Seven Sundays ago, we launched this quest for a new Plan of Chicago with a sense of urgency and a question mark as tall as Tribune Tower: Would readers and organizations concur that intertwined challenges confront Chicago with the fourth great crisis of its 176 years: imperiled livability, uneven prosperity and desperate public finances that have driven residents to leave by the hundreds of thousands?
Since then we've published many letters and op-eds proposing elements of a socially oriented successor to Daniel Burnham's infrastructure-rich Plan of Chicago. And responses still roll into our offices: More than 500 serious, ambitious submissions reflect readers' determination to fortify Chicago and disadvantaged Chicagoans.
Many proposals go to Chicago's economic future: how to make the city friendly to employers, how to educate tomorrow's workforce, how to create commercial engines lest Chicago be the next Detroit. Richard C. Longworth of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs synthesized that mission in a Nov. 8 op-ed, "Saving Chicago": "We need now to reinvent our economy, here and in the nation, to regain the relative economic decency that began slipping away 50 years ago, and find a new middle-class economy. Chicago, certainly, needs to enhance its status as a global city. More global engagement, more foreign investment, more trade, more tourism are good places to start. This is where the money is and forms the core of civic vitality. But then Chicago must figure out how to spread that vitality to all its citizens."
We expect the influx to continue. Several urban planners are on the case, and smart groups such as the Union League Club are preparing submissions. Last week brought ideas from the Donors Forum. That's significant: Foundations and other members of that quiet but influential group sponsor grants and programs that bring good ideas to life. Students, too, are helping, notably from CICS Ralph Ellison High School on the South Side, DePaul University's Department of Geography, Wilbur Wright College and the Department of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The most compelling ideas thus far tend to fall into five categories. Our folly was thinking we could present these expressions of faith, hopes and charity in one day's Tribune. We cannot. Rather than shortchange readers who submitted strong ideas, we'll extend this project: As a next step we'll discuss these five clusters, at greater length, in five future editorials. As more proposals arrive, each cluster grows.
Eventually the survival of the fittest should tighten these ideas into a workable agenda. We'll promote that agenda, encourage sponsors and push public officials to make it come alive. We say this realizing that, because Chicago politicians have amassed more than $30 billion in pension and general obligation bond debts, City Hall is broke.
To an impressive extent, readers are focusing not on suggestions that apply to only one of Chicago's challenges — crime, say, or population loss — but on holistic proposals.
One takeaway from these 500-plus proposals is that rescuing Chicago from its crises will require rigorous commitment to change and sophisticated coordination of efforts. In a commentary on today's Perspective page, Terry Mazany, president and CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, pledges that his group will help sustain this effort: "(All of us) are modern-day Burnhams and time has come for us to step to the plate." How best to ensure a lasting follow-through? Again, we welcome your thoughts.
All we ask is that you embrace Burnham's imperative: Make no little plans.
Several proposals for a new Plan of Chicago speak not about rescuing young people as if they're inert victims, but of empowering them, liberating them from dismal prospects. Among the low-cost, no-cost or self-funding suggestions we will discuss in the first editorial on these five clusters of readers' proposals: Create a Chicago Youth Task Force to engage and manage young people in park and neighborhood projects, from cleanups to mentoring smaller children. • Persuade the Corporation for National and Community Service to dedicate 1,000 AmeriCorps positions for Innovation Houses so recent college grads can guide neighborhood revitalization projects — tutoring, block watches, small-business incubation and more. Think Hull House reincarnate. • Starting in fifth grade, put speakers from unions and businesses in classrooms to talk about careers in fields unfamiliar to many children. • A City Colleges student lays out fresh ways to teach "emotional literacy" skills — not only conflict resolution, but simple face-to-face interaction (no screens allowed). • How might boarding schools, tuition vouchers, company sponsorships or other force vectors open new options for Chicago Public Schools students? • A King College Prep teacher explains an arguably doable European-style model for creating job readiness skills that lead to apprenticeships.
Reinventing real estate
We should see Chicago's current land use and structures not as forever fixed, but as primed to perpetually evolve, just as this ashen wasteland did after the Great Fire of 1871: Should Chicago have an evolution czar to push repurposing projects for all-but-dead real estate such as the former CPS headquarters on Pershing Road? • Readers chafe at the number of long-vacant or foreclosed structures in neighborhoods crying for adult education, small business startups, day care facilities and other parenting support or job sources for impoverished families. • Might it make sense to convert obsolete industrial buildings to temporary dorm-style residences for homeless and working-class families — or would the necessary security, hands-on oversight and counseling to help those families reorient be too oppressive? • Designate a few parks and other public spaces as urban refuges, subdivided into playgrounds and conversation spots, and protected by 24-hour policing. • More visibly secure city boulevards and some other arteries to attract walkers, runners and bicyclists. •Go Big with a freshwater research initiative, hydroponic farming on empty plots, a new Motor Row of vehicle and services outlets. •Admit that many young families like the feel of suburbia. To keep them in Chicago, create more of that feel, starting in city neighborhoods that were ... originally platted as suburbs.
