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'Burnham Blog' author drops by for a visit

'Burnham Blog' author drops by for a visit

by Rob McManamy

On Friday, Burnham Works had the great good fortune to be visited by award-winning writer and urban affairs historian Patrick T. Reardon, who in 2009 authored 'The Burnham Blog' as part of the city's year-long celebration of The Burnham Plan Centennial.

That year, Reardon "lived inside the Burnham Plan", he says, writing nearly 80 separate entries for the blog, averaging about three per week. At the time, coming off a successful, 35-year career with the Chicago Tribune, he was happy to take on the new gig. But it wasn't long before his research and reporting led Reardon to a greater appreciation of Daniel Burnham as both a visionary city planner and as a continuing influence on urban design all over the world.

Today, even as he works on two separate books about the birth and growth of Chicago, Reardon told us that he supports any effort like ours to help keep the determined spirit and ambitious vision of our namesake alive in the public consciousness. Toward that end, he enthusiastically agreed to allow Burnham Works to re-introduce our readers to his thoughtful and forward-looking essays from 2009. 

So without further ado, here are the first two installments of his 'Burnham Blog', most of which we hope to share with you in the weeks and months ahead.


The Burnham Blog

by Patrick T. Reardon, June 2009

This blog is about history, planning and the future.

It’s rooted in the recognition that we live in a world that is created by plans — and by the failure to make plans.  

This year, of course, is the 100th anniversary of the publication of the Plan of Chicago, co-authored by Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett, a document that drastically remade the city and the region.  For the better.

Not all plans work.  Consider the construction of massive clusters of public housing, isolated from other neighborhoods, here and in cities around the nation.  For all the builders’ good intentions, those developments became dense concentrations of poverty where social problems festered.

This blog will look at the past to better understand the present — and to tease out what should be done in the future.  Or, at least, what should be considered.

I think of it as a sort of seminar.  I see my postings as opening statements.  My hope is that readers will jump in with comments and with comments on each other’s comments.

Planning, when done best, is about putting ideas on the table and seeing how they stand up to public scrutiny and how they fit into or help us craft our vision of the future.

We plan so we can see our visions become the future.


Burnham as a symbol

By Patrick T. Reardon,  August 20, 2009

Sure, in writing the Plan of Chicago, Daniel Burnham helped shaped the growth of the city. But, over the past century, he’s also served as a potent civic symbol. 

“How many times have you heard people say, ‘Make no little plans,’ on subjects that had nothing to do with Burnham?” asks James Grossman, vice president for research and education at the Newberry Library and co-author of “The Encyclopedia of Chicago.”

Burnham, he says, “is important in two ways. One is in writing the Burnham Plan --- the way in which he has shaped this city, just as Robert Moses shaped New York City. The second way is as an icon.” 

Chicago’s self-image, at least in one manifestation, is captured in the “I Will” motto. We see ourselves as a rough-and-ready city that won’t take “no” for an answer. 

“When a city develops a self-image, it has to dip into its history to find the right personalities,” says Grossman. “Successful public relations people look for symbols.” 

Burnham, with his stirring quote and sweeping Plan, is one.

Another is Carl Sandburg, the author of the poem “Chicago” which asserted the city as a youthful, unstoppable power: “Hog Butcher for the World,/Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,/Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;/Stormy, husky, brawling,/City of the Big Shoulders.” 

“New York didn’t need a Sandburg. New York’s importance is self-evident,” Grossman says. 

But Chicago did. 

The “spirit” of Chicago 

Other potent elements of the city’s “I Will” image are the quick rebuilding that took place after the Great Fire of 1871 and the influential World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. 

Burnham played on this reputation when he wrote in the Plan: 

“This same spirit which carried out the Exposition in such a manner as to make it a lasting credit to the city is still the soul of Chicago, vital and dominant; and even now, although many new men are at the front, it still controls and is doing a greater work than it was in 1893.” 

This spirit, he writes “finds the men; it makes the occasion; it attracts the sincere and unselfish; it vitalizes the organization, and impels it to reach heights not believed possible of attainment… 

“This spirit — the spirit of Chicago — is our greatest asset. It is not merely civic pride: it is rather the constant, steady determination to bring about the very best conditions of city life for all the people, with full knowledge that what we as a people decide to do in the public interest we can and surely will bring to pass.”

Other cities 

Of course, Grossman notes, many cities have shown grit and determination --- Los Angeles in creating a megalopolis in a location without a local source of fresh water; Las Vegas in blossoming in the desert; New Orleans in holding back the Mississippi River (at least, until Katrina) while building a city as many as 20 feet below sea level. 

“Other cities have shown great will,” he says. “But other cities are not as good as Chicago at milking it... We’re great at milking it.”

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