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Chicago flashback: How Daniel Burnham, redivivus, inspired the Chicago Tribune's New Plan of Chicago

(Print version of this long 3800 word post)

Ever wonder what goes on in that tiny ornate octagonal room at the very top of the Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue? 

Well, it's reserved for seances. Back in the 1920's, legendary Tribune owner and Tribune Tower builder Colonel Robert McCormick found himself caught up in the backward-looking spirituality of the Gothic Revival, of which his Tribune Tower is a world-famous example. Convinced that great figures from Chicago's past could provide wise guidance and counsel to current Tribune editors whenever the city's present was so troubled or degraded as to defy all mortal comprehension, the Colonel fancifully topped off his Tower with an ornate, eight-windowed, private-access room and furnished it with a massive octagonal table equipped, at its center, with a funny-looking electronic device that somewhat resembled an old Chicago parking meter.

But this was no ordinary device. Once illuminated, it zapped out time-transcending magic beams in all directions through eons of spacetime until they found their way to the Alternate Universe of the Guiding Spirits of All Things Chicago (AUGSATC). 

For decades the octagonal tower-topping room sat vacant. But in early 2013, a desperate, felt need for guidance hit the Tribune Editors hard. Alarmed and confounded by Chicago's inability to make headway on a set of thorny, intractable issues that included youth violence and a financial crisis, they feared mightily for the city's future. So in the dead of night they convened around the massive octagonal table and fired up its magic beam, their fingers crossed in hopes of communing with no less a figure than Chicago's original planner, Daniel Burnham.

Furtively captured in this street level photo, the beams flashed until one of them entered the AUGSATC to find Daniel Burnham engaged in heated conversation about the trials, triumphs and tribulations of early 21st century Chicago with revered Chicagoans Bill Veeck, Mike Royko, Richard M. Daley, Minnie Minoso, Harold Washington and the courageous, formative educator Ella Flagg Young.

Back at the Tribune Tower, you can only imagine the surprise on the Editors' faces when it wasn't the disembodied spirit Daniel Burnham that materialized before them but, so far as they could tell, the actual, physical person of the primary author of the 1909 Plan of Chicago (appearing in person no doubt because Chicago planners had so utterly neglected him for over a hundred years).

Upon his arrival, the great man, for his part, looked anything but pleased to meet his hosts. Renowned in his time for his regal, upright bearing, charismatic charm, and outsized mustache, Burnham on this occasion had a look of worried yet fierce, even defiant intensity.

Meticulously dressed as always, and standing imposingly over the seated Editors at well over six feet, Chicago's visionary civic architect made it abundantly clear that he was in no mood to fool around. 

"What in the name of heaven," he thundered in his booming bass voice, "has become of the Spirit of Chicago? And happened to the I Will spirit my generation bequeathed to you? How on earth could have Chicago have lost it, thrown it away, discarded it in favor of the small-minded Where's Mine spirit that degrades our city today?"

Stunned, the Editors sat back.  Fleetingly, an image of the Spirit of Chicago, a "cruise ship designed for fun" and moored at Navy Pier, struck one of them. Happily he kept it to himself.

Shortly the Editors recovered, and welcomed Burnham with all due courtesy and respect. Burnham was offered the place of honor at the massive octagonal table, and just as Colonel McCormick had intended, there ensued a down-to-earth, businesslike conversation that before long produced agreement on several points:
  • Chicago has lost its way. Its educational, justice, revenue-generating and political systems are broken. And many informed Chicagoans accept that these systems are beyond repair.
  • Paralyzed and demoralized by this set of interconnected crises, Chicago lacks the energy to address them in their totality. It lacks also the vision to create a comprehensive plan for its future.
  • The sudden, transformative impact on Chicago of modern digital communications technologies has utterly disrupted the print and broadcast media that once comprised the city's stable public communications system. Both of Chicago's daily newspapers, for instance, are emerging from bankruptcy.
"All of this," one of the Editors said, "is why we have invited you to join us. Frankly, we've waited far too long. In its time, your Plan of Chicago was created to help Chicago adapt to momentous, unforeseen change. We'd be most grateful if you could help Chicago adapt to similar change in ours."

