July 14, 2009
I’ve been reading Carl Smith’s The Plan of Chicago, the current “One Book, One Chicago” selection about architect Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago, a document largely credited for re-engineering the city’s lakefront as we know it today. Smith demonstrates how Chicago’s geography was also its fate:
Modern Chicago owes its origins to its location at the southwestern edge of the Great Lakes near a convenient portage to the Mississippi Valley and the heart of the continent. The most distinctive feature of the setting was, paradoxically, its lack of distinctive features. The level prairie that stretched in all directions away from the lake invited the most ambitious conceptions by offering few obvious natural obstacles to their realization. The prairie and the lake, the Plan observes, “each immeasurable by the senses,” dictated the scale of possibility in Chicago. “Whatever man undertakes here,” it continues, “should be either actually or seemingly without limit.”
In its first fifty years Chicago saw an explosion in its population, as if all that prairie void was racing to fill its limitless vacuum. It reminds me of the kind of building that is happening today in Dubai, and those weird images of skyscrapers rising up from undeveloped desert. Smith’s account underscores the nascent quality of the city, hard to appreciate today:
In ways that transcend any individual example, the planning idea is deeply ingrained in the nature and character of Chicago. The city’s lack of a long history, at least from the point of view of those not of Native American ancestry, both invited and demanded planning. One of the things that distinguished Chicago from other leading American cities that, with the exception of New York, it surpassed in population by 1890 was the comparative brevity of its past. What history Chicago did possess its residents commonly ignored because they felt little connection to it. Through the nineteenth century, Chicago’s population consisted overwhelmingly of those who, if not from somewhere else themselves, were children of parents born and raised in other places.
This quote made me think of all the twenty-something theater artists who perennially pour into Chicago from Big Ten schools and elsewhere. Some of them—especially improvisers—are here to launch themselves into further careers in New York and LA, cities that offer a validating terminus, an “if I can make it here, I can make it anywhere” promise. But to stay in Chicago is to take on a never ending, lifelong project of self-creation, because the city itself is forever involved with the task of self-consciously making and remaking itself into a city (a spirit of self-invention captured in local literature by, most memorably, Saul Bellow). Maybe the lack of any natural geographic obstacle awakens a desire to make our own coordinates planned and plotted. Is the incessant company-founding of Chicago theater artists perhaps a symptom of this restless spirit? Even our off-loop theater mission statements—a dozen newly minted mission statements each year—draw on the vistas of manifest destiny. Even Court Theatre’s vision—“to be the national center for classic theater”—sports a Burnham-like spirit of planning, and our mission—“to discover the power of classic theater”—almost seems naïve in its scope (hasn’t that power already been discovered, by someone, somewhere else?...in New York maybe?). The accomplishments produced by this furious desire to self-invent are often spectacular—the Sears-Willis Tower is a constant big-shouldered reminder of the fruits of our ambition. There’s a lot of big talk about what the essential character of Chicago theater is, but maybe the essential character is the big talk, driven by a deep, self-conscious questioning of our uncertain position out here on the prairie.
Guerin/Bennett, Plan of Chicago