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Three Questions for John Russick, Director of Curatorial Affairs for the Chicago History Museum

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This week, our fair city turned 176 years young. Chicagoans, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, gathered at the Chicago History Museum Monday to celebrate the occasion with a slice of, what else, Eli's Cheesecake styled after the city's flag. In case you missed the soiree, Curbed contributor Gwendolyn Purdom caught up with the museum's director of curatorial affairs, John Russick, to talk Chicago architecture and urban planning history – and the city's birthday wish list – in honor of the milestone.

Curbed: The City of Chicago is celebrating its 176th birthday this week. Overall, how would you say the city has changed in terms of architecture and urban layout over the years?

JR: Obviously it's changed tremendously, starting out as a temporary residence for American Indian groups that came through this region for centuries to early settler homes and Fort Dearborn and the combination of wood and some temporary structures to a city that is built out of steel and glass and concrete and has totally dominated the landscape. As opposed to sort of coming to build homes and businesses along the curves of the river, it's sort of given shape to the river and defined the river and claimed the space as a metropolis as opposed to just sort of a crossroads of lake and river.

Curbed: Chicago is known for its architecture and architectural heavy-hitters like Frank Lloyd Wright and Daniel Burnham. What was it about the city historically that allowed for it to become such a breeding ground for structural innovation?

JR: Chicago had a number of great advantages; one was that people had faith in this place. They believed that it was not only a good place to be but that it had a future so people invested in it and even despite the fire people reinvested in it. They stayed. They didn't pick up and leave because the city burnt down. They had a belief that the city had a future and that's probably most critical thing.

Chicago had a lot of issues to resolve. It had the muddy soil. It had the high winds. It had issues that made it challenging for this city to build things like the skyscraper, to grow in that way, and I think that with those challenges came inventive people with ambition and a desire to leave their mark, but also to make Chicago a great place.

So, because you had an environment in which experimentation and innovation and new ideas were not only permitted but encouraged, you had the opportunity that would attract that kind of person, the Frank Lloyd Wrights and the Louis Sullivans who came here because they saw an opportunity to break out of a mold perhaps, to try and do something that hadn't been done before, to solve a problem that had plagued previous architects and engineers. And when you have a place that attracts that sort of attitude and that sort of ambition and that sort of personality, you're bound to have great things happen.

Curbed: Based on its history, what birthday gift do you think the City of Chicago and its residents would appreciate most?

JR: Personally, I think a clean river would be a remarkable gift to the city. That people could swim or enjoy the river in a way that they can't today. Fishing and recreation on the river would just be an extraordinary new aspect of Chicago life that I think lots of people would enjoy and it would attract even more people to the city.
·City's Sweet 176th Birthday Party Includes Bitter Taste of Violence [DNAinfo]
·Chicago History Museum [Official]
·Curbed Q&A