July 7th | Posted In Philadelphia

The Dept. of Records Has Some Awesome Videos for Your Procrastination Needs

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The Dept. of Records has a handful of videos on YouTube from the 60s and 70s that are absolute time vampires. Most are your standard, made-for-school film strips. My personal favorite is “Design for a City”.  Produced in 1963, the video is a fascinating peak at a time just before cities across America would see massive population declines.  Philadelphia, like most other north eastern cities, was primarily concerned about how to deal with surging populations and increased traffic from cars. Few realized that the rise of automobiles and the development of large highway systems would literally drive urban populations into the ‘burbs.

It also details a plan to develop the area around Independence Hall, which had fallen into disrepair.  Now known as Old City and Society Hill, it’s arguably the most vibrant part of town these days.

Not all the exciting plans of the 60s aged as well as that.  Some of the ugliest buildings in town today were built in this era, but they are lovingly shot as masterful designs of modernity, the way some might film the Comcast Center or the new Barnes Foundation. Vincent Kling is name dropped as visionary, even though his legacy has been intricately tied to the drabness that is Penn Center. The SEPTA Concourse is brand new, and considered “progress”.

Still, the highlight is listening to a young Edmund Bacon explain how we need to think in total design concepts. These ideas still drive urban design today. It’s basically the same thing that Inga Saffron writes about day-in, day-out: we have a plan, goshdarnit, let’s stick to it.

But the lowlight follows soon after. A series of exciting new projects are planned in the near future: “one of the great physical treasures of the City is the Delaware River. After years of commercial use, it is now destined for new life….”  Right after that, the video reviews plans for the still-unnamed Dilworth Plaza, never expecting it will require a complete redesign and overhaul 50 years later (and about 40 years too late). And that is near what “will ultimately become to become one of the nation’s great shopping centers”, or, as we call it now, the Gallery.

Really, fascinating stuff, and watching the old, old visions of the city is endlessly entertaining: men in suits everywhere, women only in dresses getting on green street trollies. Hell, even the racism is quaint (the video shows what seems to be an OK neighborhood, and it takes a few seconds to realize what the narrator finds so “undesirable” about it). Ultimately, it shows the central lesson of history: things don’t really change.

Some things change but these are superficial – what we consider a good job is different now, what we consider good architecture is different now, but knowing that jobs and development are critical to the city’s success remains.

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