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The Burnham Plan as literature

The 1909 Plan of Chicago, written by Daniel Burnham and his co-author Edward Bennett, is a great work of American literature.

There, I’ve said it. Now, let’s see if I can make my case.

Literature is a pretty spongy term. For some people, it means fiction. So “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain is literature. But “Black Boy” by Richard Wright isn’t.

Well, that’s certainly seems too narrow a definition.

The Wright book, of course, is a great work about growing up as an African-American in the early 20th century. Other important non-fiction books include Benjamin Franklin’s “Autobiography” which provides an insight into a key leader of the American Revolution and U.S. Grant’s “Memoirs,” one of the clearest accounts of the Civil War by any writer.

It would be difficult to imagine a library of great American books that wouldn’t include all three.

Is that literature?

Is that what literature is, a great book?

Well, what about Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address?

It’s only 272 words, but has anyone ever encapsulated the nation’s history and pointed the country to its future as well Lincoln did?

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. 

"But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate...we can not consecrate...we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” 

A kind of beauty

Okay, I didn’t have to quote the whole thing, but I just love typing --- and meditating on --- all those wonderful and wonderfully resonant phrases.

Of course, Lincoln’s opening sentence refers to another great piece of American writing, the Declaration of Independence and its key phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,…”

To talk about American literature and leave out the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence seems, to me, to miss the boat.

Great literature, it seems to me, has to have a kind of beauty. Twain writes about the people of Mississippi River towns with a humor, delight and understanding that makes the book fun for children and a glimpse into the human condition for adults.

Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg are a prose poem. That’s quite a contrast to the Emancipation Proclamation which was very much a nuts-and-bolts document. That’s because, in the proclamation, Lincoln was doing all he could to tamp down emotions.

With the address at Gettysburg, however, he crafted the phrases and concepts in such a way that they would be memorable. That’s because he wanted people to act on what he said, to be inspired by them.

They did act, and they were inspired. The history of the country was different because of Lincoln’s words.

Moving people

That, perhaps, is a final aspect to literature. It has to move people in some way. People still study the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address to figure out who we are as a nation. People still read “Huckleberry Finn” and “Black Boy” to figure out who we are as human beings.

So what does all this have to do with the Burnham Plan?

Well, first of all, it’s a beautiful thing.

The public has this image of planning documents as dry, grey tomes. But this artistically produced work reaches out from its pages to grab the reader.

There are the evocative watercolors by Jules Guerin and Fernand Janin, and the pages and pages of colorful --- and, much more important, easily understood --- maps.
Their message: “This is what the future could look like. This is the Chicago you can have if you say ‘yes’ to this Plan.” 

That’s the message, too, of the text that Burnham drafted. He wrote to inspire. He wrote to fill his readers with enthusiasm and verve.

“This spirit --- the spirit of Chicago --- is our greatest asset,” one of the early pages of the Plan states. “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 people, with the full knowledge that what we as a people decide to do in the public interest we can and surely will bring to pass.”

Burnham is using a technique employed by master rhetoricians. By telling his readers that they have this great can-do spirit, he’s inspiring them --- almost daring them --- to show it.

“Living water”

Elsewhere in the Plan, Burnham rhapsodizes about Lake Michigan. He does this to help Chicagoans realize how much the lakefront means to them --- and can mean to them in the future if its entire length is covered by parkland.

“The Lakefront by right belongs to the people. It affords their one great unobstructed view, stretching away to the horizon, where water and clouds seem to meet…The Lake is living water, ever in motion, and ever changing in color and in the form of its waves. Across its surface comes the broad pathway of light made by the rising sun; it mirrors the ever-changing forms of the clouds, and it is illumined by the glow of the evening sky.”

It’s clear that the Lake means much to Burnham. Given the past century during which Chicagoans have developed 26 of the 30 miles of shoreline as lakefront parks, it seems clear his words touched a nerve in his readers.

Not just in 1909, of course. But, for the past 100 years, the Plan has been a touchstone of planning for city leaders and residents.

It has been the roadmap for reshaping the city and its region --- from the creation of North Michigan Avenue to the establishment of the Cook County Forest Preserve District, from the widening of scores of streets to the development of Grant Park as the city’s front yard, from the building of Navy Pier to the construction of Wacker Drive.

It was also a key document in the creation of the modern profession of urban planning. The nation and the world have looked at the Plan and how it has made Chicago and its region a better place --- and adopted that approach to the development of the urban landscape.

Certainly, planners have found fault with the Plan’s top-down creation, and they’re criticized its heavy focus on the central business district. Neighborhoods are the central unit of today’s planning efforts.

A beautiful thing

Even so, for a century, the Plan has moved people. And not just with its pretty pictures or pretty prose.

What’s kept the Plan going as a living document and as an inspiration to generation after generation has been the beauty of its central idea --- the idea of thinking ahead, of envisioning a better future and moving toward it.

The idea that we don’t have to be slaves to chance. We can shape our destiny.

That’s the center of the Plan. And at the center of all urban planning today.

Is that literature? A beautiful thing that helps us see our world more clearly and make our future world a better place?

I think so.

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