Urban Government and Private Development

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Urban Government and Private Development in Postindustrial Urban America

ABSTRACT: As revenue-deprived cities in the United States depend more on developments aimed at attracting visitors, the governing bodies controlling this infrastructure play a larger role in urban government. This paper explores the case of one such development, Chicago’s Navy Pier. The author argues that the Pier’s redevelopment as a festival marketplace, which was based on public rhetoric and space, necessitated the creation of a public authority that compromised this vision. The paper begins with a description of the postindustrial city, then outlines the history of Navy Pier and its redevelopment, and closes with a discussion of the role of public authorities in the contemporary city.

In 1986, Chicago and urban America generally, were in decline. The bedrock of federal urban funding had disappeared, middle class residents continued to flee the city for suburban enclaves, and manufacturing jobs that had once employed large portions of city dwellers were suddenly much scarcer. While cities searched for strategies to reverse these trends, most found great trouble in doing so. An urban regeneration seemed unlikely at the time, but cities would soon find ways to attract dollars, residents, and visitors back within their limits.

Seventy years earlier, Municipal Pier, a mixed-use development for shipping and entertainment, was constructed near the mouth of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. The initial uses of the structure known today as Navy Pier symbolize the industrial and leisure activities taking place in a rapidly growing, and at times, carefree urban setting. In the decades to follow, the pier served as a Navy training base, the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois, and finally, as a landmark used intermittently for municipal gatherings and public events. During the era of urban decline, however, Navy Pier sat idle amidst a city on the verge of rebirth; plans for renovation had come and gone and it looked as though the Pier might never be of use again.

The ever-changing currents of urban America provided a different outcome. In 1990 a plan that would redevelop the Pier was accepted, and in the previous year, two factors ensured its success. The first was the plan’s use of public rhetoric, which stood out from other festival marketplaces that had embraced private development exclusively. This can be attributed to the fact that throughout the city’s history, Chicagoans have treasured their public space along Lake Michigan. A phenomenon best represented by Daniel Burnham’s 1909 plan for Chicago, which placed an emphasis on beautifying the lakefront and rejuvenating the residents and city (Hall, 2002, pp.

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