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Source: Hartford Courant (ctnow)
Date: April 28, 2004
Byline: John Jurgensen


Debating Skates And The City

When Edmund Bacon stepped onto a skateboard in the heart of Philadelphia on a fall day in 2002, he was 92 years old.

But that was only part of the reason why a cluster of reporters and cameramen were on hand to document his ride, a short one with two spotters at his side. Adding to the image of a nonagenarian rolling on a four-wheeled board was the fact that Bacon is the legendary urban planner responsible for many of Philadelphia's most defining features.

He was also breaking the law.

Skateboarding was — and continues to be — banned in JFK Plaza, better known as LOVE Park for the iconic Robert Indiana sculpture there. The circular staircase and granite ledges that distinguish the park's design (first conceived by Bacon in 1932 while he was studying at Cornell University) make it ideal for street skating, the guerrilla form of the sport. As a result, the space across from city hall became a mecca for skaters in the 1990s, featured in magazines, movies and a video game. The landmark also helped bring ESPN's X Games to the City of Brotherly Love for two years.

But the park (and, by extension, Philadelphia's) status in the extreme-sports world mattered less to city officials than did the damage the park was sustaining and the complaints from professionals who like to lunch there. In 2002, Mayor John Street enforced a skateboarding ban and spent almost $1 million installing planters and substituting wooden benches to make LOVE Park less skateable.

That's when Bacon got mad.

Instead of taking umbrage at what the high-impact sport was doing to the park he helped create, the man who led the city planning commission for more than 20 years came to the defense of the young people whose use of the cityscape inspired him as "a revolutionary concept."

"They respond to the environment instead of making it respond to their wishes," Bacon says. "The old people are just too dumb to understand it."

More than a year after his act of civil disobedience, he's still seething.

"Suddenly [the park] became a world center for skateboarding, despite the efforts of our stupid Mayor Street to destroy it for skateboarders for no reason at all," Bacon says. "That is a sad commentary on our current civilization."

On Thursday, Bacon (who is the father of actor Kevin Bacon) brings his frank opinions and his history as a shaper of his hometown to Connecticut. He will lead a discussion at Wesleyan University on such topics as architecture, planning, American cities and the significance of skateboarding in them.

Bacon's visit to the university stems from his relationship with Wesleyan senior Greg Heller, 22, a fellow Philadelphian. During a summer internship two years ago, Heller, who has completed a thesis on Bacon's legacy, wrote to him and requested an interview

Most letters sent by earnest young students end up in the trash, Bacon says. But the curiosity Heller expressed about "symbolic historical memory" earned him a lunch date.

When they met, Heller was quickly initiated into Bacon's world.

"He wasn't interested in an interview at all. He asked about my plans for the future, then said, `I'll tell you what your plans for the future are. I want you to take a year off and help me write a book,'" Heller says. "It was an amazing year."

The resulting book, as yet unpublished, is the professional memoir of the man who is to Philadelphia what Robert Moses was to New York.

It was Bacon's vision that shaped the city during the awkward era of urban renewal. Though not all of his projects are considered successes, his record is still burnished by the type of triumphs that landed him on the cover of Time magazine in 1964. His lasting achievements include Society Hill, a neighborhood of 18th-century buildings that Bacon rehabilitated, and the 24,000 acres of Philadelphia's Far Northeast, a residential magnet for the middle class.

But unlike Moses, who used his power to force concepts on a sometimes grudging populace, "Bacon's approach was one of planting an idea and seeing how it grew in the minds within the larger community," said Elizabeth Milroy, dean of arts and humanities at Wesleyan. Along with Heller and others, Milroy will help moderate Thursday's discussion.

"His legacy is the ongoing question of whether good design grows from below or is imposed from above," she says.

Bacon's enthusiasm for the way unforeseen ideas take root explains his joy at the reinvention of LOVE Park as a skateboarding oasis, albeit off-limits. Such is the source of his ire about the mayor's stance, which critics say does harm to Philadelphia's image in the minds of the young people the city covets.

The lessons of the ongoing conflict over LOVE Park's future should not be lost, Bacon says, on people in the position to control the vitality of other cities.

"The heart of a city is the generating force for the whole city area, and if you let it go to pot, you put the life of the region at risk," says Bacon, who, at 93 has never retired from the fight for a better Philadelphia.

"I set about to revive the downtown about a half-century ago, and, by golly, I think I did a good job of it!"

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