Imagining Philadelphia: Edmund Bacon and the Future of the City

Imagining Philadelphia: Edmund Bacon and the Future of the City

Imagining Philadelphia: Edmund Bacon and the Future of the City

Imagining Philadelphia: Edmund Bacon and the Future of the City

Synopsis

When Philadelphia's iconoclastic city planner Edmund N. Bacon looked into his crystal ball in 1959, he saw a remarkable vision: "Philadelphia as an unmatched expression of the vitality of American technology and culture." In that year Bacon penned an essay for "Greater Philadelphia Magazine," originally entitled "Philadelphia in the Year 2009," in which he imagined a city remade, modernized in time to host the 1976 Philadelphia World's Fair and Bicentennial celebration, an event that would be a catalyst for a golden age of urban renewal.

What Bacon did not predict was the long, bitter period of economic decline, population dispersal, and racial confrontation that Philadelphia was about to enter. As such, his essay comes to us as a time capsule, a message from one of the city's most influential and controversial shapers that prompts discussions of what was, what might have been, and what could yet be in the city's future.

"Imagining Philadelphia" brings together Bacon's original essay, reprinted here for the first time in fifty years, and a set of original essays on the past, present, and future of urban planning in Philadelphia. In addition to examining Bacon and his motivations for writing the piece, the essays assess the wider context of Philadelphia's planning, architecture, and real estate communities at the time, how city officials were reacting to economic decline, what national precedents shaped Bacon's faith in grand forms of urban renewal, and whether or not it is desirable or even possible to adopt similarly ambitious visions for contemporary urban planning and economic development. The volume closes with a vision of what Philadelphia might look like fifty years from now.

Excerpt

When Philadelphia’s iconoclastic City Planning Commission director Edmund Bacon looked into his crystal ball in 1959—imagining his city fifty years in the future—he saw a remarkable vision, Philadelphia transformed into “an unmatched expression of the vitality of American technology and culture.” in that year, Bacon painted a word picture in an essay for Greater Philadelphia Magazine, “Tomorrow: a Fair Can Pace It,” originally titled “Philadelphia in the Year 2009.” He saw a vision of a city remade in time to host the 1976 Philadelphia World’s Fair—an event that would necessarily take place alongside the national Bicentennial celebration of that year. Basing his optimism on the success of the Better Philadelphia Exhibition of 1947 and his knowledge of previous world’s fairs, he was undertaking one of the great sales pitches of his long career: the Bicentennial and a Philadelphia World’s Fair as catalysts for a golden age of urban renewal in a major American city. What Bacon did not predict was that Philadelphia was about to enter a long, bitter period of economic decline, population dispersal to the suburbs, and racial confrontation and violence, and that by 1976 the nation would be far less inclined than usual to celebrate, with the memories of Watergate and Vietnam still fresh. As such, Bacon’s “2009” essay comes to us as a time capsule, a message from one of the city’s most influential and controversial shapers, opening the way to discussions of what might have been and how certain pieces of Bacon’s vision have in fact materialized in the intervening half century.

“Philadelphia in the Year 2009” opens with a brief history lesson, a paean to the long-lasting genius of Quaker founder William Penn’s grid design for the city. Then Bacon delivers us to the city of the future, the Philadelphia he predicts can and must rise from a post-Depression, postwar inertia—from the old industrial city. Among the many projects he describes in the essay are Washington Square East, “buttressed by a continuous band of good housing extending from the Delaware to the Schuylkill River,” and the Delaware River Marina, “a magnet for visitors … the point of departure for the launches that take visitors to the Navy . . .

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