The Man with the Plan
Burnham explained, again
The year 2009 was the centenary of the publication of Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago. By then I had little new to say that I hadn’t said for the Reader in 1993’s “The Man with the Plan,” but I was kept busy that year saying what I knew in new ways in pieces like this.
Valedictorians in Chicago area high schools may have to deliver their addresses this spring standing atop milk crates, because every lectern in six counties may have been trucked into the city for events celebrating the centenary of the 1909 Plan of Chicago and its principal author and promoter, Daniel Hudson Burnham.
Some 250 Chicago-area civic groups have organized tours, seminars, conferences, lecturer and lunch-hour discussions over tuna fish. The Art Institute, Newberry Library, and Chicago History Museum have cobbled together Burnham-related exhibits; tour bus operators hope to attract big crowds to a Burnham centennial tour titled Make Big Plans. Books and a new documentary film have been commissioned, even an original orchestra work—by composer Michael Torke, to be debuted at the Grant Park Music Festival on June 19. There is talk about erecting a monument to Burnham—this in a city that has already a lakefront park, a Loop hotel and three public schools named after him.
Every town big enough to need a traffic light has a master plan to manage development in the public interest. Most of them are ignored. In Chicago, however, the Plan is a holy book, and Burnham—the citizen-planner, architect-businessman, and promoter-prophet who invented modern city planning, saved the lakefront for the city's regular guys, and transformed an ugly boom town into a "world-class city"—is Chicago's patron saint. It's all a bit too much, even for a city that seldom knows when enough is enough.
Burnham is an unlikely civic hero. He was a patrician who is considered the protector of the city's hoi polloi. He was a visionary who was able to see farthest ahead by looking backward. He is the model planner, yet much of what he proposed was not built or half-built or should never have been built at all. And Chicagoans recall him so fondly less because of the new Chicago he imagined than the old Chicago he represents.
One will hear a great deal about big plans in 2009 but not nearly enough about failed plans. Looked at in terms of Chicago's needs, not to mention the Plans ambition, relatively little was built, and much of that was left unfinished.
What had been hopefully titled the Plan of Chicago ended up being merely a Plan of the Lakefront. The part of the city that most people treasure most is Burnham's inspiration. Grant Park, North Michigan Avenue and the bridge that leads to it, Wacker Drive, Northerly Island (home to the Shedd and the Adler) and what became Navy Pier—all were prescribed in some form by the 1909 Plan.
Burnham enjoys a reputation as the people's champion for his commitment to making the lakefront and its parks, pleasure grounds and museums open to the public. This confuses our social vocabulary with his. Fear of the unwashed was general among Chicago's elites in 1909. The word used in the Plan perhaps more than any other, apart from "beauty," is "order." While Burnham understood this in mainly aesthetic terms, there is no doubt that it had a social dimension, too. His plan called for a public lakeshore, yes, meaning one owned by park authorities, "in order that the whole may be effectually policed."
By making the Chicago lakefront safe from Chicagoans, Burnham made it safe for tourists. Tourists of all sorts flock to it—day trippers from downstate, conventioneers, travelers from all continents who come expecting Capone and are dazzled to find a Paris by the pond, even Chicagoans who treasure the downtown lakefront precisely because it is so unlike Chicago.
The lakefront chapter of the 1909 Plan was explicitly a tourist promotion scheme. (Burnham has been to Chicago hoteliers what Bernini was to the popes.) Enthusing about his proposed new lakefront parkway, Burnham wrote, "The community which can keep its earnings at home prospers . . . . When this parkway shall be created, our people will stay here, and others will come to dwell among us—the people who now spend time and large amounts of money in Paris, in Vienna, and on the Riviera." Recast that to read, "the people who now spend time and large amounts of money in Hinsdale, Schaumburg, and on the North Shore" and you have summed up the past two decades of development trends in the greater Loop. Leisure spending has become crucial to de-industrialized economies like Chicago's where, National-Louis University professor Costas Spirou has noted, "tourism-focused economic restructuring . . . fuel(s) emerging urban-planning strategies."
Burnham's luck—we can't really call it genius—was to anticipate that modern Chicagoans would come to relate to their own hometown as tourists. They reside in increasing class-defined enclaves and visit "Chicago"—that is, the civic commons in the form of the downtown and lakefront that all people in the region share—as do tourists from similar places on the other side of the city line, or the other side of the state, or the world. Chicago has been among the first to exploit its potential as a tourist destination for its own people in this way, and no wonder—it started in 1909.
About most other aspects of the new industrial city, Burnham was less than prescient. The Plan's transportation proposals included proto-expressways, and so are usually praised as modern. Yet he failed to appreciate how fundamentally certain new technologies such as the private motorcar would alter the ways cities functioned. His grand plan to rationalize the centralized railroad city was published just at the historical moment when it was being replaced by the decentralized, center-less, automobile-based city.
The famous Chicagoland architect/promoter who understood that future and planned for it was not Burnham. Rather than repair the country's Chicagos, Frank Lloyd Wright believed they ought to be abandoned. That conviction informed his Broadacre City concept, which would have transformed the city and region into a superior suburb rather than an inferior Paris.
If the Plan's transportation proposals anticipated, even if imperfectly, the 20th century, the rest of it "reverted to the cultural values of the nineteenth century" in the opinion of Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, author of Culture and the City, her 1976 book about cultural philanthropy in Chicago. "One is struck by the contrast between the modern quality of the Burnham Plans comprehensive design and treatment of technical problems such as transportation on the one hand," Horowitz concluded, "and the archaic character of its understanding of culture on the other."
