Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Richardson Dilworth, an Urbanist for the Ages

I was born and grew up in New York City. I didn't move to Philadelphia until I was in my thirties. Aside from Benjamin Franklin and Grace Kelly, I think the first Philadelphian I heard of was Edmund Bacon (father of Kevin). And the second was Richardson Dilworth.

But I confess I didn't know very much about Dilworth until I sat down and read Peter Binzen's excellent 2014 biography, Richardson Dilworth, Last of the Bare-Knuckled Aristocrats. I didn't know he'd been a 19-year-old Marine rifleman at the battle of Belleau Wood in World War I, or that he'd won the Silver Star on Guadalcanal in World War II, or that he'd struggled with alcohol for most of his life.

And what a life it was. Born to wealth, educated at Yale and Yale Law School, a successful law career, then four jobs with the City of Philadelphia -- treasurer, district attorney, mayor, and president of the Philadelphia Board of Education.

And what a cast of characters. Moses Annenberg, one of Dilworth's most important law clients. Jack Kelly, Olympic oarsman and father of Grace. Albert M. Greenfield, Gus Amsterdam, Bernard Watson.

Sam Dash, later famous as counsel for the Senate Watergate Committee, worked for Dilworth. So did William T. Coleman, later U.S. Secretary of Transportation, and A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., later chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

A bold and innovative reformer with a calculated temper and a remarkably disarming sense of humor, Dilworth's breakthrough moment came in 1951, when he teamed with Joe Clark to oust a Republican political machine that had run Philadelphia for 67 years. Clark became mayor; Dilworth became district attorney, and then succeeded Clark as mayor.

As district attorney, Dilworth did something that would be worthy of note even today. He insisted on fair trials. As one observer put it, "He wanted to make sure justice was done and if mistakes were made to admit them." (P. 116.)

U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy tangled with Dilworth in 1953. McCarthy was busy hunting for communists in the government, and Alger Hiss had been convicted of perjury. Dilworth reportedly said that 1,000 Alger Hisses hurt less than one McCarthy. McCarthy challenged Dilworth to a televised debate, and at the debate Dilworth defended his statement. "We can put traitors in jail," Dilworth said to McCarthy, "but demagogues remain too long above and beyond the processes of the law." (P. 119.)

Elected mayor in 1955, Dilworth turned out to be an urbanist for the ages. His work with Ed Bacon -- particularly the revival of Society Hill -- is well known. Other stories, less well known, place him at the center of debates that are going on today.

Parking in South Philly was a problem even in 1961, when, as Binzen puts it, "the mayor proposed requiring residents to pay for overnight parking spaces in front of their houses. The proceeds of the $40-a-year licenses" -- about $320 in today's dollars -- "were to be earmarked for building off-street parking lots.  Such a plan worked in Milwaukee, but Dilworth's scheme got nowhere. When he confronted his critics at a stormy public meeting, rock throwers targeted the building. A city councilman, Tom Foglietta, was cut by flying glass." (P. 140.)

Dilworth also wanted to ban cars in the center of the city. Writes Binzen, "His concept was to create a restricted area that would comprise some 400 blocks, from 8th Street west to the Schuylkill River and from Spring Garden Street south to Lombard and South Streets." (P. 151.)

After leaving the mayor's office, Dilworth became involved in a project to develop high-speed rail service between Boston and Washington. President Kennedy encouraged his work, but Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson of Texas, was an entirely different proposition. When he finally got to meet with Johnson, Dilworth says, "It was very clear that he just couldn't be less interested. He just sat there wondering what the hell we were talking about. All he could envision was where he lived. And he would either get a helicopter or an airplane or else get in that enormous Lincoln and drive on a straight road to Austin at 95 miles an hour. So who needed or wanted a train?" (Pp. 155-156.)

Well, we do.

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