Remembering Ed Bacon, Philadelphia’s Robert Moses

Ed Bacon was the complex force behind Philadelphia as we know it today.

Over the more than 300-year course of Philadelphia’s history, only two urban planners have really mattered: William Penn and Edmund Bacon. Yet by the time Bacon died in October, at 95, some Philadelphians may have been a little fuzzy on the scope of his accomplishments. The lanky Methuselah, who was frequently seen stalking the streets of Ritten-house Square, lived so long that he was perhaps better known for being the father of actor Kevin Bacon than for dragging a tattered industrial Philadelphia into the modern age after World War II.

Bacon served as Philadelphia’s chief planner for two decades during the critical postwar period. He is often compared to New York’s Robert Moses, as much for his high-handed ways as for his grandiose urban-renewal visions. Yet his reimagining of Philadelphia was both more wide-ranging and more personal than that of his New York counterpart. During the heyday of the federal urban-renewal programs, when American cities were imperiously leveling their downtowns, Bacon pioneered planning strategies that allowed Philadelphia to revitalize one of its oldest neighborhoods. His rejuvenation of the historic Society Hill area in the 1960s was among the first to promote selective renovation as an alternative to wholesale clearance. The approach remains a model today for American cities, just as his book Design of Cities remains a standard text for American planning students.

Bacon was by no means a preservationist. His plaza-building binges, aloof Modernist towers, and overly monumental Independence Mall still make followers of Jane Jacobs cringe in pain. Yet despite his Haussmann-like tendencies, Bacon managed to provide Philadelphia with basic skills for urban survival at a time when it wasn’t all that clear the city had a future.

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A Quaker whose ancestors arrived only shortly after William Penn, Bacon endowed the colonial city of narrow streets and tiny brick row houses with a high-rise office corridor, a modern urban shopping district, and an affluent middle-class neighborhood at its core. Unlike so many other American cities, Philadelphia never lost the habit of downtown living. Its large—and growing—city-center population remains one of its great strengths today.

The planner’s softer urbanist side may come as a surprise to those whose first introduction to Bacon was his crazed star turn in Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect. “You simply have not understood a word I’ve said,” he concludes sadly after a fist-pounding soliloquy. Conversations with Bacon often ended that way. He could never fathom why anyone wouldn’t accept the rationality of his vision. It wasn’t just hubris. Bacon came of age in an era when Philadelphia was a filthy, teaming, corrupt industrial workhorse—“the worst, most backward, stupid city I ever heard of,” he once declared with trademark hyperbole. In the legacy of such early-twentieth-century reformers as Jacob Riis and Le Corbusier, he made it his mission to transform Philadelphia into a well-ordered, progressive modern metropolis.

Like other city planners of his generation, Bacon erred on the side of order. He never met a highway project he didn’t love. He had a weakness for the formal axis and dramatic terminus. His determination to segregate working, living, and shopping is probably one reason “mixed use” is a planning mantra today. What redeems Bacon is that he always believed that Philadelphia—as out-of-date and clunky a city as it was—had a great future.

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