No one showed up. But it wasn't the end of the world. These things happen. So Erin Aleman, Mina Duarte and I sat around talking for a half hour or so.
It was on a Tuesday night in mid-October, and the conference room at the Theodore Roosevelt branch of the Chicago Public Library at 1101 W. Taylor St. had been set up for a One Book, One Chicago discussion of Carl Smith's book "The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City."
Erin, a staff member at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), was there to lead a discussion that was geared to look not only at the Burnham Plan of 1909 but also to the future --- to how Chicago and the metropolitan region should plan to improve our quality of life. Mina, the adult services librarian, got everything ready for Erin.
I was there because I wanted to hear what people at the grassroots had to say about urban planning long ago and for today and tomorrow.
Acts of courage
As we three waited for someone to show up, our conversation wandered here and there, and then we got to talking about immigrants and their families. My father's parents were from Ireland. Mina's parents were from Mexico.
And, as we talked, I was reminded, as I’ve been many times before, how much immigrants sacrifice when they come to a new country. My grandparents and Mina's parents left behind the comforts of home, friendships, families, a common language or accent, a common world view. They arrived and went to work. In each case, it was an act of courage…and faith.
It's amazing how hard first-generation immigrants labor. If you look around your neighborhood or your town, you'll see them, running their cleaning shop from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., or behind the counter at McDonald's, or making a go of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. It's a common tale of the immigrant phenomenon that a first-generation couple will sink themselves deep in their jobs, slaving away for long hours, in order to provide opportunities for their kids, particularly schooling.
Planning at ground level
Then, it struck me that what those immigrant parents are doing is a grassroots form of planning.
Just as any city planner, architect or designer will sit down and weigh options and make decisions, so too do an immigrant father and mother.
They are saying: If we invest our labor now, if we invest our lives, our children will benefit. If we work these strenuous, arduous and often dirty jobs, our children will have the chance to find better work, more fulfilling work, for themselves. They’ll have the chance for better and more fulfilling lives.
That’s the heart of planning, it seems to me --- sacrifice.
But it’s an aspect that’s usually overlooked or glided over. Which isn’t surprising. Politicians don’t like to talk about sacrifice.
Tapping into the spirit
Yet, sacrifice was at the center of Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago. None of the changes he proposed would have taken place without people being willing to spend their own money.
An elegant-looking lakefront didn’t come free. A wider Roosevelt Road or Ashland Avenue cost thousands of dollars. To create the 68,000-acre Cook County Forest Preserve District required paying for land for the people of the future to enjoy and find respite in.
The Chicagoans of the time were willing to make those sacrifices. The voters, time and again, approved bond issues to bring elements of the Plan to life. The business leaders --- the ones who sponsored the creation of the Plan --- paid higher taxes so Wacker Drive could be created, and North Michigan Avenue, and Navy Pier.
The lesson is that, like the immigrant father and mother, the people of the metropolitan region have been willing --- and, I’m sure, are willing --- to sacrifice so that their children and their children’s children will have a better place to live.
They’ll sacrifice --- if there’s a plan and a leadership they can believe in.
A grander calling
A hundred years ago, Daniel Burnham was a leader who helped show people the promise of the future.
In the Plan, he spelled out his vision: “If, therefore, the plan is a good one, its adoption and realization will produce for us conditions in which business enterprises can be carried on with the utmost economy, and with the certainty of successful issue, while we and our children can enjoy and improve life as we cannot now do.”
Other leaders emerged as well, to back the Plan for decades --- from Charles Wacker to Edward H. Bennett, Burnham’s co-author of the Plan.
Are there any leaders now who are willing to ask today’s people to invest in tomorrow’s future? Any leader willing to try to tap into this spirit of sacrifice?
It’s a radical idea.
Being elected is one thing. Leading is another, grander calling.
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