Ask most people who lived in Philadelphia during the second half of the twentieth century who was responsible for downtown Philadelphia and they will answer correctly: Edmund Bacon. But when you ask them what he did and how he did it, they usually cannot answer. Ask them about his work outside downtown and even fewer have anything to say. This book, for the first time, provides the answers. This is particularly important because Bacon, like Robert Moses in New York, worked hard at creating a legend that helped him to get things done, but has muddied the waters ever since.
I was fortunate to befriend Ed Bacon during the final ten years of his life. I spent four or five days annually walking around Philadelphia with him, listening to his stories about the city he so passionately loved. Each time my visit began at his house on Locust Street. The first time he opened the door, without even saying hello, he exclaimed, "You have written about me better than anybody else, without ever even talking with me." He was referring to my book The American City: What Works, What Doesn't. In an astonished tone of voice, I replied, "I walked all over the city at different times of the day, in different seasons, over many years." He immediately challenged me to go for a walk. As we walked around the city, he showed me many things of which I was unaware and explained much that I had not understood. I decided to return again and again and get him to tell me everything he could remember.
During my walks and talks with Ed Bacon, he was eager to impress on me that successful planning had to be based on:
- A deep and evolving understanding of the city
- A total vision for the city
- A public realm strategy for its improvement
- A convincing vision of a better future
- A marketing program
- Ongoing public support
- Tenacity in the pursuit of one's goals
I now understand why we went on all those walks. Without ever saying so explicitly, Ed wanted me to understand the importance of pedestrian circulation and of what I now call "the public realm approach to planning." He said he "walked and walked until I had the concept in my body." He had taken me on all those walks because he wanted me also to walk and walk until I had the concept in my body.
Bacon explained that he was able to make things happen because he took "the multiplicity of wills that constitutes our contemporary democratic process" and proposed a program that could "coalesce into positive, unified action on a scale large enough to change substantially the character of the city." When I asked him how he devised that program, he replied that he had what he called a "total vision of the city." He promoted ideas to achieve that total vision, but "promoted," in this instance, is a term of art because, although Ed was clearly responsible for what happened, he had no specific role within the entities that developed physical projects.
At a time when countless city dwellers were escaping to the suburbs, Bacon understood that residences were an integral part of any healthy downtown. Thus, the restoration of Society Hill as one of Philadelphia's thriving residential neighborhoods became a central feature of this total vision. He explained, "I set the concept; then it was adjusted by others as required by the realities of the situation." Therein lies the explanation of Edmund Bacon's amazing ability to make things happen without actually doing anything himself. It was not, however, because he gave up any role in what happened.
As usual, Bacon was as accurate as he was misleading when he intimated that all he did was "set the concept" and left the rest to developers, property owners, lending institutions, and government officials. Persistence is as important as letting others get some of the credit for implementing an agreed-upon vision. Edmund Bacon, probably the most relentless and determined of all planners, believed that the most important and difficult thing to do was deciding what to advocate and that the trick in making that decision was selecting something that you could bring to fruition. He used to say that, once you decided that something was the right thing to do, you had to devise "your own approach" to getting it done "without giving a damn about other people's ideas." That, too, was misleading because he was always concerned about developing a constituency for his proposals. That is why he also told me that, whenever he said anything, he "always thought about what it would look like as a headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer."
Certainly, determining what Edmund Bacon thought is as difficult as discovering what he did and how he did it. We are fortunate in having this stunning biography by Gregory Heller—fortunate because he knew Ed Bacon well and spent much of the years since Ed died trying to piece together what actually happened. The result is an engrossing story explaining how modern Philadelphia took shape.