Becoming Philadelphia: How an Old American City Made Itself New Again

By Inga Saffron

Rutgers University Press. 262 pp. $69.95 (paperback $12.95)

Reviewed by John Timpane

Inga Saffron has been one of the most respected and feared critics in all of Philadelphia for more than 20 years, and one of the most controversial this past week as a column of hers with a racially offensive headline drew fire. The design world smiles if Saffron approves, blanches if she condemns.

Becoming Philadelphia is an invigorating collection of the Pulitzer-winning architecture critic’s Inquirer columns from 1999 to 2019. She’ll address questions about all of her work as part of a virtual Free Library author talk Wednesday, June 17. I’ll address the book’s contents here.

The 80 columns in Becoming Philadelphia huddle cleverly beneath telling rubrics. “Age of the Megaprojects” gives way to “Sweating the Small Stuff.” We have “Building the Equitable City” and “Success and Its Discontents.” You can read the book cover to cover or dip in here and there; its pleasures are many and sustained.

From the beginning, Saffron knew what she was talking about. Urbanist rather than architect, she cares deeply about five things: the people and their neighborhoods; Philadelphia’s history; how new buildings connect (or don’t) with the life flowing around them; aesthetics; and the effect of new projects on growth and business. She keeps eyes open and learns well.

Becoming Philadelphia is fun to read, too, with the red-blooded liveliness of all good column writing.

Of the embarrassing, failed cross-Delaware tram project, Saffron writes: “The tram is really a carnival ride, but fortunately the carnival left town.” Of a Catholic school on the comeback, she writes that “the barbed wire has come down, and PSAT scores have gone up.” She thrills to the Cira Centre’s lobby, “constructed of little more than geometry and light.” She abhors “the padded-shoulder pomposity of the Reagan era,” but she is jazzed by the Linc, where “taut suspension cables crash through the polished concrete floors.”

Her thumbs-down columns deserve their legendary standing. They don’t grouse and moan; they argue cogently. Her renowned takedown of the Barnes is no hatchet job. She loves a lot about it, but she rightly hates the awkward parking lot and walls that cut it off from the city. That wonderful museum is “sadly — no, tragically — a long way” from success. She politely eviscerates the Revolution Museum’s outsides, “stodgy,” “boxy,” a “retro-monster” of Georgian imitation. She frets over “warp speed” gentrification.

What she loves, she loves wholeheartedly. The Paseo Verde apartment buildings are vibrant models for low-to-middle-income housing, well connected to the town. Rittenhouse Square “creates informal neighborhoods: the toddler zone around the goat, the lovers’ lane around the perimeter.” Hurray for pop-up beer gardens and river trails. Hurray for bikes, retail, and coffee shops. Boo for the cheap, the drab, and the ugly.

Author Inga Saffron, architecture critic at The Inquirer
Ken Kalfus
Author Inga Saffron, architecture critic at The Inquirer

To the surprise of some, she liked it when The Inquirer moved from its longtime home at Broad and Callowhill Streets to its present digs at Eighth and Market Streets. Her reason: the old, isolated place “froze us psychologically in history,” while the new place “gives us the chance to immerse ourselves in the currents of a fast-changing world just by stepping out onto East Market Street.”

The book’s high point is her review of the Comcast Technology Center, “the peak of Center City’s architectural cardiogram.” She admires the lobby that “feels like a public living room,” the detailing that speaks of “a resurgent industrial city.” That telescoping mast, though? Fail trombone. Still, the new tower, woven “directly into the fabric of the city,” signals Philly’s leap into the national spotlight.

Saffron thumbnails a lot of stories as she goes. What a cast — the visionary, the doltish, the sweaty. Mayors from Ed Rendell to Jim Kenney get praise and blame. We meet the artists, designers, developers, and real-estate execs, from Frank Gehry, Laurie Olin, and Tony Goldman to the Blatsteins, Grassos, Tolls, Rappaports, and Wynns of the world.

Most dismaying are the shambling spasms of the city’s various boards, committees, and departments. The Philadelphia Parking Authority is one of the book’s biggest villains, backing the grotesque garage that ruins much of Independence Park, foolishly wrecking neighborhood plans with old-school insistence on cars over people. And that Zoning Board?

Let me pause here and take Rutgers University Press into the woodshed. Folks, for the second edition, can we please stick a map in front, with neighborhoods and relevant sites labeled? Saffron lovingly describes them, tells us how they roll, what they’re like on a date. Sure, some readers will know where One Meridian Plaza, Fabric Row, Sister Cities Park, North Central, and the Graduate Hospital neighborhood are, but many won’t. Let’s go. Maplessness cruelly shorts both author and city.

While we’re on it, Rutgers, consider having a catch-up gazetteer. These columns are snapshots in time; readers will wonder where things stand now. What happened to the dog park at Second and Market Streets? And Roosevelt Boulevard? How goes the Rail Park project after its mud-wrestle with the Reading Company? What of plans for a new bus depot?

Philly has become a thriving town because it built on old foundations, valuing history and investing in downtown. It cherishes the little niceties that bring people here. And a series of smart policy decisions has now helped burnish this town’s rep. That’s the tale Inga Saffron tells us in Becoming Philadelphia. More than an appraiser of buildings, she is a chronicler of the ill-advised, idiotic, humane, and beautiful.

John Timpane lives and writes in New Jersey.

AUTHOR TALK

Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron discusses her book Becoming Philadelphia: How an Old American City Made Itself New Again in a Free Library virtual author talk 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 17, online via Crowdcast, at www.crowdcast.io/authorevents. Free.