November 3- 9, 2005
slantDegrees of Separation
Ed Bacon put too much of the suburbs in his vision of the city.
As it was said about Christopher Wren and London, Edmund Bacon's monument lies around you. Take a walk through Society Hill, perhaps the crowning achievement of Bacon's years as Philadelphia's top planner. The intimate greenways that interrupt the blocks invite contemplation.
Or stroll through The Gallery, the downtown shopping mall that was heralded as a sign of Center City's rebirth as a mercantile mecca. The bustle of activity on the lower level, where the mall serves as the heart of the city's mass transit network, adds a little energy to one's own step.
Undoubtedly, had Bacon not championed these projects, Philadelphia would be a far worse place. Yet there's something missing from them -- the same thing that was missing from JFK Plaza, another Bacon creation, before the skateboarders discovered it.
What's missing is urban vitality. What Bacon's critics understood about his urban vision is that it was actually suburban in character.
Although The Gallery brought shoppers back to Center City, it did not bring them back to Market Street. Instead, it plunked a suburban shopping mall down on three prime blocks, following standard principles of mall design -- one of them being that the public must come inside the building to experience the action. Except at a few corners, the mall presents a blank wall to Market Street. Instead of adding life to the street, The Gallery sucks it into itself.
Or take Society Hill. Although the project succeeded in transforming a rundown neighborhood into a civic jewel, it did so by turning it into a monoculture. Except for a small commercial strip near its center and Headhouse Square at one corner, the entire neighborhood is strictly residential.
Contrast this with neighboring Washington Square West. Its residential side streets are as quiet as Society Hill's, but its main thoroughfares mix residential and commercial activity. Where Spruce Street in Society Hill is silent, in Wash West it hums with life both day and night.
The apotheosis of this sub-urban vision is Independence Mall, which everyone but Bacon himself came to agree was a mistake. By clearing too big a space to showcase too small a building, the Independence Mall project created a people repellent right in the middle of one of the city's densest districts. Succeeding generations have attempted to bring the people back, mainly by putting buildings back.
And on it goes. The "gentleman's agreement" that kept Billy Penn's hat the highest object on the city skyline had by the 1980s produced an urban buzz cut -- a host of undistinguished, flat-topped buildings that all rose 491 feet and no higher, turning the downtown into a denser version of a suburban office park. Now, thanks to Willard Rouse, Philadelphia has a true big-city skyline that includes several interesting and even distinguished structures, such as 1717 Arch St. and the Cira Centre.
By embracing the skateboarders, Bacon inadvertently drew attention to one of the major design flaws of Love Park: Its empty expanses of blank stone made it an unattractive place for people to sit and linger, which is one of the main functions of an urban public square. The skateboarders brought with them activity that gave passersby a reason to hang around and watch.
When, in the early 1990s, Bacon harshly criticized City Planning Commission guidelines that called for new office buildings to "respect the street wall," he demonstrated that he understood the spaces between buildings better than the buildings that defined the spaces. Space, and lots of it, is what suburbia is about -- everything kept separate and at a distance from everything else. A city should be the opposite: everything in close proximity and all mixed together.
For all he did to reverse the decline of central Philadelphia, Edmund Bacon deserves all the encomiums being heaped upon him. But as we build on his legacy, we need to be aware that, for all his knowledge about the design of urban space, he did not quite understand the urban soul.
Sandy Smith is a freelance writer who lives in Washington Square West. If you would like to respond to this Slant or submit one of your own (750 words), e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.