The Legacy of Daniel Burnham

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s hearts.

Daniel Burnham has become reanimated as a paramount historical and cultural figure of Chicago with the centennial commemoration of his 1909 Plan for Chicago. From the Museum of Science & Industry’s recent recreation of the 1893 Fair, to the dozens of museum exhibits lauding the 1909 Plan, to the recently opened Burnham Pavilions in Millennium Park, to modern urban plans such as Chicago Metropolis 2020, to the incarnation of Burnham as literary figure in Devil and the White City, Burnham has been exorcised from the past, perpetually informing the present and future of Chicago. The nostalgia for all things Burnham insists that we come to terms with his imprint upon the city within historical and contemporary contexts.

The social, political, and cultural underpinnings of the late 19th century shaped and influenced the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition: an era marked by mass industrialization, immense immigration, and dramatic upsurges in class unrest. The goal of planners, among whom Burnham took lead, was to act as an antithesis to societal fragmentation and violence—however, while posed as a “bringing together” of the peoples of the world, the Fair actually existed as a retort to political radicalism and cosmopolitanism, a celebration of inherent differences as opposed to shared struggles. The 1893 Fair was the epitome of a cultural epoch: the industrial, technological, rapidly progressing West counter posed to a fetish-ized notion of the noble savage existing at the peripheries of the globe. Chicago, as infant metropolis, provided the ideal geography for a proposal that such distinctions were realities rather than constructions; the city was ripe for an imagination of the essential differences of the world, confined in an urban context.

Burnham’s fingerprints are all over this legacy, in using the Exposition as an opportunity to actualize the ideas of the City Beautiful movement of architecture and urban planning. The Beaux-Arts “White City” put forward a new face to Chicago, antithetical to popular imaginations of the city as corrupt, seedy, and cruel. But the Exposition was more than a face lift for the city, as it reflected a popular impulse amongst city planners to compare the city landscape to a world made of conflicting components. While the White City fetishized classical European sentimentalities, the Midway was envisioned to be a living museum of all things “primitive,” from Ireland to Africa. Some groups, however, did not exist even at the periphery of recognition by Burnham and fellow planners: the Fair barred African Americans from participation and largely ignored the representation of women. Contrary to logic, however, the Fair and its distorted sense of social reality is not seen as a blemish on Chicago’s history, but is venerated and commemorated as one of the four stars of the city flag.

The White City, and the dilemmas with which it is intimately connected, laid the groundwork for Burnham’s true claim to fame, the 1909 Plan for Chicago, the first comprehensive plan for the controlled growth of a modern American city. Acting as a model for City Beautiful planning, the emphases on beautification and modernization of the White City acted as muse for the 1909 Plan. Its reverberations can still be felt today, from its emphasis on the importance of planned highways, efficient mass transit, and systematic grid arrangements of streets, to establishing “centers of intellectual life and of civic administration, so related as to give coherence and unity to the city.”

The Plan suggested it concealed “no private purpose, no hidden ends,” but rather, was interested in bringing “about the very best conditions of city life for all the people.” While the Plan made public access to the lakefront its foundation and advanced a general philosophy of transparency and democracy (“society has the inherent right to protect itself against abuses”), and as such brought forth an aura of civic populism, the Plan was more complex and contradictory than it appeared. It sought to eliminate the visibility of poverty and inequity without asking important social and political questions as to why modern urban life produced such disparities in the first place. Since such an inquiry posed to the Commercial Club, the sponsor of the Plan, would have been dangerous, one might conclude that these impulses cannot be categorized as ruthless or humanist, but of a particular ideological character, driven by the belief that “at no period in its history has the city looked far enough ahead. The mistakes of the past should be warnings for the future.” To “make no little plans,” then, is an unabashed, if misguided, commitment to comprehensive city planning as an answer in itself to society’s ills, to see the ability to live within walking distance of parks as a satisfactory amendment to modern inequity and alienation.

Burnham’s significance in the shaping of the city requires a complicated relationship with his plans and the visions of Chicago they produced. The mindset of City Beautiful has remained a component of the city’s self-conception: from the emphasis on a highly developed central area, to the idea of comprehensive city planning, to the deliverance from hog-butcher to haute-culture, the legacy of Burnham has lived, is living, and is intimately involved with Chicago’s future. The problems with which Burnham struggled are those with which we still struggle today. In a time of greater helplessness in contesting the privatization of public space, a continued pressure to reduce the visibility of poverty, and a city that still pushes the working class and ethnic minorities to the periphery, perhaps we must critically review how we reproduce Burnham and the City Beautiful’s influence in shaping Chicago in order to overcome the limited vision of the city’s potential.

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