become both our civic cheerleader and, when warranted, our public scold. She reminds readers again and again of Philadelphia’s potential, while she points out our myriad flaws.

View of One Meridian Plaza in 1991 from 37 stories up after a fire engulfed the tower. | Images courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

A gleaming tower rose from the ashes of One Meridian Plaza, and the ground floor La Colombe café, with its wraparound windows frames an inspiring view of a bustling city and a reborn, vital, and seemingly more inclusive Dilworth Plaza. Yet, Philadelphia is still rife with ruins, and not all the ruins are buildings. Even the heart of our reborn city–the sidewalks and concourses around and under City Hall–is visibly strewn with ruined lives, many of them Black lives. The less visible margins even more so. Until we recognize and respond to this human brokenness, see the beauty and potential in lives all too often disregarded, all of our civic successes of the past 20 years are meaningless. Saffron knows this, I suspect. Already, in this past week, she called out the Toll Brothers, who, after ripping a hole in Jewelers Row, may now abandon their proposed highrise. ”These are vandals too,” she wrote.

Wednesday morning, as I prepared to file this review, Saffron criticized the City’s plans to go ahead with a $20M fortress-like North Philadelphia police station, even after the mayor was persuaded to make the enlightened decision to cut the police budget by $19M. My hope is that she will not only continue to channel the horror, heartbreak, and outrage that compelled her to become our urban critic of record in the first place, but also ignite that same fervor in her readers.

We can do better, she says in one way or another, again and again throughout the pages of this collection. As the events of the past few weeks make abundantly clear, all of us can and all of us must–Inga Saffron included.

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About the Author

Ann de Forest Ann de Forest writes frequently about design, architecture, and the built environment. She is co-editor of Extant, the magazine of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. Her short stories, essays and poems have appeared in Coal Hill Review, Unbroken, Noctua Review, Cleaver Magazine, among others. After walking the entire perimeter of Philadelphia twice, she is currently editing an anthology of essays on walking, Slow Going, to be published in Spring 2021.

4 Comments:

  1. Pg says:

    Terrific review. Thank you.

  2. Remarkable review of an extraordinary book.

  3. Lois linden says:

    Her virtue signaling can be but not anyways is nauseating and so is this critique.

  4. Cyndi Lunsford says:

    I WOULD LIKE THE CITY TO PAY MORE ATTENTION TO SECTIONS OF THE CITY THAT ACTUALLY CALLS ITSELF “the forgotten blocks” in Swampoodle. We were actually a centerpiece of Philly life back in the day when there were ball fields around but we’ve been ignored since then. There is an abandoned factory at 19th and Lehigh that has been falling apart for years. The news covers funerals at the site that used to be Connie Mack Stadium, but there is no interest in the surrounding neighborhood. Our houses are basically falling apart and I’m sure that the gentrifiers are sniffing us out.

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