Daniel Burnham: relic or relevant? | Bleader

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Daniel Burnham: relic or relevant?

Posted By on 10.11.06 at 12:04 PM

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Why does Daniel Burnham appeal even to critics who don't care for his monumental vision of an all-classical city?  Northwestern University historian Carl Smith explains in his new book, The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City. Burnham's big plan expressed our desire "to reach beyond piecemeal solutions and act efficaciously on the grandest scale," he writes. "At the very moment [1909] when life became modern and Americans realized that twentieth-century urban experience was fraught with limitations and contingencies, Burnham insisted that if we are just bold and brave and determined enough, it is possible to master time and space and make all things right. The Plan's very real historical appeal lies precisely in the fact that it proclaims history is no match for human will and cities can determine rather than merely accept their fate."

Assuming Burnham was right in 1909, how about 2006? 

(1) Then Chicago was dominated by locally run businesses and banks. Today few are headquartered here; the rich men who determine our city's fate may not even know how to get to a Cubs game!

(2) When a solid majority of the Chicago City Council recently passed and repassed an ordinance requiring some of those businesses to pay their help better, the mayor vetoed it on the grounds that those stores would simply choose to locate just outside the city limits.  In other words, nowadays cities must "accept their fate."

(3) To the extent that Burnham's plan is now written into our urban geography, it's because its authors convinced a majority of Chicagoans to tax themselves to build it. As Smith writes, "Between 1912 and 1931, Chicagoans approved some eighty-six Plan-related bond issues covering 17 different projects with a combined cost of $234 million." No more. Number of bond issues voted for Millennium Park? Zero. Mayor Richard M. Daley was "adamant about avoiding tax revenues to build Millennium Park," writes Loyola historian Timothy J. Gilfoyle in Millennium Park: Creating a Chicago Landmark. The mayor relied heavily on the fund-raising prowess of John Bryan, then CEO of the Sara Lee Corporation, to fund the half-billion-dollar project. For better and for worse, the park is what it is, not by virtue of an overall plan, but by virtue of which objects and projects could attract wealthy donors who wanted their names attached.

What would Burnham think?

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