"In that case I will require your undivided attention," Burnham responded, "as my time with you is brief. Know that I am entirely familiar with your situation. Know also that I believe that Chicago's future hinges on your commitment to a digital-age idea that I will leave with you. I hope it will be of service. But it must be set in a historical context. May I proceed?" The Editors nodded their assent.

"I would ask you, first, to bear in mind that the Plan of Chicago, as it appeared when published in 1909, was in the main mainly a plan for Chicago's physical infrastructure.

"It omitted something crucial. My original three-hundred page, hand-written draft of the Plan included a detailed social and economic infrastructure. In it were components for housing, health, public education and recreation, all designed to ensure the health and happiness of all Chicagoans,  including our working classes and poor. Unfortunately, the Plan's sponsors, the Commercial Club, saw fit to excise most of these components from the final published version.

"Historian Kristen Shaffer has said of this draft that "had it been published, the Plan of Chicago would hold a very different position in the history of city planning.

"Chicago's current social crises arguably have their roots in this fatal excision. May I add that they key to solving them - the resources and the will - lie in your business community, and especially in the ability of your commercial or mainstream media to strengthen the will of the people. But the business community, however, has always blinded itself to the critical connection that exists between good schools, good hospitals and decent living and recreational conditions, on one hand, and a vital economy fueled by a skilled, productive, satisfied labor force, on the other.

"Chicago's future, I can assure you, will be no different from its past until all Chicagoans are given the chance to take fair share of responsibility for building a city that works for all residents, not from some or even most."

On this point, most of the Tribune Editors, themselves being "upperclass progressive Republicans", as biographer Thomas S. Hines has said of Burnham, nodded agreement.

Burnham continued. "Look at Chicago today. It has been decades since city planners gave serious thought to planning comprehensively for the city's future. A recent history of city planning in Chicago over the past fifty years makes this point.

"Given this neglect, it goes without saying that Chicago must plan its physical infrastructure anew. And must plan as well for its social and economic infrastructure, given the crippling human and economic consequences of the explosion of youth violence and the endemic poverty that blights huge portions of Chicago today."

"There is no denying the extraordinary efforts that the people of Chicago have recently made to beautify their city. Chicago historian Kenan Heise describes them in Chicago the Beautiful: A City Reborn

"This is splendid. But Chicago's best future calls for comparable citizen involvement in the planning process.

Then he paused. "Are you with me?" he asked bluntly. Whether sincerely or perfunctorily, the Editors nodded their assent. Many had been thinking along these lines for some time. 

"In that case, I come now to the digital-age idea I want to leave with you. But I caution you: initially, this idea will strike you as the very stuff of fantasy. As wildest speculation. On second thought, however, I hope  you will see not only the utility of it but the absolute necessity for it, dictated by the fact of your living in age of information and of constant, interactive communications.

"At present, your plans for Chicago's future, for the most part, are plans for the city's physical and economic infrastructures. Only one - that of Chicago Metropolis Strategies - has seen fit to focus on Chicago's social infrastructure. By contrast with these plans, the large idea I wish you to consider is this:
To ensure its well being in a digital age, Chicago above all needs a plan for its mental infrastructure. 
"Chicago needs, in other words, a citizen-empowering public communications system comprised of freely participating print and electronic media: media that are enthusiastically giving their audiences an ongoing, informed voice in the government decisions that affect their lives."

Not surprisingly, this thought hardly struck a chord with the Editors. Burnham observed shaking heads and glazed looks on their faces. Yet he went on as if he had seen open-minded interest.

"Gentlemen, on at least one point I am quite certain that we can agree: your digital age is one of uncertainty. It is one of unprecedented, incessant newness. And I hope, furthermore, that we can also agree that this age possesses an obvious even axiomatic political certainty. It is one whose negative outcomes are all too visible in Chicago and around the world as well:
In a digital age, citizens (and governments) either learn to work together or, failing that, entire societies - democracies especially - rapidly destabilize and become autocratic.
Burnham looked around the table. The Editors looked back. At least he now had their attention. "Affluent Chicagoans have only the vaguest idea," he went on, "of what it takes for the city's working classes merely to survive today. Most well-to-do Chicagoans appear to be unconcerned with the overwhelming evidence that democracy's root promise of equal opportunity is now all but meaningless for perhaps a third of Chicago's 2.7 million residents.

