Chicago , 2211. The towers are taller. The apartments are smaller. The El has become the tube. Pho is the breakfast of choice. Communication happens mainly through screens, albeit floating holographic screens. Five teen-agers have been assigned to the City Planning Council for a year of public service. Their first assignment is to decide on the future of the Uptown Theatre, a white terra-cotta movie palace that seats four thousand and, in 2211 as in 2017, needs to be adapted into something new. (Regina Spektor filmed her “Black and White” video there.) After a tense meeting, three of them decide to go to see the theatre, and the Uptown neighborhood, for themselves.
“We really want a space to facemeet, instead of screening all the time,” one teen says. “I was wrong to think I could make a planning council decision from up in my apartment,” another says. Will Uptown get the server farm/performance venue it wants, or just more condos? Such is the cliffhanger ending of “No Small Plans,” a just-published graphic novel from the Chicago Architecture Foundation.
Free copies of “No Small Plans” will be distributed to five thousand Chicago teens in the next month by C.A.F. Over the next three years, the group plans to give away twenty-five thousand more, thanks to a Kickstarter campaign. When you buy your own copy, the purchase price allows C.A.F. to give a copy away for free. “This is a way for the community to give to young people, and for them to see that the adults around them really care about the choices they make,” Gabrielle Lyon, the vice-president of education and experience at C.A.F, says. That’s the message of “No Small Plans” as well. The graphic-novel format tells teens, This is for you, and the content takes the message a step further: the city is for you.
From the vantage point of 2017, the future presented in “No Small Plans” is not so far-fetched. Teens in today’s Chicago maintain friendships via screen, meeting each other’s faces primarily in school hallways. Lindblom Math and Science Academy, a selective Chicago public school, stays open until 7 p.m., so students drawn from across the city can use it as a safe commons before they head home, one teacher tells me. Many teen-agers have little sense of neighborhoods outside their own, and they visit “tourist Chicago” only on school trips to places like the Adler Planetarium.
From the vantage of 1911, other aspects of “No Small Plans” also resonate. That was the year when “Wacker’s Manual,” an illustrated textbook for Chicago eighth graders (then the terminal grade for the majority of students), was published, to prepare them for their lives as citizens. Written by the adman Walter D. Moody at the behest of the Chicago Plan Commission, the manual was intended to seed a new generation with the belief that a great city required design—i.e., the architect Daniel Burnham’s expansive 1909 Plan of Chicago, about which he famously remarked, “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.”