Defending Chicago From the Ridicule of New Yorkers...Again

Just as I’m recovering from the New York Timeshorrific July 6 travel piece, in which a fluffy ‘gal about town’ (I can picture her: skeletal arms, jodhpurs, expensive blonde layers, David Yurman jewelry) pioneers her way to such far-flung locations as Wicker Park and the rooftop bar at The Wit, my friend Matt alerted me to the paper’s latest affront to our city. Rachel Shteir’s totally unprovoked evisceration of Chicago, which masquerades as a “book review,” is infuriating particularly because the woman who wrote it moved here from New York. By choice. So, in the spirit of civic defense, I’d like to address some of the piece’s most egregious remarks.

1. “ ‘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. . .And yet as the catastrophes pile up, Chicago never ceases to boast about itself. The Magnificent Mile! Fabulous architecture! The MacArthur Foundation!”

First of all, only tourists call Michigan Avenue the Magnificent Mile. And as far as the architecture, sure, it is fabulous, come to think of it. But that’s not why we love our city. Cities aren’t about architecture—they’re about people. In comparison to Chicago, the coasts are transient places, places where you relocate for awhile but not where you build roots. The past three generations of my family, myself included, all grew up within a five mile radius of the two-flat where my great-grandparents settled when they came over here from Ireland. Chicago is about block parties and cousins across the alley. It’s about your first concert at the Metro and snow days from school. If you want to talk architecture, I say that the sun setting behind a neat row of Bungalows is more beautiful than anything you’ll find along Lake Michigan.

2. “The city’s population. . . is currently at 2.7 million, having dropped since a high of 3.6 million in 1950. But the bloviating roars on, as if hot air could prevent Chicago from turning into Detroit.”

First of all, stop picking on Detroit. I’m tired of writers invoking our Midwestern buddy’s name every time they are too unimaginative to come up with a more appropriate synonym for something that’s on the decline. Besides, Ms. Shteir should be a bit more understanding of things that are sliding into irrelevancy: after all, she’s a professor of DRAMATURGY.

3. “In 1968, Norman Mailer called Chicago 'the great American city,' but he was particularly prone to Chicago’s idea of itself. Today, a big part of Chicago’s problem stems from that mythology. . .many locals cling to its tough-guy, blue-collar, gangster-worship identity.”

Ms. Shteir, like so many other transplants, doesn’t believe that our city’s blue-collar identity exists anymore because she spends her days safely ensconced in the neighborhoods previously vetted for her by Fodor’s. She implies some kind of street cred because she “studied” at the University of Chicago, failing to realize that in Chicago, we don’t say we “studied” somewhere. We say we “went there.” The studying is implied—if you state it, you just sound pompous. I invite her to visit Jefferson Park, Rogers Park, Portage Park, Morgan Park, Garfield Ridge Canaryville, Hegewisch, Mt. Greenwood, and any number of other neighborhoods, where blue-collar life is alive and well.

4. “If Chicago is to thrive, the nation needs a more animated book, schooling it not merely in who Blago is but in what he represents: a dysfunctional system threatening the city’s well-being. The real culprits include Chicago’s anemic economy, the crippling legacy of machine politics, the uncompromising unions and the handful of dynasties running the city.”

Does Chicago have its share of real, complex, heartbreaking problems? Absolutely. Do we have broken schools and crooked politicians and a murder rate that both ashames and horrifies? Without a doubt. Do we wish the Bears had made the playoffs last year, that the Cubs didn’t perpetually suck, that Derrick Rose would come back already? Yup. But what exactly does it mean, in Ms. Shteir’s definition, to “thrive”? Does it mean to face the problems of our city with honesty and candor? Or does it just mean to be more like New York?

 

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