"The most visible sign of this breakdown of citizenship, and in addition a major cause of it, is seen by all Chicagoans at election time every two years in the flood of televised attack ads that with each election increasingly determine your election outcomes.

"Let us now think constructively. Gentlemen, at this moment you may or may not be able to imagine Chicagoans and City Hall working together secure the city's future, and doing so in the pages and programs of Chicago's print and electronic media. But if Chicago is to survive and thrive in a digital age, I submit that the city now has no choice but to do so.

"Chicago, like other cities, has seen a rapid declines of population and of citizenship as well, of which steadily declining voter turnouts are but one example. Citizens today live in a culture driven by commercial media that exist primarily to deliver consumers to advertisers. Media treat citizens as consumers. Yet the viability of any community hinges on the existence of a healthy balance between these two roles. As I said in my 1909 Plan:
After all has been said, good citizenship is the prime object of good city planning.
At this, Burnham paused. Looking around, he saw a mixed reaction: looks of dismay on the faces of some Editors but nods of agreement on those of others.

Leaning back, Burnham folded his hands, as if to relax. But this gesture was deceptive. "Can we agree", he said, his eyes fixed squarely on those of the Editors, but in a voice that was softened, even intimate: "Can we at the very least agree that Chicago's media - public, community, social and mainstream - have at their disposal all of the communications resources and creative talent needed to create a mental infrastructure of the kind that I propose?

"Can we furthermore agree that these resources could be used to do for citizenship what they now do for entertainment, travel, health, commerce, shopping and sports?"

At this, a few Editors looked unsettled. Hearing jovial side talk about the impossibility of ever getting Chicago's media into the same room, let alone working together on the same project, Burnham paused.

Then all talk ceased. Silence filled the octagonal room. An impasse had been reached. At length, one Editor had the wit to articulate, much to the amusement of the others, a question that finally broke the ice:

"Mr. Burnham, we would be happy to commit ourselves to this project if you, for your part, would be willing to convene Chicago's other media so they can make the same commitment."

With just a hint of a smile, Burnham continued as follows: "It is paramount that Chicago's mental infrastructure be credible. And that it possess integrity. For this reason, it will not be possible for any single medium or group of media to own this precious civic resource. Nor can City Hall control it. This resource must be universally seen as belonging to Chicago and to Chicagoans.
Chicago's mental infrastructure, like its 25 mile public lakefront, must be seen by all as Chicago's gift to itself and to its people.

"From this it follows that Chicagoans themselves will have significant, visible roles to play in creating this civic resource. Its creation will be an evolving, citywide project that taps deep into the energies and talents of all Chicagoans: those of its community and government leaders, its non-profits, its businesses, and its places of worship. And most important," he added, "its creation will reflect the energies and talents of the students at area schools and universities who literally represent Chicago's future."

Predictably, these assertions prompted all manner of questions about governance from the Editors. The octagonal room was soon buzzing with them. Who would direct and manage this civic resource? Who would protect it from abuse, ensure its integrity, oversee its funding? These concerns all boiled to to a single question: how can anyone possibly create a public communications system that belongs to everyone - and hence to no one in particular?

To such questions Burnham had answers, and sound ones. At the same time, however, he insisted that his proposal for a mental infrastructure had a degree of risk to it: prudent risk, he called it. He readily affirmed that this resource was an experiment, like democracy itself, just as Thomas Jefferson had spoken of "our experiment of democracy". 

"And while the mental infrastructure I wish you to consider is an enterprise that may succeed or fail," Burnham said, again leaning forward, "I would challenge anyone in this room to devise a better digital-age test to secure the survival and health of the idea government of the people, by the people and for the people."

