While the machinations of the Illinois government can make even the most hardened political observers tear their hair out, Chicago has always thrived in spite of the failures of those at the top—corrupt governments come and go, but there will always be new citizens ready to remake their environment. That truth is the beating heart of No Small Plans, a graphic novel published by the Chicago Architecture Foundation that shows teenagers living through the city’s shortcomings as they contemplate Chicago’s possibilities.
Written by Gabrielle Lyon, vice president of education and experience at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, and lovingly illustrated by the Chicago-based collective Eyes of the Cat—led by Devin Mawdsley and including Kayce Bayer, Chris Lin, and Deon Reed—No Small Plans is meant to serve as a 21st-century update to the 1911 textbook Wacker’s Manual, which brought architect Daniel Burnham’s grand redesign of the city into Chicago’s classrooms. Showcasing the innate desire of Chicago’s youngest residents to envision a better version of their home, No Small Plans hopes to ignite the kind of Burnhamian grandiose thinking that could reimagine the city once more, a vision sorely needed to overcome the political pitfalls residents face today. By donating more than 30,000 copies to Chicago Public Schools students over the next three years, along with providing additional teaching tools to educators, CAF aspires to have as broad an impact as Wacker’s Manual, stirring a spirit of civic engagement among the city’s youth.
No Small Plans traces the continuity of Chicago as experienced by its plucky, can-do teenagers, beginning in 1928, covering the present day, and venturing into the faraway future of 2211. Through different time periods, groups of people navigate Chicago streets along with the problems of their age. In just a few dozen pages per era, the book introduces compelling characters, situates their daily lives across the entire city, and tells sophisticated stories of Chicago in motion. Each section is interspersed with visits from Burnham himself, speaking directly to the reader about the challenges of city planning. His presence serves to cast the Plan of Chicago as not so much a business-friendly proposal as a grand vision reflective of the imaginative thinking that students often adopt as they discuss their hopes for a livable city.
While the past and future sections are more speculative, the chapter on contemporary Chicago pulls no punches as it examines the ever-present questions of redevelopment and gentrification. The reader is introduced to Natalie, a lifelong Logan Square resident who’s worried about her family being pushed out of the neighborhood. As she and her friends traverse the 606, the reality of her neighbors’ displacement gradually dawns on them. With her friends’ assistance, Natalie faces down a bulldozer and wrecking ball, and they all decide, “We have a responsibility to be involved, to resist changes we don’t want, and to fight to make the neighborhood the way we want it to be.” With a growing awareness of the impact, both positive and negative, of neighborhood change, her friend David contemplates the possibilities of healthy development in Englewood, seeing a skate park in place of an empty lot. It’s a balanced, sophisticated understanding of Chicago that could resonate with local teenagers.
What’s most remarkable about No Small Plans is the thoughtful rendering of Chicago’s constantly flowing energy. Both the city itself and its teenage denizens are always on the move in the kind of commotion that can easily fade into the background of daily life. Whether the book is capturing the clattering of the el or the kinetic frenzy of a Logan Square antigentrification punk show, or zooming out to a bird’s-eye view, as Burnham’s plan frequently did, the reader is reminded of the vitality that permeates Chicago life.
In its pivot to an imagined future, No Small Plans makes it obvious that Chicagoans can’t take their city for granted. When a group of students is asked to assess proposals for redeveloping the Uptown Theatre (not so subtly preserved in 2020), they confront many of the same puzzles Chicagoans face today, with the development of luxury condos threatening to destroy the spirit of the original building. Empowered to make a planning decision that will affect the neighborhood for decades to come, the teenagers show a level of probity Bruce Rauner and Rahm Emanuel should aspire to. Whether Chicago will make it to the 23rd century is an unanswerable question, but No Small Plans reminds us that the city is alive and mutable when we respect our own power to transform it. v