It was 49 years ago this week when the late Ed Bacon, Philadelphia’s most (only?) famous city planner graced the cover of Time magazine. Philadelphia was the anchor city for an issue about urban renewal, and Bacon served as the city’s cover boy. But as Gregory L. Heller makes clear in his excellent new book — subtitled “Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia” — the notion of Bacon as a Robert Moses-styled guiding light who reinvented Society Hill armed only with his tenacity isn’t the whole story. It’s not even a sliver of it.
The mercurial Bacon (now known by a new generation as the father of actor Kevin Bacon) is still referred to as the city’s trailblazing city planner, which — while technically true for 21 years — underestimates Bacon’s real role (and his strength), according to Heller: that of political entrepreneur. In addition to conceiving bold urban designs, Bacon had a keen understanding of how such ideas became reality. In a historic city like Philadelphia, often resistant to change and with an entrenched political machine, this was invaluable.
Though most tend to associate Bacon with Philadelphia, Heller’s book tells of Bacon’s earlier years, when he was a sort of urbanist Zelig — involved in projects from China to Flint, Michigan. These early ventures served as on-the-job training for what would come later in his native city, one that indeed played an important role in urban renewal. Heller amply fills this out, detailing Philadelphia’s place in urban history.
Heller’s book is no hagiography. Bacon was wrong much of the time, stubbornly advocating for projects that were out of sync with larger trends and using his force of personality to push things through even when the outcome wasn’t ideal. He could be a great evangelist for ideas he respected and for the city overall, but he could be equally dismissive and rigid.
Ed Bacon is thoroughly researched and exhaustive. Heller employs Bacon as the protagonist in the story of a city’s evolution, and it is both to Heller’s credit and to Bacon’s that the story is so compelling.
Ed Bacon: Planning, Politics, and the Building of Modern Philadelphia [University of Pennsylvania Press]