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Daniel Burnham and Jane Addams: What might have been? Or not?

Third of three

It’s tantalizing to envision the Plan of Chicago that Daniel Burnham and Jane Addams might have written together a century ago.

That’s what I find myself wondering, now that I’ve finished reading Janice Metzger’s new book “What Would Jane Say?: City-Building Women and a Tale of Two Chicagos” (Lake Claremont Press).

By himself, Burnham oversaw the production of a document that, in 1909, was ground-breaking.

It was the first to attempt comprehensively to plan a city’s transportation, open space and central civic district rather than leaving the patterns of future development to chance. And it didn’t stop at Chicago’s border. The Burnham Plan integrated the metropolitan region --- everything within a 60-mile radius of the city --- in its networks of parks, roads and lines of commerce.

But that’s as far as it went.

To be fair, as historian Kristen Schaffer has shown, Burnham included in his handwritten draft of the Plan a few proposals that were more social in nature, such as providing child care for working mothers and developing a comprehensive hospital system. Those, however, were cut from the published document.

In its final form, the Plan didn’t address poverty, education, political corruption, health, labor relations and a more equitable system of taxation --- the issues that Addams, the founder of the settlement house movement in the U.S., would have wanted addressed.

From Hull House on the Near West Side, Addams and other women like her (as well as some men) had been working for 20 years to understand and ameliorate the myriad difficulties faced by poor, uneducated immigrants. These men, women and children, clustered together in overcrowded buildings in overcrowded neighborhoods like those around Addams’ settlement house, were hamstrung by a lack of English, urban skills and access to the networks of power.

Laboring at this grassroots level, Addams and her followers were able to make “great changes with small resources, whether it was the first playground in Chicago (at Hull House) or a dramatic reduction in infant mortality by bringing medical care out of impersonal and forbidding institutions and directly into immigrant communities,” Metzger writes.

Linking Addams’ bottom-up approach with Burnham’s top-down vision, Metzger argues, would have resulted in a brilliant blueprint for the city’s and region’s future.

And one, I’m afraid, that would have been impossible to implement.

“Missing a lot”

When I interviewed Metzger recently about her book, she acknowledged that Burnham’s plan was original and important.

“But it was missing a lot. It missed the opportunity to set Chicago on a different course.”

Metzger, a citizen activist in the 1980s and a staff member, now on leave, at the Center for Neighborhood of Technology, said the Plan didn’t have to limit itself to the physical aspects of the city. It could have incorporated a variety of sensible ideas to directly improve the lives of the poor.

All Burnham had to do was tap into the expertise of Addams and other women active in the settlement house movement.

“A feeble victory”

Indeed, in her book, Metzger includes a fictional letter that she imagines Addams might have written to Burnham, on behalf of the residents of settlement houses in the city and those they served.

In that make-believe letter, Addams notes the originality of the Burnham Plan, but adds, “If there is one way to characterize differences we have with the Plan, it is that we would have included additional elements. Specifically, we would have included more elements proposing improved government functions, public institutions, and human welfare. A physically appealing region without prudent and solvent governance is a feeble victory.”

One recommendation, later in that fictional letter, is to introduce “a strong civil service system to abolish patronage hiring” in city government.

Certainly, this is an idea that anyone in favor of good government could get behind. Yet, it would have doomed a Burnham-Addams Plan.

A key element in the success of the Burnham Plan was the efforts of Burnham and other supporters to enlist the city’s politicians, including some of the least savory, behind its ideas. Those politicos backed the new roads, bridges and parks because the projects translated into greater jobs and influence for them.

But they would have risen up and killed any Plan attempting to cut into their power.

Another reason for the success of the Burnham Plan was the relative lack of controversy around its proposals.

Some liberal commentators complained about the Plan’s lack of a social agenda, but, in “The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City,” historian Carl Smith writes that the Plan’s reception was “overwhelmingly flattering.”

The inclusion of such contentious ideas as reducing poverty or changing the system of taxation would have been likely to prompt strong opposition from powerful people --- not only to those specific subjects but to the entire Plan.

As wide-ranging as the Plan was, it was so successful because, nonetheless, it was limited in scope.


In our conversation, Metzger told me that she had many reasons for writing her book --- one of which was simply to put on the record the extensive work and progressive ideas of women activists of the early 20th century.

“All my life,” she said, “I’ve been aware of how the contributions of women are often undervalued.”

No question, the contributions, ideas and work of women were undervalued a century ago. As Metzger points out in her book, women didn’t even have the vote in Illinois until 1914, five years after publication of the Plan.

Yet, given the social context of that era, it would have been a rare man who would have been open enough to consult women as equals. Burnham, his minions and his supporters in the business community --- for all the visionary aspects of their Plan --- weren’t that visionary. They were men of their time.

Neither did they consult African-Americans or labor union leaders or the poor. Inclusiveness wasn’t part of their vocabulary.

Metzger said she also wrote the book to bring some balance into the discussion of the Burnham Plan this year in which scores of events, parties and lectures have been held to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its publication.

“When we make it sound like it’s the best thing since sliced bread, we overlook a lot,” she said.
Addams and other female activists were pushing to improve the lives of immigrants and address the abuse of political power. But Burnham’s Plan is silent on those issues. “Do we need to celebrate a Plan that failed to do that?” Metzger said.

This time

Metzger also wants the book to raise questions that people of the Chicago region today should consider when it comes to the new regional plan now in the works, the GO TO 2040 plan, being prepared by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP).

“This book,” she writes, “serves in part as a strong challenge to CMAP to deliver a better plan than we have had in the past --- a plan for everyone, not just a plan to enrich businessmen.”

She also writes, “CMAP indicates that there will be some attention given to education, public health, and culture, although really contentious issues like taxation, criminal justice, workplace safety, and racial and ethnic discrimination do not appear to be within its sights.”

One key difference between the Burnham Plan and GO TO 2040: CMAP is actively seeking ideas, proposals and advice from anyone and everyone in the Chicago region --- men and women and children, online and in person.

That won’t guarantee a better plan, or even a good plan.

But, to all the Jane Addams-types out there in the Chicago region, this time there are planners who say they want to hear your voice.

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