Redeploying public dollars
Budgets for City Hall, CPS, the Park District and other Chicago governments are sclerotic: Last year's budgets are this year's foundations, so most fresh prioritizing really just tweaks at the edges. City finance officials tend to dismiss the notion of zero-based budgeting as naive and unworkable. But with less sclerosis — Mayor Rahm Emanuel, only you could enforce revolutionary approaches — Chicago could, for example, create "eBay (or rather eLake) Chicago": Sell, or donate to nonprofits, every city-owned lot and structure that isn't fully used today. Recognize CPS as a vast but vastly underused landholding enterprise, abounding with surplus properties. Same for city equipment; let no old plow blade lurk, unmonetized, in a ward lot. At every turn, foster this culture of asset renewal or rebirth. • TIF money. Discuss. • Why, exactly, isn't year-round schooling the norm? • A University of Pennsylvania candidate for a doctorate in urban planning offers an intriguing proposal for School Improvement Districts — localized zones drawn to straddle neighborhoods of differing affluence. It's a big idea; one goal is to give residents greater control over how their tax dollars are spent — to lift all schools and make them more attractive to families that otherwise flee the city. • Involve corporations in sponsoring "protectorate schools" with weekday boarding.
Self-reliance as force multiplier
We could fill pages with readers' ideas for helping disadvantaged families guide, and enhance, their own fates. They include: Greater use of schools on evenings and weekends for volunteers to teach parenting and other adult skills, and also as de facto welcome centers for parents who as children had miserable school experiences. • Remedial education so commonplace that every Chicagoan knows how to gain access. • "News literacy" efforts to better connect children and adolescents to the world beyond their neighborhoods. • Multiple mentorship ideas. • Better messaging on the statistical verities that finishing high school, holding a job and delaying childbirth greatly improve a young person's prospects for success. •Wider use of mission statements and low-consequence contracts so that service organizations, schools and even public offices help individuals master responsibilities and self-respect. • A Wright College student bemoans how many young people fail opportunities for jobs at her workplace because they haven't been taught interview strategies, basic etiquette, how to dress and other soft skills. • Should all CPS students be required to wear the equivalent of office attire?
Start in the streets
This is more a widely shared conviction than it is a litany of specifics. Between the lines of many readers' proposals is a belief that whatever doesn't begin at the neighborhood level is likely to get lost in the current miasma of unfocused or redundant programs, multiple City Hall outreaches and other, often flailing efforts to build a better Chicago. That broad miasma simply doesn't perform; if it did, Chicago wouldn't face the multiple crises it does. These proposals essentially ask for a fixed framework of principles and priorities — a dependable, universally understood and finite list of most urgent goals. We can't improve on the words of a Palos Heights reader: All Chicagoans should know that they fit into a bigger picture and are not living in a vacuum. Indeed, they should not feel alone or abandoned.
Excerpts from your proposals
"Take the corporate and political leaders of the city to the top of Willis Tower and have them look south to Englewood, west to Austin and northwest to Humboldt Park, and have them say to the children, 'Your neighborhoods are part of our city; we will be there to help you.' And then, do it." — Phil Blackwell, Chicago
"Education fails if what is taught at school is not reinforced in the home." — Ann C. FitzSimons, Chicago
"Our inner city is not just a food desert. It is devoid of opportunity for much of anything besides empty dreams." — Judith Jensen, Tinley Park
"Every neighborhood, no matter how run-down it may be, has an interesting history and a distinct character that should be cultivated and shared with everybody. It doesn't matter which neighborhood it is, each one is beautiful in its own way and has something valuable to contribute to Chicago." — Steve A. Livesey, Palos Heights
"Kids have to be busy. Kids have to find hobbies, role models and interests. Kids have to have a hope and a plan. If they don't, the only system that will benefit would be a penitentiary system." — Eugene Salganik, Skokie
"Parents need to believe that they can make a difference. You want affluent families to stay? Then give them a meaningful voice. Currently, it is easier for parents to send their kids to private or religious schools or to move out of the city. Only those who do not have the economic means stay in the system. If you want to keep upwardly mobile families, the most important thing is to change the schools." — Rob Klein, Deerfield
"We cannot continue to put blinders on when there's another person killed in a poor neighborhood. We cannot shut our eyes because the crime occurs south of 35th Street and stays out of the Gold Coast and other affluent areas." — Jim Borman, Chicago
"Every child deserves a chance. We have a duty to make sure that every young person is given the opportunity to live their dream, free of fear." — Terri Pantaleo, Darien
"It's a certainty that we can all think of items that will improve the city and/or surrounding communities, but until we have control of costs and particularly outstanding debt, any new proposals are like whistling in the wind." — Ralph Kravis, La GrangeCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun