How do you rebuild a vanished city? David Brooks - not exactly one of my favorite columnists - has a neat, atypical op-ed here. But no, I am not talking about the reconstruction he talks about. Visions of a prosperous new New Orleans "transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice", where the children of these hurricane victims will "not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" all sounds very nice but I am little too old and a little too cynical to actually "dream" of that. Instead let me stick to reality as I know it.
The city I live in runs an excellent ad campaign that you couldn't have missed if you passed by O'Hare anytime recently. My favorite ad is the one where the backdrop is of different buildings in downtown and words scrolling in the foreground. The words go - "Other cities measure their worth in charts and graphs. We prefer something more concrete. Like concrete." Yep, concrete. Lets talk some concrete reconstruction.
Long long ago, on Chicago's west side, west of the South branch of the Chicago river, there was a barn. The barn belonged to an Irish woman by the name of O'Leary. She also owned a cow who resided in this barn. One evening the cow was feeling pretty bored and decided to have some fun. It saw this lantern nearby, so it kicked the lantern. Or so goes one of Chicago's major urban legends. What we do know for sure is that, by the time the Great Chicago fire of 1871 subsided, it left about 300 dead, 100,000 homeless and the entire city destroyed.
Disaster turned into opporuntity for architects all over the country and beyond. Architects and builders arrived from all over to rebuild. The architects to come out of this period - Jenney, Burnham, Sullivan, Roche and ofcourse Wright - laid the foundation for what would be later called the Chicago school of architecture. This time, the builders used safer building materials and safer construction techniques as the memory of the fire was still fresh in their minds. The steel frame which allowed for buildings to be taller, elevators, lighting, climate control all had their origins during this period in this city. The city of skyscrapers is like 800 miles to the East, but this is where the first skyscraper was built. Today, the city boasts of a diversity in the types of buildings that no other city can match. Burnham dreamt of building a 'Paris on the Prairie' but if he were to see the city today, I am sure he won't complain.
And this morning, as I walked through Michigan avenue admiring buildings as always, I could not help thinking that there is a lesson in here for New Orleans. If indeed the city is to be rebuilt, look no further than Chicago. You sent us your best musicians and made us a jazz city, maybe we could teach you a thing or two about rebuilding.