Reading 39


The following passage is adapted from an article titled “Taming the Savage City” by Carl Smith (© 2009).

  1. “Chicago! Chicago, queen and
  2. guttersnipe of cities, cynosure
  3. and cesspool of the world!” So
  4. the young British journalist
  5. G. W. Steevens exclaimed upon
  6. his visit in 1896. He confessed
  7. himself unable to express in
  8. words the “splendid chaos” of the
  9. place, “where the keen air from
  10. lake and prairie is ever in the
  11. nostrils, and the stench of foul
  12. smoke is never out of the throat.”
  13. If New York was the country’s
  14. largest metropolis, Chicago
  15. epitomized the spectacular
  16. velocity of urbanization. An
  17. obscure frontier outpost in
  18. the early 1830s, Chicago had
  19. grown to two million residents
  20. by 1909, and some predicted it
  21. would soon be the largest city
  22. in the world. Reform groups
  23. asserted that something must
  24. be done to reduce inefficiency
  25. and improve degraded sections
  26. of the city. Business leaders
  27. publicly fretted that congestion
  28. and pollution might drive
  29. investors and workers elsewhere.
  30. The key, they contended, was to
  31. find a way to ensure Chicago’s
  32. eminence by reducing obstacles
  33. to its expansion and making
  34. the most of its strengths.
  35. While a number of groups and
  36. individuals suggested changes
  37. in this or that part of Chicago,
  38. one organization proposed the
  39. wholesale transformation of
  40. the city. In 1909, the
  41. Commercial Club published
  42. the Plan of Chicago. Arguably
  43. the most influential document
  44. in American city planning
  45. history, the Plan states that
  46. the inefficient, unsightly, and
  47. unhealthy American cityscape
  48. can and must be redeemed.
  49. The Plan’s creators had no
  50. intention of settling merely for
  51. order and convenience. They
  52. sought to remake the city so
  53. brilliantly that it would equal
  54. or even surpass the glory of
  55. ancient Athens and Rome.
  56. Modern Paris was the
  57. contemporary model the
  58. planners had most in mind.
  59. The club would likely not
  60. have undertaken the Plan,
  61. however, had it not had among
  62. its members the architect
  63. Daniel H. Burnham. Burnham’s
  64. transformation into city
  65. planner came with his efforts
  66. in directing the construction
  67. of the 1893 World’s Columbian
  68. Exposition in Jackson Park,
  69. noted for its dazzling array of
  70. colossal neoclassical buildings.
  71. The exposition inspired
  72. Chicagoans to rethink their
  73. city on the elegant model of
  74. the transitory one within the
  75. fair’s gates.
  76. Readers opened the Plan of
  77. Chicago to behold a host of
  78. observations and proposals,
  79. large and small, abundantly
  80. illustrated with over 140
  81. paintings, renderings,
  82. elevations, diagrams, and
  83. photographs. Far more than
  84. a dry inventory of
  85. recommendations, it
  86. maintained that Chicago must
  87. think of the city and the
  88. surrounding area as an
  89. integrated region, and in
  90. doing so must pursue certain
  91. ideals: convenience,
  92. efficiency, order, cleanliness,
  93. health, beauty, harmony, unity,
  94. and dignity. Taken together,
  95. these ideals define what is
  96. called the City Beautiful
  97. movement, which saw them
  98. embodied most fully in the
  99. stately lines, formal balance,
  100. and grand scale of Beaux Arts
  101. architecture.
  102. In the Plan’s view, the best
  103. way to build a prosperous city
  104. is to make it beautiful and
  105. healthy. Dirt, noise, and
  106. squalor are far more costly
  107. than any attempt to banish
  108. them. Chicago Federation of
  109. Labor president John J.
  110. Fitzpatrick was particularly
  111. blunt about the Plan’s
  112. disregard of the city’s vast
  113. population of working people.
  114. He charged that its main
  115. purpose was to assist the same
  116. commercial and industrial
  117. interests who worked their
  118. employees “long hours at
  119. starvation wages.”
  120. Preoccupied with the efficient
  121. movement of traffic and
  122. goods and the city’s physical
  123. appeal, the published Plan
  124. pays limited attention to
  125. social services, housing, and
  126. the quality of neighborhood
  127. street life. Its solution to the
  128. problem of slums is not to
  129. seek out their root cause in
  130. fundamental inequities but
  131. to remedy them through “the
  132. cutting of broad thoroughfares
  133. through the unwholesome
  134. district” and strictly enforcing
  135. sanitary regulations. It holds
  136. out the threat of public control
  137. if negligent property owners
  138. do not shape up.
  139. Perhaps the Plan’s most
  140. important legacy, however, is
  141. its contention that the world
  142. in which we live is neither
  143. inevitable nor unalterable,
  144. and we must constantly be
  145. attuned to how we can make
  146. it better. The Plan states at
  147. the outset that it is meant “to
  148. direct the development of the
  149. city towards an end that must
  150. seem ideal, but is practical.”
  151. In doing so, it argues, we
  152. need to think holistically,
  153. considering Chicago as a
  154. complex system or organism
  155. with a special relationship to
  156. the region, the nation, and the
  157. world. And all efforts to renew
  158. and remake it must be
  159. animated by the idea of a
  160. humane and productive and
  161. beautiful city that truly stirs
  162. the blood and captures the
  163. imagination.