Make no big bad plans, with three illustrations

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The recently announced plan to create a joint development board for Woodlawn, Washington Park, and South Shore has all the trappings of the Chicago Way: big ideas for a big city. The bravado of the scale will distract some people, but not all, from the shakiness of the details. When folks criticize it, though, they will run afoul of the Chicago boosters, who will intone, “make no small plans.”

Is this the best we can do?

People in Chicago have exhumed the corpse of the architect and city planner Daniel Burnham innumerable times to get him to repeat, puppet-like, his famous quote: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” (Women’s blood, at the time, being considered unimportant in such matters.) It has justified too many grand-scale Chicago schemes with all the sound deliberation of a Wile E. Coyote plan to catch the Roadrunner. At some point, regular people have to get involved, because these towers of ambition create strange vantage points. Everything looks possible, which is swell for your self-esteem, Mr. Developer, but often is a disaster for our neighborhoods.

I do appreciate that Chicago has an inspiring, old-timey quote about not making small plans by which to steer our quixotic adventure. But it truly does deserve a corollary, and I propose the phrase titling this piece: “Make no big bad plans.” Surely Burnham would agree.

Mega-development boards make bad plans. They lack perspective. They are not accountable to the public. And they are lined with ambitious people. Most normal people, hearing of some new board to oversee some major project, do not consider applying because they don’t think they have the expertise needed or because they are too busy with real problems, like raising a family and keeping a roof over their heads. But these are the exact people we need: people with common sense. Instead, we get people with something to gain from thinking big, spending big, and big contracts, people with no incentive to take things slow and to hear the people’s viewpoint.

Consider the following three examples of big plans that turned out to be bad plans, one for each of our neighborhoods:

Woodlawn: Tearing down the El

I begin with this one because it is so resonant. The new mega-development corporation is the brainchild of Byron Brazier, according to some news accounts, and he certainly is one of the founders of it. The idea that he thinks he knows what is best for Woodlawn should not surprise anyone; his dad thought the same thing. And their patterns of thinking are eerily similar.

Brazier the father complained that he couldn’t get anything built under the el tracks, so he used all of his considerable political clout to have them torn down from Cottage Grove Avenue to Jackson Park. When it was all over, the only building standing for most of that stretch of land was Brazier’s megachurch, the Apostolic Church of God, surrounded by parking lots for his suburban congregants. He had created, with the help of the city, an empire of dust – literally, as anyone who walks down 63rd Street in the summer can tell you.

Nobody now doubts that was a colossal mistake, and even then, huge numbers of residents opposed the decision. But it wasn’t their decision to make, as far as the city and Brazier were concerned. And this is the point of this example. A few people – or one person – making a decision for aneighborhood can lead to ridiculous outcomes. Anyone who travels using public transportation would know that rail transit should never be scrapped. It is critical to transit infrastructure. But who ever heard of a mega-church pastor taking a bus or train anywhere?

Washington Park – U. of C. Olympic buyout

In the months when the city was bidding for the Olympics, some crazy decisions were made. One of them was a gobbling up of land in Washington Park by the University of Chicago. This example differs slightly from the first one because it did not involve collusion on the part of a public body.In fact, the alderman, Pat Dowell, blew the whistle on the U. of C. when they refused to share their plans for all of the property they bought.

As we all know, Chicago did not get the bid. Meanwhile, the university has a whole lot of land on the eastern end of the Washington Park neighborhood. Although there is an art space and a cafe in an existing building, it all remains otherwise unimproved, and the community is not likely to see any changes there until the university needs that land at some time in the distant future for a campus expansion. This big plan may not have harmed the neighborhood yet, but it is an example of how mistaken powerful people can be when they speculate on the future. These big plans completely evaporated.

South Shore – Unintended Consequences of the Plan for Transformation

Let me begin by clearly stating that I think the idea of providing more opportunity for people living in public housing is a great idea. It requires real commitment, though, and careful planning. That’s where this story begins – where the city demonstrated neither of those things.

When the city announced plans to tear down public housing, few people probably realized just how little commitment those officials had to building anything in the place of the housing they were destroying. Meanwhile, as people were displaced, the city did almost nothing to make sure they had the services they needed when they moved or to prevent the same criminal predators that plagued them in those housing developments from following them – which they did.

The north end of South Shore was hit hard by this poor planning. Numerous, large apartment buildings were filled with residents and abandoned by the city. They were followed by the criminals who terrorized them in the projects, and the fabric of the north end of South Shore was torn, with maleficent ripples cascading through the whole neighborhood and beyond. South Shore continue to suffer from the city’s act of indifference to this day.

There is an alternative

What we have to do is bring the decision-making to the people. Why are we convening these boards that are designed to attract ego-maniacs? Instead, we should go back to the basics, the unit of polity that is the foundation for all others. In rural areas, it is the town. In cities, it is the neighborhood. Neighborhood folks, deliberating together, are best suited to making decisions about how change in the community should take place.

A mega-developer moves in the opposite direction. People are one more step away from the levers of power. This mega-CDC board is essentially private people making decisions for us. They are not elected; they are not accountable; they are not part of the public process. Who is deciding who is on this board? The people who came up with the idea in the first place! This is not democracy. This is powerful people making decisions for you, whether you like it or not.

We are proposing a Woodlawn Development Council, popularly elected and made up of residents. We encourage South Shore and Washington Park residents to create similar mechanisms to assure community development is locally controlled.

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1 Comment

  1. Sonia Csaszar

    Bravo, Gabe! You spoke truth indeed! Among the ironies of building the Obama Library, wasn’t there a suggestion about bringing back the “el” to improve transportation to the place?

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