Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
An old-fashioned battle over civic character.
With the pax Northeast Corridor underway last week—in honor of Boston they sang "Sweet Caroline" at Yankee Stadium, which might in other circumstances be seen as a sign of the apocalypse—apparently New York City's vitriol had to be diverted elsewhere.
Rachel Shteir, writing in the New York Times Book Review, took aim this week at both the city of Chicago and the people who defend and promote it. "Boosterism has been perfected here because the reality is too painful to look at," Shteir postulates, while reviewing (mostly unfavorably) a handful of new books about the city for Sunday's cover.
Fortunately, we don't have to wait for the angry letters to be printed in the next Book Review. The counter-manifestos are already here! In the past few days, it seems, everyone from Gary to Milwaukee has read Shteir's "Chicago Manuals" piece, resulting in a groundswell of angry rebuttals. (Even New York City reached out: New York deputy mayor Howard Wolfson tweeted that he was "mystified by the offensive, mean spirited & inaccurate attack on Chicago... a great city deserves better.")
David Schalliol dismisses the piece as a "good chuckle." In Chicago Reader, Michael Miner says Shteir writes like action movie cops drive: too fast to clear any obstacles out of her way. "We’re used to The New York Times not quite understanding Chicago," Chuck Sudo writes in Chicagoist, but Shteir's piece has "the special distinction of being the first one showing a cluelessness for Chicago, written by an author who has called the city home for 13 years."
"'Chicago Manuals,'" Claire Zulkey writes for WBEZ, "seems to be written by someone who is trapped here against her will." Zulkey suggests a different title: "I Hate It Here."
The shot heard round the Loop even reached Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who urged Chicagoans to simply ignore the provocation—"No one read the book review"—even as he took the bait himself and reminded reporters that Chicago claims more Nobel-prize winners than any other city in America.
What exactly did Shteir, a New Yorker who decamped to Chicago some dozen years ago, write to provoke these Bartmanesque levels of anger from the Chicago faithful?
Well, many things. Nominally, it's a review of three books: Thomas Dyja's The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream; Golden: How Rod Blagojevich Talked Himself Out of the Governor's Office and Into Prison, by Chicago Tribune reporters Jeff Coen and John Chase; and Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg's You Were Never in Chicago.
But, Shteir digresses, she has a bone to pick with Chicago that's bigger than any book review. She singles out Chicago's early 20th century optimism, which nearly every Northern and Midwestern city shared (Burnham and co. also made grandiose predictions for New Haven, among other cities), and also its destructive urbanism of the mid-century, which, again, was hardly particular to the Windy City. She groups some real issues—last year's shameful murder rate—with some not-so-serious problems, like the continual failures of the Cubs. She implies that Chicago is going the way of Detroit, when in fact the city's population has been more or less stable for the past 20 years. Her praise, and there is some, seems deliberately facetious: "Thanks to global warming, the winters have softened."
But her central beef with Chicago is how resolutely proud everyone seems to be of the city, despite its issues. It's the opposite of New York, where everyone complains about everything all the time. In Chicago, per Shteir, the city's unshakeable sense of greatness is wildly incongruous with its problems, a willful blindness that has become something of a civic calling card:
“Poor Chicago,” a friend of mine recently said. Given the number of urban apocalypses here, I couldn’t tell which problem she was referring to. Was it the Cubs never winning? The abominable weather? Meter parking costing more than anywhere else in America — up to $6.50 an hour — with the money flowing to a private company, thanks to the ex-mayor Richard M. Daley’s shortsighted 2008 deal? Or was it the fact that in 2012, of the largest American cities, Chicago had the second-highest murder rate and the second-highest combined sales tax, as well as the ninth-highest metro foreclosure rate in the country? That it’s the third-most racially segregated city and is located in the state with the most underfunded public-employee pension debt? Was my friend talking about how a real estate investor bought The Chicago Tribune and drove it into bankruptcy? Or how 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who performed at Barack Obama’s inauguration, was shot dead near the president’s Kenwood home?
Actually, “poor” seems kind. And yet even as the catastrophes pile up, Chicago never ceases to boast about itself. The Magnificent Mile! Fabulous architecture! The MacArthur Foundation! According to The Tribune, Chicago is “America’s hottest theater city”; the mayor’s office touts new taxi ordinances as “huge improvements.” The mayor likes brags that could be read as indictments too, announcing the success of sting operations busting a variety of thugs and grifters.
The swagger has bugged me since I moved here from New York 13 years ago.
It's a valid point, but it's lost in the general tone of derision, and her scornful treatment of the city's best attributes, like its architecture, museums, research facilities, or sports (she remembered the Cubs, but forgot the Blackhawks, Bulls and White Sox).
In fact, as Sudo notes, some of the reactions to her piece actually do fit her diagnosis of a city where the boosterism never stops. Emanuel's response? "I'm quite proud of the city of Chicago." Yes, Shteir might have said, I know you are.
Neil Steinberg, who comes in for particular criticism from Shteir for pitching "indulgently into platitudes," responded to Shteir's review with a piece in the Chicago Sun-Times that must make her long for the relentless cynicism of New York.
Despondent over news of an impending bad review (Shteir's), Steinberg gets into a cab and eventually confesses to the driver that his book has been panned in The New York Times. But the cabbie, an immigrant from Nigeria, cheers him right up:
“I’m an American citizen now. I’m a Chicagoan,” he said. “I love it. I’ve been to New York, and you know what? They put garbage in their streets. Chicago is one of the best cities that have ever been. No no no no. It’s a privilege to be in Chicago. No please sir.” He chortled. He handed back a receipt.
“Please write down the name of the book — I want to read it.”
"Keep your head up -- you're a Chicagoan!" he yells after Steinberg as he exits.
Even Liebling's knock—he coined the epithet "The Second City"—was adopted as the name of a comedy troupe whose later fame turned the expression into a reminder of another aspect of Chicago's greatness.
Well, that's how you turn lemons into lemonade. Or in Shteir's more cynical view, "the bloviating rolls on."
Top image: Flickr user Michaelina2.