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Burnham Plan: a critical view

Jane Addams and the women of Hull House might have something to add to the discussions now swirling around the centennial of Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago.

They weren’t consulted at the time — though if they had been, the plan could have been much more comprehensive. And more attention to their ideas about addressing Chicago’s problems might have saved us a lot of trouble (and money) over the past century.

That’s the premise of a forthcoming book — entitled “What Would Jane Say?” — which imagines conversations among settlement house workers and other progressives of the day on aspects of the Burnham plan. A reading will be staged Thursday by the author, longtime Chicago activist Jan Metzger, joined by her colleagues from the Center for Neighborhood Technology (details below).

Today the Burnham plan is lauded for proposing large-scale planning on a regional basis and for promoting the lakefront and forest preserves. Many of its central proposals, however — the gaudy “civic center” first and foremost — lent themselves to vivid diagrams but were simply “too grandiose” to be accomplished, Metzger says. As a whole, she says, the plan is “solely for the benefit of businessmen and completely at taxpayer expense.”

“It was a promotional package,” she says. “That’s why the pictures are so spectacular.”

Nothing about neighborhoods

Read today, the Plan of Chicago resembles nothing so much as Chicago 2016′s Olympic bid book — high-soaring rhetoric which glosses over contentious issues (the only mention of “slum conditions” is in the middle of a section on widening streets) while predicting a glorious future, if only the citizenry can be inspired to rise to it.

The plan includes “almost nothing about Chicago’s neighborhoods,” and its transportation chapter is mainly about moving freight more efficiently, Metzger says. Amenities were aimed at the wealthy. The discussion of the lakefront stresses yachting, while Burnham’s own ideas about restaurants of varying price levels and transit to get working people to the lake were deleted from the published plan, she says.

Metzger suspects that most folks who are “laudatory and uncritical” have never read the plan’s appendix. “If you read that, an entirely different meaning emerges,” she says. “It’s about the legal implications of the plan, mainly what kinds of projects are eligible for taxpayer support, and how to use eminent domain.”

To the businessmen’s plea for taxpayer support, she contrasts the accomplishments of the “city-building women” of Hull House and other settlement houses. “They were making major progress in actually improving people’s lives, and they did it with very modest investments.”

And to their gathering of the wealthiest men in Chicago — “their idea of diversity was having someone from every club at the table” — she contrasts the women’s ability to join people of every nationality, from the richest to the poorest.

Hot house of innovation

Hull House was something of a hot house for urban innovation, intensely focused on the most troubled district in the city, with a strong practical approach. They established day care, a kindergarten, afterschool programs, and adult education, along with a library, a museum of labor, a book bindery, an art studio, a music school and orchestra, and much more. They built the first playground in Chicago, and went on to found the Playground Association of America, which held its first conference in Chicago in 1907.

Settlement house workers also grappled directly with the kind of city problems that the Burnham plan glossed over. Florence Kelley was the state’s first factory inspector, and helped win sweatshop and child labor laws. And after reporting on inadequate garbage collection which bred rats and disease in alleys where children played, Jane Addams was made sanitary inspector of the 19th ward. She and members of the Hull House Women’s Association filed 1,000 complaints in the first year.

Their programs didn’t hinge on taxpayer support, either. When the state legislature agreed children should no longer be housed in adult jails and tried in adult courts — but failed to provide funding for a juvenile court and detention center — Addams enlisted a number of wealthy women who financed the new institutions through their first seven years. A low-budget effort by settlement houses to set up tents with hammocks where children sick from spoiled milk could be nursed to health — and their mothers educated in prevention — reduced summer infant mortality by 18 percent between 1903 and 1909.

Maps and Papers

Hull House also conducted extensive research, digging deep into neighborhood conditions — just the kind of thing you might expect of “comprehensive” city planners. Using the new method of statistical mapping, Hull House studied overcrowding, truancy, typhoid fever, addiction, infant mortality, and sanitation.

In 1895 they published Hull House Maps and Papers, an incredibly rich and detailed document, mapping ethnicity and wages for each household in the district and including papers on sweatshops, child laborers, workers wages and expenses, labor organization, and county institutions for the indigent. Papers on the Bohemian and Italian communities are by editors of ethnic newspapers.

Indeed, the settlement house movement was deeply involved in a debate at the birth of urban planning over its proper purview — should it deal exclusively with physical layout (and aim for the City Beautiful) or address social conditions? Metzger points out that the first meeting of the National Conference on City Planning (also in 1909, in Washington DC) was organized by Mary Simkhovitch, a New York settlement house leader.

Her campaign on congestion had focused on its social and economic causes and called for parks, schools, playgrounds, and transit, along with housing law reform. She believed neighborhood plans should form the basis of city plans, and residents should participate in planning — including poor immigrants. But before long the NCCP was entirely dominated by architects, engineers and lawyers; Simkhovitch went on to found the National Housing Association in 1911.

(The tide may be turning, though: Metzger notes that Chicago Metropolis 2020, launched by the same Commercial Club that sponsored Burnham’s plan, has a “fundamentally different approach — they start with education, they talk about reducing segregation, they talk about public health.”)

Little plans

Metzger scoffs at Burnham’s edict to “make no little plans.” It’s a philosophy that has given us expensive megaprojects which reinforced inequities and turned out to be unsustainable: miles of high-rise housing projects; massive urban renewal projects separating homes, jobs, and shopping; neighborhoods demolished to build expressways to the suburbs. “All of which would have been anathema to Jane Addams and her friends,” she says. (She also thinks Addams would have hated having a tollway named for her.)

“No little plans” has given us a history of planning which is done to people rather than with them. Metgzer contrasts the approach to assimilating immigrants by the Hull House women — based on educating, organizing and empowering them — with Burnham’s, which sought “to intimidate them by the grandeur of our monuments to ourselves, so they’d stop acting like immigrants.”

Along with her own community-level involvement in affordable housing and schools — she served on Mayor Washington’s 1987 commission which launched Chicago’s school reform — Metzger worked for years with CNT’s Chicagoland Transportation and Air Quality Commission, focused on involving communities in planning their own future. She’s also served on the board of Association House, the social service agency descended from a settlement house.

Her book is written as a series of conversations by small groups drawn from about a hundred historical figures in the settlement house movement, women’s networks, and progressive supporters. Based in many places on their own prolific writings, the characters meet to discuss Burnham’s plan for parks, transportation, and the central business district, with further chapters on what’s missing: education, housing and neighborhood development, public health, justice, immigrants and labor.

The title is a bow to Addam’s prominence, but one of the book’s goals is to highlight the overlooked contributions of many other women city-builders in Chicago history.

Metzger and other CNT staffers will stage a reading of one of the chapters this Thursday, March 26, at 5:30 p.m. at the Center for Neighborhood Technology, 2125 W. North. (Reservations are requested at 773-269-4031 or katherine@cnt.org.) Publication by Claremont Press is expected later this spring.

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