By Amara Enyia
"Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die…"
Those words by renowned Chicago Architect Daniel Burnham are as true today as they were when first uttered at the turn of the 20th century — and yet, it seems we need reminding that the declaration to 'make no little plans' was, in fact, a universal one.
We have stumbled.
Those "big plans" of which Burnham spoke seem to exist as the exclusive purview of only some parts of the city, when they should be part and parcel of the collective imagination for neighborhoods from Hegewisch to Sauganash, Roseland to Rogers Park.
As I read through an article describing a group of 50 "black leaders" pulling together a rally in support of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, I couldn't help but shake my head.
Many of them touted the fact that the Museum would bring jobs and contracts to communities of color. I balked at the notion.
On top of the fact that the jobs numbers were obviously inflated and there are no details of any community benefits agreement that specifies how much impact the project would have in their communities, I couldn't help but ask, 'Are we only good enough to serve as laborers constructing someone else's dream?'
Is our lot to huddle together, hands outstretched, whenever someone else's imagination has been piqued, to hope for some residual crumbs that we can squirrel away in our existence of perpetual scarcity? Isn't that the long-suffering experience for people of color in this country? Involuntary laborers building the dream of Puritans and disaffected citizens from the other side of the pond?
We should be thankful for the collective imagination of those men and women who imagined that they were more than laborers, more than tools to be used to build someone else's dream and, in fact, had the necessary sense of agency to begin to construct their own realities as they pushed for their freedom and independence.
"Aiming high" seems to be a luxury afforded only those with the clout that positions them at the center of the mayor's imagination.
And so goes the development model that has created the stark contrast that's immediately apparent when you drive west on Madison Street from Michigan Avenue to Austin Boulevard.
It's not just the obvious disinvestment you witness, as gleaming skyscrapers turn into shoddy, low-rise vacant storefronts and lots. You're also looking at the absence of imagination.
Indeed, the neighborhoods along that drive are capable of more. After all, that drive will reveal some of the most beautiful homes, some of the finest transportation infrastructure and access, and some of the most beautiful parks the city has to offer.
Yet, the inability to envision what is not and set about to making it a reality is consistently reinforced by the city's narrative of scarcity — scarcity that seems to exist only for some neighborhoods.
Make no mistake, it is not the mayor's job to imagine for us. That's our job and we must do it in earnest. We must then push back against the city's leadership, which has capitalized on that lack of collective imagination and peppered it with the narrative of scarcity in order to excuse their utter lack of effort in helping us actualize our big plans.
If the city wants to assist in building our dream, the city indeed will. Look at the amount of imagination and effort the mayor undertook to ensure this Lucas Museum is built in Chicago.
From a foolhardy move to violate the principals of our protected lakefront, to dreaming up the demolition of the McCormick Lakeside Center and reconstruction to the tune of $1.2 billion dollars, the mayor is going above and beyond to ensure that this project gets done.
It took imagination for former Mayor Richard M. Daley to turn an eyesore off of Michigan Avenue into Millennium Park. It took quite a bit of imagination to orchestrate the overnight demolition of Miegs Field to build Northerly Island into what it is today. When the will exists, the resources always seem to appear.
The same imagination and effort that built the skyscrapers; that crafted the elegant system of boulevards connecting neighborhoods; that dreamed of the natural oases, expansive parks, in the midst of concrete, is the same power that can catapult Bronzeville's efforts to become a major tourist destination.
Tha imagination can also help launch the proposed Austin Arts and Cultural campus, designed to make Austin a destination, a hub of arts and culture, for both Chicago and the western suburbs.
The gathering of those 50 'black leaders' this week struck me as their way of conceding that the best we can do is to hop onto someone else's vision and hope that a few scraps fall our way; and by scraps, I mean a few jobs here, a few contracts there.
Many of those black leaders were ministers, so I couldn't help but reminisce on the parable of talents. While the first two servants took their talents and invested them, traded them and received even more; the last servant stingily buried his talent in the ground out of fear that he would lose the little he had. He was not bold and took no risk. He couldn't see beyond the one talent. He was not faithful over the little, and therefore had the little he had taken away.
Make no little plans.
My hope is that those 50 'black leaders,' and indeed any individuals who claim to work on behalf of communities, will gather with the same enthusiasm and earnest to uplift and exhort projects that actually emerge from their community work.
My hope is that they support the big dreams that are dreamt from the ground-up, and that put them before the city, and demand the city harness the same amount of enthusiasm, effort and stick-to-itness that we've seen in other projects Chicago has pushed.
Dreams — visions — are blueprints for the reality that we can construct. In our communities, dreaming is not a luxury; it's a necessity. It's the only way we can truly transform our neighborhoods. Let's start supporting our own dreams and visions, and getting the mayor and city leadership to stand behind us for a change.
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