By G.E. "SKIP" LAWRENCE
On the public agenda this week: the Academy Awards, and various meetings on the future of Phoenixville. In regard to both, this story: I first recognized what was going on a decade ago, the night Mira Sorvino won her Oscar.
Even as the envelope was being opened, I knew it. It was one of those moments fathers have, when all of the rest of the world retreats for that hair's-breadth instant when you know full well, what the report card says before you look at it.
With Mira's name, my eyes leaked. And of course, one cameraperson had to turn his lens on father Paul, who may as well have taken a swim for the puddle he was making. And then Mira, evil child, thanked her father for his singular role in her achievement. We were very proud. Soggy, but proud.
And through it all my (much better) other half, as befit the occasion, was laughing her aft off at me. She knows that I am subject to semi-frequent assaults of throat lumps at the end of the flicks I am not supposed to like. She also has her fun during the last two phrases of "The Star-Spangled Banner," when my voice breaks just at the time when everyone is supposed to start cheering. I've struggled with the condition, but have only gotten as far as refusing to make a call for Kleenex at the end of "Whale Rider." Anyway, I was asked to justify my behavior. Only then did it occur to me, in another blinding flash, that it was because of the piano tuner. (And she thought that she was going to get some Freudian thing from me. Hah. I like to keep her off guard.)
The piano tuner: three years before that decade ago, I was living in Hoboken, and hired a piano tuner who was also puttering with the Sorvino's Steinway upriver in Englewood. Well, that's what he said. To be fair, I had not exactly corrected his assumption that the piano was mine. No matter. Since that day, this long-time admirer of Paul's career, one among millions, became something more. Events had created me Someone in the Sorvino family.
For many people I know, that would have been an event to be cherished for its sheer utility. With it, victory in some late-night round of "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" at Dan's could be assured. An extra edge, an ace up the sleeve. But I am no utilitarian. I have never sprung that ace. I am an idealist, and a Leo. (She, of course, pragmatist and Libran, will tell you that there has just hasn't ever been enough beer at stake.)
So, as I was there explaining the piano tuner, voice quivering, all defenses down, vulnerable, it came to me (another thunderbolt of an insight; it was some night) that to be honest with myself and her, I had to 'fess up fully. I told her that I was also, in a similar sense, part of Kevin Bacon's family. There's the real ace up my sleeve. Her laughter turned to uninhibited cackles.
My first private-sector job ("job" = "gopher") was with a private urban planning firm. Two texts in the company's library sort of got permanently checked out to my desk: Kevin's father Edmond Bacon's classic, "The Design of Cities," and the 1963 Plan for Center City Philadelphia, of which Mr. Bacon, as chief city planner, was the principle author. I also had a copy of his portrait from a 1964 Time cover, but gophers don't get to hang art.
It is safe to say that if my permanent interest in the lives of communities was not founded by those texts - I grew up in a family heavily influenced by the Republican Progressivism of my suffragist grandmother, in a community whose strong civic engagement, and strong backs, literally built its institutions - the books at least gave that interest contemporary depth. From the first came the discovery that it was not only possible but necessary to plan a community's future by seeing it whole, not just in its parts. Housing, transportation systems, business uses, educational institutions, architectural style, all these and more demand consideration at once. And another discovery, powerfully put: aesthetics both confirms and advances the way people live, and live together, in an environment of their own creation.
From the second text, four lessons. First, a city's future should be planned with reference to its history. Bacon unearthed William Penn's original plans for the city and used them as the structure around which to recommend future development. Second, citizens not only matter in the planning process - which should be an obvious point, but one which some planning commissions and city councils would like to ignore - but are in fact the subjects and the engines of the process. (Bacon: "True involvement comes when the community and the designer turn the process of planning and building a city into a work of art.") Third, it is private enterprise that will initiate and move development. (Bacon: "The plan is based on a belief in the initiative potential of the private enterprise system. Governmental activity is restricted to that minimum which is absolutely necessary to provide a framework which stimulates the imagination of private investors and which includes the physical facilities necessary to support those investments after they are made.") Finally, the planning process so envisioned requires for its realization neither a technocrat nor a bureaucrat, but a hands-on manager with, not so simply, "the explicit administrative skill of getting things done"
As political tastes and theoretical perspectives have changed, and changed again, over the last decades, Ed Bacon's public regard has waxed and waned. And to be certain, the 1963 plan had significant flaws. But the most recent major planning document for Philadelphia, Jonathan Seidel's "Philadelphia: A New Urban Direction," happily bears his stamp, and in his spirit attends to areas then overlooked.
(Many readers would have had their first introduction to Mr. Bacon last year when, in protest of Mayor Street's ban on skateboarding in the Love Park of Bacon's own design, the 90-ish city planner became the oldest board rat in the sport's history, rolled through the park, and dared the Mayor to arrest him. That's in good Bacon style, a good introduction to the man.)
Ah, yes, to Kevin - my link is not simply by intellectual debt to his father. You see, Kevin Bacon was born the last of six children, and the span in age between father and son is that of my own father and me, the long-delayed last of three. Whether or not I could fairly impute something about the relationship between these two Bacons from the experience of my own, the fact alone was a bond.
But I imputed it anyway. I do so also with Mark Harmon and his father Tom; they have the same father-son age-range thing. And am I ever angry that Mark's characters keep getting killed off. Have I told you that I've been in love with Cissy Houston for years, and share with her the triumphs and pain of Whitney's progress? And that I was just as tearful as I was on Mira's night, with my old heart-throb Blythe Danner, when her daughter Gwyneth Paltrow got her own Oscar?
You just gotta have a strong pool of emotional resources to deal with such a large family, by golly. (She's still laughing.)