Friday, May 6, 2011

Dueling Chicago Plans

"Among the city's post-World War ll planning documents, 'Chicago Works Together' is notably transitional in its agenda, framing of issues, and tone, 'looking back' in the sense of promoting industrial development and 'looking ahead' via its highly localized, street-level program of action."

Larry Bennett, The Third City: Chicago and American Urbanism

First an admission: I helped write this plan when working for Harold Washington. So, I'm a bit sentimental. Bennett does okay summarizing the jist of the plan and its origins: "twenty years of deindustrialization, a longer record of very spotty local urban redevelopment activity, and the recent election of an insurgent African American Mayor."

But he dismisses Chicago Works Together in at least two repects that seem misguided to me: as 'transitional' and as 'street-level' versus 'panoramic." I think he is using transitional to mean intermediate, between two eras, as opposed to evolving. Maybe it's better thought of as an eruption. It lies between plans like Chicago 21 and Chicago Metropolis 2020 that pushed Chicago's growth agenda -- the latter more regional in scope. He calls these plans panoramic or normative rather than filled with specifics, on the ground stuff. I hope for Chicago's sake that Chicago Works Together is not simply tossed in the dustbin of transitional.

The point of Chicago Works Together plan was to be normative -- to set a different
bar for visions and decisions. First, it articulated a set of social justice goals related to jobs and neighborhoods. It echoed the Cleveland Policy Plan in arguing for fairness in vision, policies, and investments. Some call this equity planning. Bennett doesn't say much about the values or proponents or interests guiding the other big Chicago plans, other than to say 'their policy mandates derive from unexamined first principles.' That's pretty normative: Is commenting upon power and growth just another misleading trope for understanding Chicago?

Second, Chicago Works Together proposes a normative goal for municipal government, not secret leadership from above, not patronage,not machine surcharges, but transparent, partnering, cooperative, effective and efficient government. Dare I evoke reform and open government. No wonder it was not liked in certain quarters.

Bennett goes further in dismissing Chicago Works Together by showing a couple of tiny housing projects that it supported, saying that it 'fails the Bernham test' of 'moving 'men's blood,' and quoting, of all people one of the "two Eddies" of Council Wars, Alderman Edward Burke, to say that the plan was a 'drop in the bucket; much ado about nothing.'

It's worth noting that Chicago Works Together included favored big projects of the time, embodying big visions for Chicago -- Navy Pier, the airports, transit lines, downtown, international development. It was not just industrial development from the past, it was balanced, although the lack of attention to Chicago's industrial base then and now continues to boggle the mind, not simply from antiquarian interests but because there were and are a lot of companies and a lot of jobs. And, not to get too empirical, the Loop (Chicago's downtown) was doing pretty well in the early, mid-1980s and the SuperLoop's absolute and geographic growth was just being documented. Chicago's downtown and post-industrial trajectory was not the problem -- shared prosperity was the problem then and remains a major challenge today.

Bennett makes subsequent comments in the book that offer a better picture of Chicago Works Together, but not much better. I'm left dissatisfied not only with the history but with the panoramic/normative empirical/street level distinctions that scaffold the book. They are a bit clumsy and raise more dust than clarity. I'm also surprised by the missing narrative of Chicago's growth. Sometimes the world of plans, etc. are reflections, dreams, and oppositions related to the real story unfolding. We don't see much of this real story. Oddly, we also seem to be on a predetermined ride to the post-industrial present and future with few opportunities for saying there might be other ways to go. Is this the Daley effect? Anti planners like Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford fought against such inevitabilities.

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