Burnham has for years been beaten up by critics—including this one—for his putative indifference to the City Healthful or City Just in favor of the City Beautiful. As it turns out, that is not fair to Burnham. Scholar Kristen Shaffer has gone some way toward restoring the reputation of Burnham, if not of the Burnham plan. It turns out that Burnham's early drafts include admonitions to provide day-care centers and improved housing for the poor.
Still, he was no Jane Addams. (Neither was Jane Addams, but that is another story.) He and most of his Commercial Club colleagues were progressives in the parlance of the day. That meant they were essentially conservative men who believed that it was wiser to make the city a little better on their terms than to risk it being made a lot better on someone else's. Burnham proposed, for example, new parks for the inland neighborhoods that would introduce poor workers to air and sunshine and wholesome recreations, in the hope of rendering them a less toxic presence, politically and socially.
What is interesting is not that Burnham held such retrograde views—he was a man of his class and time—but that so many of us seem to hold them, too. Burnham and his fellow progressive businessmen believed that visual and aesthetic harmony was "the physical prerequisite for the emergence of a harmonious social order." That dream—and it is a dream—lingers in the sociology that informs the city's massive Hope VI project that transforms public housing tenants by transforming public housing. At the core is the hope that relocating the poor to nicer middle-class neighborhoods, will inspire them to learn the lessons of their betters and become productive citizens. Turns out a century isn't such a long time after all.
Anniversaries are usually occasions for reconsidering the past. To look back from 2009 to Burnham's Chicago, however, is to confront the present city. Since Chicago finds itself a century later facing the same dilemmas as Burnham did, it is no surprise that many of its civic and commercial elites would propose the same solution. "With nothing tying it together, the region is breaking down into disconnected parts," moaned Crain s Chicago Business editorially in February. "Never have we needed a comprehensive plan like Mr. Burnham's more."
The fact is, Chicago has at least three 21st-century growth plans like Burnham's, at least in ambition. City Hall's central area plans published in 1958, 1973, 1983 and 2003, like the just-released amended update to the last one known as Chicago's Central Area Action Plan, were all regarded as updates of the Burnham plan, since they are infused by the same ethos and offer up some of the same ideas. Chicago Metropolis 2020 is a regional economic development plan supported by the same Commercial Club that backed the Plan of Chicago. It seeks to improve public systems needed to make both transportation and workers more efficient by reducing poverty and sprawl. The Chicago 2016 Olympics backers promise that the new construction needed for the Games will—finally—complete Burnham's recreational lakefront.
Finally, there is Go To 2040, which has been described as "the first truly comprehensive regional plan for metropolitan Chicago." Its author is Chicagoland's federally sanctioned planning agency, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, or CMAP, which this summer will be presenting the public with different scenarios of the region's growth on which the plan (to be released in 2010) will be based.
So Chicago has plenty of plans. Does it have another Burnham? Many think it does, in the person of Richard M. Daley. In his tenure, the younger Daley has done much to polish Burnham's trophies (the Wacker Drive rehabilitation) and has undertaken other public improvements consistent with Burnham principles, if not his specific precepts, such as rerouting Lake Shore Drive to create today's "museum campus" south of Grant Park. If at times he has acted more like a bully than a Burnham—remember his midnight vandalism of Meigs Field to redeem Burnham's Northerly Island?—he remains in most other respects a perfect Burnhamite.
Like Burnham, Daley bases his notions of the ideal city on European models, Paris chief among them. Daley is remarkably well-traveled for a mayor from a family that regarded a streetcar ride outside of Bridgeport as a foreign adventure. ("It is said that whenever Richard and Maggie Daley visit European cities," wrote Spirou in his 2006 article, Urban Beautification: The Construction of a New Identity in Chicago, "Chicagoans may have to brace for new planning initiatives.")
One could argue that what Chicago needs is not another Burnham the planner but another Burnham the promoter. Astonishing as it seems today, the city built much of Burnham's improvements out of its own pocket. "Between 1912 and 1931," Carl Smith reminds us in his book The Plan of Chicago, "Chicagoans approved some 86 Plan-related bond issues covering 17 different projects with a combined cost of $234 million." Architect Stanley Tigerman, who knows a promoter when he sees one, has called Burnham the Elmer Gantry of architecture and planning. The Plan was his bible, and he had an advantage over any real preacher in being able to offer sinners a glimpse of heaven in form of Jules Guerin's beguiling water-colors of his celestial Chicago.
Like these plans, the 1909 Plan did not fail to rescue Chicago from itself because it was never wholly implemented. It failed because it tried to solve the wrong problems. It focused exclusively on rebuilding the public realm, when the problems in the Chicago of 1909 were rooted in the failures of the private realm. The chaotic land use, the filth in the air and on the streets, the slums—all owed to the social irresponsibility of private wealth, just as haphazard growth in city and hinterland owes to politically disposed private property decisions that have rendered the region less livable and less economically efficient—are precisely the ills that the 1909 Plan was intended to remedy. To the extent that the Plan's proposals touched on private interests at all (one thinks of the quixotic attempt to rationalize the operations of the private rail companies) its sensible notions were ignored. A century later, the city is still trying to speed rail freight around the city center.
Today? One of the things that is crucial to the region's economic future is a plan that addresses, as his did, the essential transportation needs of Chicago. The problem is that the city that reversed rivers and lifted itself out of the mud these days can't even pay for its own buses. Money on the scale needed can be obtained only by pooling the region's resources in a region that organized itself politically to resist it. How does a city build for itself when decisions ultimately reside with a people who barely acknowledge the existence of the public realm? Unless that question is at least addressed, the city will have little to look forward to except for some future anniversary that will recall the days when all Chicago needed to make itself great was a plan. ●