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Editorial: Chicago at age 175 — look forward, not back

Updated: April 5, 2012 8:14AM

Nobody living in Chicago 175 years ago could have guessed what the city would be like today, though they had a notion it might really be something.

They could not have imagined the skyscrapers, the airports, the smartphones. They were four decades short of electric lights.

But they knew enough to lay the groundwork for a great city, to set right the fundamentals, which remains our job to this day.

Back then, it was a matter of digging canals and laying railroads and such. Today, it is a matter of educating children, rebuilding the city’s physical infrastructure, preserving old industries and nurturing new ones.

One year before Chicago incorporated, on March 4, 1837, the federal government had begun to dig the Illinois & Michigan Canal, which was entirely the point of the new city. Once the canal opened, people and cargo could be carried along inland waters from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, with everything moving through Chicago.

Eleven years later, in 1848, the city built its first railroad. Before long — and to this day — a quarter of all rail freight in the nation would move through Chicago.

Eight years after that, in 1856, the city began raising all the streets and sidewalks in the business district, as well as a few buildings. If you hoped to be a great city, you couldn’t expect people to walk in the mud.

Fifteen years after that, in 1871, the year of the Great Chicago Fire, the city audaciously decided to reverse the flow of the Chicago River, sending its sewage downstream instead of into Lake Michigan. The project was completed in 1900. To be a great city, you had to have safe drinking water.

Seventeen years after that, in 1888, the city saw the construction of the Rookery Building, followed one year later by the Auditorium Theater and the Monadnock Building. A great city had to have a personal style.

Five years after that, in 1893, the magnificent World’s Columbian Exposition opened. A great city plays on the world stage.

Sixteen years after that, in 1909, Chicago produced its Plan of Chicago, better known as the Burnham Plan, a brilliant example of how a smart city can create strong bones for future growth. The Burnham Plan called for an enormous lakefront park, a regional system of forest preserves and a ring of boulevards, and much of that came to be.

And now last week came the news that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has embraced a plan, written by World Business Chicago, to rebuild the fundamentals of the city’s economy. It’s a sound plan, if not on the order of reversing a river, and a good sign that Chicago is looking to the future again, even as it looks back on its first 175 years.

It’s tempting to predict where Chicago will be in another 175 years, or even 50, but nobody can say.

Better to work on those fundamentals — and see what happens.

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