With this thought, the great man folded his hands and fell silent. Not one responded to him. Hearing none, he slumped back into his chair, suddenly and completely lost in thought. In an instant he had aged 20 years.

Preoccupied, Burnham now stared at nothing in particular, tired of a sudden, world-weary.

"Gentlemen", he finally said, coming around, "I have a confession to make. There was a time when I spoke fondly of the Plan of Chicago as a living thing . . . asserting itself with ever-growing insistence as the years go by, its spirit passing on and regenerating itself from one generation to the next.  I even spoke of the City developing a soul, as historian Carl Smith has noted.

Unfortunately, however, history seems to have proven me wrong in both of these fond hopes."

The Editors felt his pain.  At length, one responded, speaking for all. "As long as there is a lakefront, Chicago will remember and cherish your contributions to our city. But, Mr. Burnham, you are asking for a great deal. As a newspaper we of course have a civic responsibility. But for newspapers these are hard times, as we said earlier. I hate to disappoint you, but citizenship doesn't sell newspapers or attract advertisers. Sports and violence do."

"So then," Burnham said quietly, without a moment's hesitation, "Will it be sports, violence or active citizens who ultimately liberate your broken, demoralized city from the multiple crises which by your own account now engulf it ?"

"Gentlemen, tell me frankly: what matters more to Chicagoans: the fate of their sports teams or the fate of their families, neighborhoods, city and region?

Another silence ensued until a younger Editor made bold to say, "OK, well, so you have us there. Reality trumps fantasy." Mild laughter filled the octagonal room.

Burnham then repeated to the Editors what he had insisted to businessmen in his time: "With things as they should be, every business man in Chicago would make more money than he does now."

With this, he sat up, suddenly re-energized, even rejuvenated. Standing and looking out eastward to the sight of Chicago's Navy Pier - one of his own creations - he turned to the Editors with yet another question.

"Commercial media today seek large audiences. So what audience is larger: is it the fan base for your Bears, Bulls or Cubs, Sox or Blackhawks or is it the audience of all Chicagoans, young and old, city and suburban, rich and poor, citizens and public officials?"

Hearing this, the Editors could only shrug their assent. Burnham rolled on.

"Gentlemen, strange as it may sound, you have yet to enter the digital age. In an age of interactive communications, passive citizenship - telling people what to do, even informing them (as essential as doing so is) - does not sell newspapers. What sells newspapers is active citizenship: listening to citizens, connecting them, empowering them to make all manner of useful changes that everyone can see. All of this Chicago's media could have done twenty years ago, when the city's problems were as serious as they are today. But they didn't, and all of them lost market share to online media."

"There's an inspirational film of yours about baseball. If you build it, it says, they will come. A few at first. Then, in numbers. And finally en masse.

So let it be with the idea I came here to leave with you. Let Chicagoans finally, and at long last, discover for themselves - gradually - the enormous benefits and deep satisfactions of active citizenship, as people like Jane Addams called it my time. 

Again, Burnham did not wait for a response. "Gentlemen, before I leave you, I must say two things. First, a comment on a saying for which I am remembered:

"My comment is this: what in fact has the magic to stir men's blood is not so much big plans in themselves as the media through which they are communicated to the public. "The medium is the message," as a media scholar said fifty years ago. In my time the dominant medium, the daily newspaper aside, was the book.

And in the Plan of Chicago, it was the noble, logical diagram of my plan, so splendidly illustrated by Jules GuĂ©rin, that moved Chicago to realize as much of it as Chicago did." It is not without reason that historian Finis Farr has called this book “one of the most beautiful examples of book-making the world has seen”. 

"So much for media in my time. Today, Chicago has no single dominant medium or media, but rather a host of media that have the magic to stir men's blood. And indeed they stir it, incessantly. Yet the blood they stir for the most part promotes fear and misunderstanding. They polarize and alienate Chicagoans of all ages and backgrounds from each other.

"The trick now is for your media to inform, inspire and mobilize Chicagoans - young people included - to act constructively on the matters that vitally affect their lives.

