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.