June 13, 2007

Book review: "The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City," by Carl Smith

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The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City
By Carl Smith
The University of Chicago Press / ISBN: 978-0-226-76471-9

It's simply impossible to understand the importance of architect Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago without first looking at some pre-Plan statistics: for instance, the fact that from 1840 to 1900, the population of the city grew from 5,000 to over two million; that by then the city limits stretched over 180 square miles, including 3,000 miles of streets and 1,400 miles of alleys; that barely half of those streets were paved, and less than a tenth of the alleyways; that the city was still employing over 30,000 gas streetlamps by the turn of the century, with electricity still being relatively rare and expensive; that its citizens consumed half a billion gallons of water a day, all of it coming from Lake Michigan, the same place the city was dumping most of its garbage; that apart from the downtown Loop, the vast majority of the city's buildings were still constructed out of wood, as were most of the sidewalks; that in its poorest neighborhoods, population density was sometimes over 300 people per acre (versus the 10 per acre of the upper-class neighborhoods); that there were no zoning laws in those days, making it perfectly legal (for example) to construct a slaughterhouse next door to a residential neighborhood; that the city had no real sewage system to speak of, no park system, no library system, only the most rudimentary of school systems. When people referred to the "cesspool of urban living" in those days, they weren't joking; like most other big cities during the height of the Industrial Age, Chicago in the 1800s was a veritable petri dish of smog, filth, disease and danger.

It was a combination of these factors, in fact, that led to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, in which a third of the existing city was burnt beyond recognition, including the entire downtown business district; but those blowhard Chicagoans, God bless their stubborn souls, weren't about to let a little thing like their city burning to the ground get in the way of their plans, and it was in the shadow of these events that the Commercial Club of Chicago first decided to take on the challenge of rebuilding the city, of transforming it into something no one had ever seen before. There was a lot of that going on in those days, as a matter of fact -- between the City Beautiful movement of the late 1800s, the Progressive social reformers, the brand-new academic field of "city planning," and all those high-minded private civic organizations that existed back then, practically everyone and their mother had a plan for how to rebuild Chicago, with all of them vying not just for the public's attention but also the official support of the city government. And thus did the club hire Burnham to make them their own plan; and as traditional lore has it, was met with crowning enthusiasm and the warm handshake of the city council, leading to the quick implementation of most of its recommendations.

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Ah, but according to historian Carl Smith in his wonderful new The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City, how we traditionally think of the Plan and its implementation couldn't be further from the truth of what actually happened: that the plan itself was much more controversial than history now remembers, that its inspiration came much more from a desire to keep the city's wealthy elite happy than from any high-minded civic ideals, and that indeed the Plan would never have been adopted by the city in the first place if not for the spectacularly expensive public-relations campaign the Commercial Club waged for decades, including literally throwing local politicians out of office who wouldn't support it, as well as convincing the public school system to make the Plan required reading for every single student in Chicago (which wasn't that difficult, seeing how the Superintendent of Schools also happened to be a club member).

In fact, that might be the first really surprising thing one learns about the Plan from reading this volume, that it wasn't the government at all that commissioned it but rather a private organization; a souped-up version of a chamber of commerce, if you will, one that still exists to this day, and one so powerful in its heyday that American Presidents would literally seek them out when visiting the city. Hey, it was the Victorian Age, what can you say? It was a time before labor unions, a time before government regulation and oversight, a time when industrial barons like George Pullman could afford to literally build entire cities that they exclusively owned. More so than even our modern times (and that's saying quite a bit), back at the turn of the 20th century it seemed as though the rich really did run everything, from the schools to the scientific community, even the government itself.

And as Smith meticulously shows in The Plan of Chicago through old correspondence and the like, even Burnham himself was not immune to this mindset; that in fact he saw his Plan as primarily a tool for keeping the rich living in Chicago and spending their money here, with the "trickle-down effect" of that spending eventually helping the poor as well. It's a legitimately controversial position for Smith to take, given how both history and the average Chicago citizen likes to look back on Burnham and the Plan; of his fabled "make no little plans" speech, his dedication to parks in working-class neighborhoods and the like. And make no mistake, Burnham sincerely was interested in civic topics and the betterment of the lower classes; but as Smith shows, Burnham also believed that such high-minded plans were of no use if there were no rich people around to pay for them.

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In fact, Smith successfully argues in his book that Burnham maybe wasn't that interested in human beings at all, when all is said and done; that a common complaint of the Plan back in the day was of how rigid and grandiose it all was, and how it didn't even for a moment contemplate the idea of human-sized architecture, of small and livable neighborhoods. And indeed, if you look through the lush illustrations that the Commercial Club commissioned to go with the Plan, there's a lot to be said for this -- how humans are barely even depicted in the drawings and paintings, appearing as insignificant dots most of the time that they appear at all, with the massive edifices the Plan calls for taking dominance instead. But then again, very similar plans had actually been put into place recently in Paris, Washington DC and other cities, and seemed to be going fine there; and in an age where there had been no cohesive city planning at all previously, perhaps the lofty, grand scope of Burnham's vision can be forgiven.

Smith's Plan of Chicago is a great complement to Burnham's Plan of Chicago, a perfect companion to the original tome for anyone who ends up reading it too; far from being just a critical look at the plan itself, Smith's book details the state of the city at the time that led to such a plan, the massive amount of resources that went into publicizing the Plan, and the various long-term effects the Plan has ended up having on Chicago overall. And that, when all is said and done, might be the most interesting part of the story of all; because even though only a portion of Burnham's specific recommendations ended up actually being enacted, a strong argument could be made that such modern things as the city's zoning commission, the various historic and preservationist groups that now exist, and even Chicago's current obsession with bicycles, can all somehow be traced back in one way or another to Burnham and his original utopian vision. Although many of us now take the relative cleanliness and safety of big cities for granted, Smith's book really opens one's eyes to just how much hard work went into creating such urban environments in the first place, and how much of a debt we owe people like Burnham for laying the groundwork. The impossible dreams such people had a century ago have now actually come to life in our modern times; and who knows what Chicago has in store for itself a century from now? As long as there are still "souls to stir," as Burnham put it, I'm sure it'll be a very exciting place indeed.

Out of 10: 9.0

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:43 PM, June 13, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |