Robert Moses wasn’t the only power broker

This past weekend I went to see the City Museum of New York’s revisionist exhibit on the role of Robert Moses in “remaking” that five-boroughed “metropolis.” As a statement of fact, he did “remake” New York in the image and likeness of the automobile and the exhibit takes pains to incorporate the well-entrenched anti-Mosaic criticism of Jane Jacobs and Robert Caro. I would argue that the exhibit was so extraordinarily fair that it was befuddling to have such a polarizing figure like Moses situated in an accurate and correct context of his physical legacy.

Seeing this exhibit in relation to Philadelphia, I wished that our city had someone like Moses who would have retooled our large watershed parks and expanded our neighborhood parks. The 1930s — especially during the Depression — was a time when cities profited from the large Federal outlays for make-work programs. The Broad Street Subway was completed with Federal monies and much work went on in Fairmount Park during the Depression but Moses pursued park construction, especially in neighborhoods, with considerably more zeal.

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As I viewed the exhibit my mind began to wonder about the legacy of our own power broker, Ed Bacon, who behind the aloof veneer of the Quaker artist-architect, had a similar religious devotion to improving traffic circulation. Bacon was more of an aesthetitician than Moses (a ‘public works’ man) more concerned about making Penn Center some kind of 20th century Forbidden City than toll revenues and bridge commissions. Much of the difference in their vision had to do with the scope of their cities; Moses had more water to traverse, more defunct industrial sections to clear, more population to move. Yet while it remains to be seen if historians can revitalize Moses’ legacy by pointing to his triage work on the city as the cause of New York’s renaissance, if Bacon had been able to implement the 1960 plan for roads (below), we would honestly be living in a city of 800,000-900,000 residents (or less). Look at the closeness of the two Center City highways: Vine and Crosstown and look at the proximity of the Girard Ave. Expressway. Look at at West Philly lacerated by the 52nd Street and Cobbs Creek Expressways. (I think there would be an expressway where the Mann Center is now) Look at the North Penn, the Roosevelt, and Tacony Expressways. And the Ten Mile Loop? Last post I pointed out how Philadelphia wanted to displace close to 300,000 people in reconverting outmoded housing. I wonder what the estimated population displacement would be to build these highways. Probably close to the 554,000 that the city has lost since 1960.

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This is to suggest that in Philadelphia the stakes were higher and that road building is not a panacea that, in the long run, leads to a New York-esque renaissance. I think elevated and depressed roadways would have induced far more Philadelphians to leave the city than deindustrialization and racial changeover ever did.

I’d also like to see a reassessment of Bacon’s legacy in this city. For their differences of temperament, city scale, and eductional and professional backgrounds, both shared a belief in the self-actualizing power of their convictions. E. Michael Jones, in his shoddy The Slaughter of Cities, relates the story of when asked how an old lady would cross the 12 lanes of traffic of the Crosstown Expressway, Bacon replied “I’ll make it that way.” Paul Goldberger tells a good story of Jane Jacobs driving around Philly with Bacon that demonstrates truly how artistic his vision was.

“I was not what you would call a city-planning expert,” she [Jacobs] said. “Philadelphia was the big thing at the time, and Ed Bacon was very fashionable. So they sent me to Philadelphia and Mr. Bacon showed me all that they were doing. First he took me to a street where loads of people were hanging around on the street, on the stoops, having a good time of it, and he said, well, this is the next street we’re going to get rid of. That was the ‘before’ street. Then he showed me the ‘after’ street, all fixed up, and there was just one person on it, a bored little boy kicking a tire in the gutter. It was so grim that I would have been kicking a tire, too. But Mr. Bacon thought it had a beautiful vista.”

In assessing both Bacon and Moses, the great challenge exists in proving the counterfactual — that the cities left to their own devices would have rebounded. Perhaps Center City wouldn’t have unless Market East was rehabilitated and Society Hill gentrified. But Philadelphia seems wedded to a pedestalized Bacon, perhaps a contrite and doddering Bacon wheeling around Love Park in defense of mixed use of public space. Yet someone needs to start pointing out that Philadelphia could have gone all wrong and it narrowly averted becoming the Forbidden City of Bacon’s idiosyncratic and unassailable artistic vision, a city walled in by Ten Mile loops and Crosstown Freeways.

Click here to hear Bacon waxing visionary.

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5 thoughts on “Robert Moses wasn’t the only power broker

  1. Love the new look of the site. It far outshines the previous one, which hurt my aged eyes. Thumbs up.

    I agree that the lauding upon Bacon over the past year or so since his death has been a bit tedious. I am not entirely certain why people seem to like him so much. He is important, but a “visionary.” Does anyone use the windswept public space around Penn Center? Although the public art piece “Leviathan” is pretty cool, what else is there but a few poorly potted plants. It is a space to get through…fast. No lingering there–maybe that is how he wanted it.

  2. Certainly Ed Bacon made mistakes, but he can’t really be blamed for the highways. Many of the highways were planned in the 1920s and 30s (long before Bacon came on the scene), and were part of the program promoted by Robert Mitchell, who became the first director of Philadelphia’s modern planning commission in 1942 (Bacon became director in 1949).

    Bacon was not Robert Moses, by any stretch of the imagination. He did not have the money, power, or political capital of Moses. He was the director of a still-young commission, given limited purview through its original legislation and in the Home Rule Charter. Postwar Philadelphia was indeed a hotbed of planning and public works, but it was a whole host of individuals and organizations who made that possible, not just Bacon.

    Behind pushing the highways was the Streets Department and the Penn Jersey Transportation study (which in 1965 was chartered as the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission). The commissioner of Streets during much of Bacon’s tenure was David Smallwood. He was the real force behind advancing the highway projects. The other highway lover was David Longmaid, the director of the Penn Jersey Transportation Study.

    It is probably true that Bacon thought some of the highways were critical to making the city’s transportation network function effectively. But they were by no means his priority, and he spent much more time pushing for the creation pedestrian streets downtown and pedestrian-friendly neighborhood plans.

    Frankly, while Bacon was certainly not perfect, he gets blame/credit for doing much more than he had the power to do. He also unfairly gets blamed for projects that predate him by 30 years and were pushed by others.

    I will leave you with this:

    “Center city really belongs to the person on foot and he should be given every reasonable consideration.”
    – Ed Bacon, 9/24/1965

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