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Transportation before Burnham

Chicago’s historic position as a major transportation hub, a great inland port and the most significant rail center lay at the heart of its economy, including its prominence as publisher, map- and image-maker, but the great concentration of transportation facilities in the city and the complexity of their interactions posed logistical and aesthetic problems that cried out for planned solutions. Those proposed by the Plan of Chicago, however drew on a long history of official attempts to manage unruly waterways and harbors, to manage the internal and external movement of goods and people in what are the densest and most complex of human geographies. Chicago was of course not alone among cities grappling with transportation problems at the turn of the twentieth century. The great cities of Europe had grown phenomenally during the nineteenth century as their industrial economies grew along with their social and political roles as the seats of nation states and global empires. At mid-century most of them had thrown off the last of their ancient encircling walls, transforming them into boulevards that offered temporary and attractive relief from the crowded streets within the walls. Burnham and Bennett drew particular inspiration from the extensive boulevards and parkways of Paris, though a more balanced transportation plan might have paid closer attention to London’s innovative subway system and light rail system, or indeed to Chicago’s own public transportation systems. Instead they tilted against Chicago’s prolific grid of streets, an efficient and simple layout for communication within urban areas as ancient as the Roman Empire and as recent as the railroad towns on the American prairie. They hoped to override this grid with a network of diagonal streets imitating those promoted by European trained planners and exemplified so dramatically by Haussmann’s Paris.