What would the great Daniel Burnham say if he could revisit Chicago today?

By Steve Sewall, Chicago Civic Media

Daniel Burnham

What might Daniel Burnham, city planner and author of the 1909 Plan of Chicago — the master plan that supports Chicago’s reputation today as a world class city— have to say to Chicago if he could return, redivivus, to see Chicago and comment on how it has changed over the past hundred years?

To find out, let’s imagine Burnham addressing the City Club of Chicago at a special evening event in 2019. (Ticket price: $40.) But this event — a long-overdue first for the City Club — is being televised citywide so all Chicagoans can see it.

As we look in, City Club Chairman Edward H. Mazur has just invited Burnham to share his thoughts about what he’s seen during a hectic month of sightseeing and talking with city leaders and Chicagoans from all over the city.

An imposing figure with a formal bearing unknown today, Burnham strides up to the podium looking very much the man with something to say. As his eyes rove over the audience, he grips the podium with both hands and raises himself to his full height of over six feet before leaning slightly forward.

He has hushed his audience.

But Burnham begins mildly, first thanking his hosts and then warmly expressing his pleasure with his visit. He goes on to flatter Chicago on the size and diversity of its population of 2.7 million. He offers glowing tributes to the digital-age City of Big Shoulders, to the I Will City, speaking with sweeping gestures and in a sonorous voice, rising or falling with every swoop.

Speaking then as “an old-fashioned man” he says he’s amazed to see the Loop skyline, the city’s extraordinary road/rail/air transportation systems, the restored Chicago river, Chicago’s splendid museums, its cultural centers, ballparks, restaurants and flowered sidewalks — and then, pausing — the splendid condition of the 18.5-mile public lakefront which again and again during his visit he has heard remains his most cherished gift to the people of Chicago.

This grandiosity prompts a few in Burnham’s audience to wonder if the great man is perhaps windier than the Windy City itself.

But now Burnham pauses, dropping his eyes to the podium. The mood in the room changes with him. When next he speaks, his voice is so low that those in the back rows can scarcely hear him. “May I turn now to something that has perplexed me,” he asks, looking up, “something I’ve not been able to come to terms with.”

“It has to do with your modern communications technologies. I find them astounding. They are strange to me, almost alien. Yet marvelous, beyond anything I could have imagined. But what most surprises me about them is the extent to which you take them for granted. I see people turning their television sets and handling their cell phones much as in my day I would pick up a newspaper. Even after a month with you, I walk Chicago’s streets surprised by people talking seemingly to themselves with odd little boxes affixed to their ears .”

“In my day, people on the street would commonly acknowledge each other in passing with a nod of recognition. But not receiving nods in return, I’ve given up nodding entirely. And I confess I’m a touch saddened at having done so. It’s as if a small courtesy between strangers has vanished from the city.”

At this point, the heads of a few in audience turn slightly askance as if to ask when Burnham will get to his point. A salesman as well as a city planner, however, the man does not disappoint.

“All this brings me to the topic I wish to discuss with you tonight. It is the one topic, I have found, that most concerns the Chicagoans I spoke with over the past month. It has to do with the wartime levels of violence that afflict huge portions of your city.”

“It is your inability to address the matter effectively. And I find it astonishing.”

“What disheartens me about this state of affairs,” Burnham is now saying in a flat, anguished, almost accusatory voice, “Is the extent to which city leaders and even many citizens seem to have disconnected themselves from any commitment or desire to solve this violence, to make Chicago safe. Instead, what I’ve seen is an acceptance of it and a willingness to live through it, much as you live through your brutal winters.”

“I hardly need to remind you,” Burnham adds, “that your violence is no act of God or nature. It’s man-made. Chicago created it. Chicago can solve it.”

Rising to his full height, he asks a question: “There is one thing I would like to know. What is it,” he asks, “that prevents you from using your magnificent communications technologies to connect yourselves in ways that make your city safe? I’ve put this question to many city leaders,” he says. “I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer.”

If his audience is uneasy upon hearing this, Burnham takes no notice. To the contrary, he assumes the severe, scolding manner of an old-school college professor addressing a class of unmindful undergraduates:

First may I remind you that public violence — particularly the gang, gun and drug-related violence whose primary victims are your young people — arises only in cities and neighborhoods — poor and mostly non-white one s— where citizens of all classes are too disconnected, too out of touch with each other, to do anything whatsover about the force that is destroying their families and neighborhoods.

Speaking with your public officials, I have learned Chicago over the years has addressed its public violence primarily as a public safety or police problem, much as it did in my time. In recent years, however, the city has addressed violence in addition as a public health problem. Both approaches are needed. Yet your reliance on them alone nullifies what is perhaps the essential truth of your digital age.

With these words, Burnham steeples both hands against his mouth as if to rethink his next thought. His audience has a moment to catch its breath. When he speaks next, it is in an uncertain, tentative tone, almost as if he is pleading with his audience to consider this next thought:

In any age, in seems to me, though especially in a digital age like yours, public violence is also — and fundamentally— a public communication problem.

It is essentially a problem of non-communication, of one or more large parts of the community being dangerously out of touch, even disconnected, from others.

What parts of Chicago are out of touch with others? Because you are diverse people, many parts are out of touch. Even estranged from each other. But when it comes to violence the gaps I’ve seen are those between citizens and police, young and old, citizens and City Hall, white and black and perhaps most of all, rich and poor.

The function of media in my time — mainly of the daily newspaper, of which Chicago then had more than dozen — was to unify the city. But today I see an irony in the uses you are putting your splendid communications technologies. It seems that instead of using them to connect yourselves as a city, you are using them to disconnect yourselves.

Burnham’s audience had surely expected cheerier fare than this. But he surprises it with a burst of enthusiasm:

But if we take a closer look at Chicago’s media infrastructure, exactly as it exists today, we find some very interesting things. Promising things. Only a few days ago, after weeks of frustration, it occurred to me that Chicago is fortunate to have in place, ready-made, a loosely-assembled digital media infrastructure — one comprised of public, community, social and commercial media — which itself, without major changes or alterations, is fully capable of unifying the city.

In my day, bear in mind that it took many years and millions of dollars to design and construct the physical infrastructure that to this day continues to provide Chicago with much of its backbone. By contrast, I note that your digital media infrastructure is already substantially in place and it remains only for you to put it to effective, civic-purposed use.

Then, with all of the charismatic force of the “old straight forward manner” for which he was famed in his time, Burnham again grasps the podium with both hands and, looking directly into the TV camera and his citywide audience, speaks follows:

Drawing now from the civic-minded Swedenborgian convictions that sustained him throughout his life, Burnham declared that “Viable cities — safe and even joyful places to visit, work, play and raise a family in — do not take shape of themselves, naturally or automatically. They require careful planning. Visionary planning. The vision of the Plan of Chicago was to give all Chicagoans a sense of belonging to their city. Of being a member of it. And, to an appropriate degree, of being responsible for it.

I said in the Plan itself that “after all has been said, good citizenship is the prime object of good city planning.”

I therefore now your great city to create a digital civic infrastructure, housed in your existing media infrastructure, that will enable all 2.7 million Chicagoans — citizens and leaders alike — to think and act as informed members of a digital-age community in addressing and resolving system crises like citywide public violence.

The man had said what he came to say.

Visibly relaxing, Burnham steps back and takes a breath. Then, speaking casually, freely, as if among friends, he continues:

Well then, during my month among you, I’ve seen and learned so much. Especially about citizenship. About how it evolves. It’s struck me that citizenship — responsible membership in a community — begins in childhood. It starts as a feeling of belonging, whether to family, school or neighborhood. In my childhood, citizenship was a simply matter of being helpful.

But for young people today, your internet changes everything. And some changes are truly promising. It awakens their minds early on. It makes thinkers of many young people, I dare say even city planners, of some. This I saw firsthand during my visits to your schools. I was astonished. Your students taught me far more than I could teach them. Their ideas — including how Chicago might make itself violence-free — astounded me. May I say that much is to be learned from them.

Pausing to allow all this to sink in, Burnham returned to the topic of his proposed civic infrastructure:

Would it surprise you to hear that I see Chicago’s civic infrastructure taking shape largely of its own accord? It is poised to do so informally. It will self-assemble piece by piece, as each medium sees its profit potential and decides to participate in it in ways that meet with the tastes and preferences of its audience. The model for this civic media? It is your self-assembling sports media, which over the years has taken a highly function shape informally, one component at a time.

Another pause. Yet another change in tone. Burnham’s face now assumes a severe, fixed, almost statue-like look. Raising his hands and rubbing them together, he looks to his right and then to his left:

One final concern. Many of you will naturally be concerned with the possible corruption of a civic infrastructure. Self-serving individuals and special-interest groups or organizations will surely do their best to abuse it. In response, I would say this. The civic infrastructure I envision will maintain its integrity as long as it does two things: earns the respect and trust of Chicagoans and City Hall and produces demonstrably productive outcomes in the form of problems solved and promising opportunities realized.

The civic media I envision is rule-governed. But it needs no governing body to oversee it. Each medium will create and enforce its own rules.

Inevitably, some media will break their own rules or create poor rules. But an important function of your news media will be to quickly and publicly expose their conduct. Chicago’s sports media already do likewise. Chicagoans and Chicago sports fans what is fair play and what is not. Chicagoans will flock to civic media programming that earns and maintains their trust and will reject those that don’t. Because at stake is the safety of their neighborhoods.

With both hands now resting comfortably on the podium, Burnham thanks his hosts and takes his leave.

May I say in closing that it has been a joy to spend this month with you. Should I be posthumously fortunate enough to visit Chicago again a hundred years from now, I will do so with the hope that Chicago has evolved from the somewhat self-centered I Will spirit of my time to a civic-minded We Will spirit of genuine community.

During the long, warm round of applause that follows this thought, Burnham accepts the plaudits of his hosts: not just the City Club but also a few far-sighted members of the Commercial Club of Chicago which, in his time, had sponsored his Plan of Chicago.

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Steve Sewall, Ph.D., is a Chicago educator and Director of Chicago Civic Media.

Making citizens and governments responsive and accountable to each other at all levels of government with impartial, problem-solving political discourse.