Say the name Edmund Bacon around these parts and you'll probably get one of two responses: "Oh, he's the old guy who rode a skateboard across Love Park to protest the skating ban!" (read about that in City Paper's archives) or "Oh, Kevin's dad!"
Neither of which really gets to the profound influence the man, even four years after his death, has on this city. This week's cover story riffs on a new book edited by Drexel history prof Scott Gabriel Knowles, Imagining Philadelphia (Penn Press), which riffs on a 1959 essay by the famed city planner imagining Philadelphia 50 years in the future. In Bacon's vision for 2009, the anticipated — but never realized — 1976 World's Fair would be the developmental catapult.
"I think I had a one- or two-dimensional approach to him going in, and now he's a very complicated person," says Knowles of the way his understanding of Bacon evolved through editing his book — which culls original essays from a handful of prominent planners. "He was living in a context of urban change that was perhaps the most dynamic in Philadelphia history, save for maybe post-World War II and the founding period."
Bacon's vision for Philadelphia circa 2009 was particularly utopian and predicated on receiving federal money to fund projects he believed would transform the social and economic welfare of the city. Bacon wrote the essay when there was "a down economy, an active government and faith in experts." And Bacon was an expert.
But the 1960s into the '70s in Philadelphia were rife with social and racial strife. "By 1972, you can't even assemble a group of citizens to talk in a civilized way," says Knowles. There were neighborhood revolts and riots against various World Fair-related projects and a backlash against top-down administration.
Part of what Knowles hopes comes of his book is a furthering of the fecund discussions about planning in the city. He also hopes for better understanding of Bacon's successes and shortfalls, specifically an over-reliance on the power of pure design.
"There's a role for experts and a role for public officials. There's a role for the private sector and a role for private citizenry," says Knowles. "If there's not a balance, there can be catastrophe. "
Another point Knowles hopes people take from his book: In the '70s, citizens squared off with Goliaths and won. "Standing up against what seems to be in some cases a fait accompli," says Knowles, referring to projects like, say, casinos, "these are not new struggles. ... We can really use expert planning, but not at the expense of citizen input."
What's a bit frustrating to Knowles is that while Philadelphia's always had a surplus of planners, active citizenry, private investment and engaged public servants, "[these forces have] traditionally been out of balance."