"From the standpoint of monetary profit, I would remind you of a truth that marketers have seen more clearly than politicians or media professionals: loyalty to a brand, party or medium begins at an early age.

"There is a precedent for involving young people - even very young people - as active citizens in building Chicago's future. In my time, the Chicago School Board for many years made a simplified account of my Plan - Wacker's Manual of the Plan of Chicago - required reading for all Chicago students at the eighth grade level". This book opened with an explicit statement about "the part Chicago school children are to play in creating the greater Chicago of the future." 

Wacker's Manual as CPS 8th Graders saw it Burnham's time.

Wacker's Manual as we see it today.

"A century ago, the teaching of citizenship was a one-way, top-down matter of adults molding children into citizens. But times have changed! Today, the recovery of citizenship calls for young people and adults to listen to each other, and to respect each other's intelligence and experience. It calls for ongoing, problem-solving, opportunity-maximizing civic dialogues on any and all matters of importance to them.

"In Chicago's high-crime neighborhoods, for instance, these dialogues might take place in any number of venues. They could occur, for instance, between beat police officers and the youngsters they see daily on the street. They could occur in small groups, in large groups, or in individualized mentoring settings."  

"Gentlemen," Burnham finally said, "I see my time with you is up," as an audible ting was heard from the parking meter-like device at the center of the octagonal table. "I assure you, all of us at the AUGSATC will closely follow your response to our conversation tonight, whatever it may be. With luck, and God willing, this meeting will not be our last.

The Editors assured him it would not. And with that, the great man rose from the table and dematerialized into the night. The room felt empty. The Editors suddenly felt curiously alone. Quietly they themselves dispersed into the night, each absorbed in his or her own thoughts.

Next day, however, they met and compared notes, and began intensive planning. Months later, the Tribune launched its Burnham-inspired New Plan of Chicago with a truly memorable editorial that all Chicagoans should read. It began as follows:

So where does all this leave us? Will tthe Tribune Editors once again fire up their magic beam to summon Chicago's original planner to the octagonal table? And if Burnham answers their call, what will he have to say about Year One of the New Plan's promise to "finish Burnham's work"? It could be, however, that the Tribune Editors will feel the need to summon up some other great figure from Chicago's past. If so, who should that figure be? Stay tuned and vote YOUR choice at our reader participatory poll (right sidebar).

One more thing. If the topic comes up, what will some great figure from Chicago's past have to say about the five Plans for Chicago's future that are now on the table? Here they are:
  1. From Mayor Emanuel (parts of a plan, actually, that do not exist in a single source):
    1. $7 billion dollar Infrastructure Plan (2012)
    2. Youth Violence Plan (2012)
    3. "Plan to Turn Around Chicago" - Time Magazine (2013)
    4. Launched in June, 2013, ThriveChicago is a local "cradle to career" education program  modeled on the national StriveTogether Network, "which provides a roadmap for harnessing the power of collective impact." Here's the Dec 4 press release from the Mayor's office announcing the ThriveChicago's  "Comprehensive Baseline Report" of accomplishments to date. (2014)
    5. Mayor Emanuel announces the launch of his own online community forum, CHIdeas. (2014) 
    6. As reported on WBEZ radio, The Mayor's Commission for a Safer Chicago released its Strategic Plan for 2015 (December 16, 2014) 
  2. The Tribune's New Plan of Chicago  (2013, ongoing)
  3.  The Chicago Community Trust's OnTheTable invitation to 10,000 Chicagoans to "Pull up a chair and shape our community's future" (2014)
  4. Chicago Metropolitan Planning Agency (CMAP): GoTo 2040. an elaborate plan, focused mainly on economic development and physical infrastructure. Concerned to link city and suburbs. Social issues and education, are "not in our funding stream", says one staffer.
  5. Chicago Metropolis Strategies' (CMS) plan entitled Chicago Metropolis 2020 (2001). This quite comprehensive plan has the strongest focus on social issues of any plan in the past 30 years. CMS was funded by the Commercial Club of Chicago, the sponsors of Burnham's 1909 Plan. But CMS ceased operations in March, 2014, with its activities being farmed out to other groups. 


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