The City that Might Have Been: Edmund Bacon’s Philadelphia

Heralded as the father of modern Philadelphia, famed city planner Edmund Bacon was the man behind many of the city’s most notable post-WWII redevelopment projects, from Penn Center and Market East to Penn’s Landing and Society Hill. While these projects are well-known and have become essential parts of the Philadelphia landscape, the plans and projects that never came to fruition are also a compelling part of Bacon’s legacy.  As outlined in his 1959 essay on urban planning and redevelopment, Bacon envisioned a new golden age for Philadelphia in the postwar years, one that would reinvigorate community investment and development to ensure “no part of Philadelphia is ugly or depressed” in fifty years time.  While some of Bacon’s projects succeeded and others never came to pass, both outcomes provide a window into the evolution of city planning and the city itself in the post-industrial age as well as the ongoing struggles to navigate Philadelphia’s future in a new era.

A Philadelphia native and Cornell-educated architect, Edmund Bacon served as Executive Director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission from 1949 to 1970. Under Bacon’s direction, the Planning Commission sought to capitalize on postwar optimism and looked to the future with coordinated, comprehensive plans to eliminate blight and liberate Philadelphia from its now obsolete industrial clutter. Whereas urban renewal projects in cities like New York and Chicago meant the wholesale demolition of unsavory neighborhoods, Bacon and his colleagues emphasized small-scale demolition and often restored older structures so that new features like shops and parks were interwoven with the existing landscape.  Best exemplified in the redevelopment of Society Hill, these design principles were also publicly showcased at the Better Philadelphia Exhibition in 1947.  The Exhibition, which Bacon as a Planning Commission staff member co-designed with Oskar Stonorov and Louis Kahn, took up two floors of Gimbel’s Department Store at 8th and Market Streets and attracted 385,000 visitors between September 8th and October 15th.  Following the theme “What City Planning Means to You and Your Children,” the exhibition contained movies, murals, dioramas, and, most spectacularly, a 30-by-14 foot model of Center City that boasted 45,000 buildings, 25,000 cars and buses, and 12,000 trees.  Notably, as a recorded narrator highlighted various parts of the model, segments flipped over to reveal the planners’ future vision for the site, which frequently included open space, planning for pedestrians, and efforts to work within the original landscape.

The Better Philadelphia Exhibition effectively paved the way for Bacon’s ascension to the Executive Director position and pushed his vision for transforming Philadelphia into a competitive world center to the forefront of urban planning.  Bacon presented many of the projects and guiding tenets of his approach to redevelopment in his seminal 1959 essay “Philadelphia in the Year 2009,” which specifically outlined plans for a transportation center at East Market Street, development along the Delaware Riverfront, and a 1976 World’s Fair to showcase the city.  For Bacon, the World’s Fair was the project around which all other projects revolved, providing an impetus for urban redesign and the construction of buildings and transportation hubs with long-term benefits.  While Bacon proposed that most of the Fair’s structures be erected in Fairmount Park, he nonetheless envisioned the Fair as a city-wide event where a variety of attractions, from the “Lights of Freedom” spectacle on Independence Mall to outdoor performances of Shakespeare and Kabuki theatre in the City Hall courtyard, were all easily accessible through underground streets and moving sidewalks linked to the proposed Crosstown Expressway.  In terms of transportation, Bacon also conceived of an overhead cable car system that ran from Fairmount Park to the west bank of the Schuylkill and out across the river to Chestnut Street, which would be equipped with an electric tram system.  In these plans, Bacon simultaneously saw the 1976 Philadelphia World’s Fair as a showcase for American culture and technology that would also spur civic activity and development and ultimately have long-lasting implications for the city’s renewal.

Initially, Bacon’s World’s Fair proposal was warmly received, especially since a 1976 Fair would coincide with America’s Bicentennial Year.  A committee was formed to seek federal funding and petition the Bureau of International Expositions to reserve 1976 for Philadelphia, but as early as 1960 Bacon was dissatisfied with the committee’s progress.  By 1964, the plan had encountered several additional stumbling blocks, including the failure and widespread criticism of the 1964 New York World’s Fair and skepticism about Bacon’s assertion that the Fair’s building and structures could be re-purposed later for private development.  In the coming years, political and community resistance to the Fair arose, as did competing proposals from activist groups like the Young Professionals.  With the so-called “World’s Fair” concept itself increasingly criticized as antiquated, the Young Professionals argued that a modern Philadelphia Fair should be more socially conscious and work to alleviate racial and social problems like the disconnect between Center City and outer-lying ghetto neighborhoods such as Mantua and Powelton Village.  To this end, the group proposed holding the Fair in a megastructure to be built over the rail yards at 30th Street Station that would enhance transportation and access to all parts of the city.  The megastructure idea dominated plans into the late 1960s, but struggles over the rights to the area and control over the design ultimately defeated it. Afterwards, organizers briefly resurrected Bacon’s proposal to locate the crux of the Fair in Fairmount Park, while alternately suggesting Penn’s Landing, Port Richmond, Byberry, and Fort Mifflin as additional options.  However, no viable site was ever agreed upon and the 1976 Philadelphia World’s Fair eventually succumbed to inertia, as well as President Nixon’s reluctance to endorse any urban renewal project associated with former President Johnson’s Great Society agenda.

Even without the impetus of a World’s Fair, several of Bacon’s key redevelopment projects, such as the Market East transportation center and improvements to the Far Northeast, were eventually realized, albeit with alterations to Bacon’s original designs.  In many ways, both projects sought to provide suburban amenities in an urban context, as Bacon aimed to draw middle-class families back to the city following the population dispersal of the postwar years.  To this end, Bacon’s plans for the Far Northeast included family-friendly residential homes positioned in loop streets that echoed the area’s natural topography and preserved open spaces for children to play.  In addition, retail centers with connections to downtown transit would serve as the central hubs of these communities, though in the end retail centers were eliminated in favor of strip malls and the loop street design evolved into cul-de-sacs.

Interestingly, the Far Northeast was not the only area to see alternations to Bacon’s original street plan; as detailed in Bacon’s 1959 essay, Chestnut Street was to be a pedestrian-only thoroughfare of open-air, bazaar-style storefronts with a trolley at its center.  As with so many other elements of Bacon’s vision for Philadelphia, Chestnut Street never fully evolved to meet his expectations, but those expectations still offer a compelling snapshot of the plans and possibilities that captured Philadelphia’s imagination in the postwar years. And in the end, whether in Philadelphia’s physical landscape or the photographic history presented here on PhillyHistory, Ed Bacon’s vision lives on, a legacy demonstrated by both the city that might have been and the city that came to be.

References:

Edmund N. Bacon.  “Philadelphia in the Year 2009” aka “Tomorrow: A Fair Can Pace It.”  Greater Philadelphia Magazine, 1959.

The Ed Bacon Foundation. 28 September 2010. http://www.edbacon.org/index.htm (Accessed 13 October 2010).

Scott Gabriel Knowles, ed.  Imagining Philadelphia: Edmund Bacon and the Future of the City. (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

Nathaniel Popkin.  “The Future is Now.”  Philadelphia Citypaper, December 16, 2009.

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