Reputation Renewal: Reconsidering America's Master Builders

Over the last several years, successive books and exhibitions have sought to paint America's midcentury master builders in a new light, by focusing on their accomplishments. What can we learn from the 'post-war planning titans'?
July 11, 2013, 12pm PDT | Jonathan Nettler | @nettsj
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"Until recently, the imperious midcentury planners were invariably cast as bullies, who steamrolled heroic community types and flattened living neighborhoods," writes Inga Saffron. "Not anymore." A new biography of Philadelphia master planner Edmund Bacon by Gregory L. Heller, "is actually the latest salvo in a campaign that seeks to restore the reputations of the post-war planning titans by casting them as can-do public servants who made hard decisions for the greater good."

Saffron traces the rehabilitation effort to the 2007 reframing of Robert Moses's legacy by Columbia University historians Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson. "The growing respect for Moses and Bacon no doubt resonates with a public in shock and awe over China’s warp-speed transformation into a humming, twenty-first century megalopolis," she observes. 

"Books like Heller’s biography of Bacon offer important insights on how to get these big projects done," concludes Saffron. "But as much as we may envy China’s efficiency, we only have to look to the Turkey, and the battle over the future of Gezi Park, to remind ourselves that the old top-down model won’t fly in a democracy.  Our best hope may be to demand a form of planning where the new, independent master builders and a still-skittish citizenry can work together as equal partners. "

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Published on Thursday, July 11, 2013 in The New Republic
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