Reviewed by Steve Tartaglione
I live in a city where it’s fashionable to be a cynic. You can blame the weather, the traffic, the economy, or the years of neglectful and irresponsible decision-making by Mayor Daley’s administration for such a lack of trust. Quite frankly, it’s been hip and easy to be skeptical of many Chicago movers and shakers. Plenty of people low-fived under restaurant tables when Daley’s Olympic bid failed. The Games would undo Chicago, many thought. The massive scale of construction and the fear that taxpayers might have to pick up the tab when all was said and done were enough to deter a significant chunk of the city’s population from backing the bid. We, the citizens, knew best. But I think that Chicago’s cynicism has evolved from an easily forgivable character flaw into something more beast-like and disheartening.
Truth be told, Chicagoans like talking big. We like dreaming and we like dreamers. We have soft spots for ambitious folks; how else can you explain 240,000 Obama supporters standing in Grant Park for his victory speech on Election Night, 2008? What really gets to our hearts, however, is a person who can wrangle that ambition, corral it, and harness it in a direct and productive way. Chicago needs another dreamer and a planner.
What we need is another Daniel Burnham. I can’t think of a more appropriate time for Carl Smith’s The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City to be chosen by the Chicago Public Library for their One Book, One Chicago campaign. Within these pages is an enthusiasm (and yes, an idealism) that Chicago and its people desperately need to recover. You may question the effectiveness of the 1909 Plan of Chicago—a document outlining the various improvements to Chicago’s lakefront, railways, parks, streets, and civic buildings that would help shape a modern, sophisticated city—or you may question the motives behind the renovation of a struggling urban landscape, but it’s much harder to be cynical of change after reading about such a vast, explorative undertaking by Burnham and the Commercial Club of Chicago one century ago.
With refreshing strength and clarity of voice, Smith maps how the Plan and the city took shape from Burnham’s first vision to the implementation of those plans in the years following his death in 1912. The illustrations—many of which were included in The Plan of Chicago itself—beautifully accent Smith’s narrative style, and provide ample opportunities for the reader to envision the Chicago Burnham and the Commercial Club of Chicago so extensively planned to create. At times both celebratory and critical, the book navigates a stretch of Chicago history unfamiliar to many of the city’s inhabitants.
Though exhaustively researched, the book isn’t bogged down by Smith’s attention to detail. In fact, Smith’s most impressive feat may be the way he crafts succinct, inspired sentences: “The Plan long ago ceased to be a collection of proposals and Burnham a mere architect and urban planner. They have become landmarks in the cityscape, as palpable a presence for any planner or civic leader as Michigan Avenue or Grant Park" (154).