My sister—the Chicago-born New Yorker— knew it right away. Her email arrived even before I was out of bed and had had a chance to read the front-page piece in the New York Times Book Review. “Gonna make Chicagoans mad!” was her prediction.
It did. Every media outlet ran some variation of “How dare she!” in response to Rachel Shteir’s takedown. A week later, the Tribune’s Chris Jones was analyzing the reaction. Eight days later, MSNBC has booked me to talk about the wounded baying from the shores of Lake Michigan.
Chicagoans take offense when their town gets slammed, and you can double the umbrage when the critique emanates from New York.
The resentment is nearly as old as the city itself. For decades, Chicagoans believed their town was derogated as “The Windy City” by a New York newspaper editor mocking the boosterism of promoters of Chicago’s World’s Fair of 1893 (turns out that story’s iffy, but lots of Chicagoans still believe it).
Now, Rachel Shteir is beating the same drum, saying the city’s swagger has bothered her since she moved here 13 years ago— “as the catastrophes pile up, Chicago never ceases to boast about itself.”
The catastrophes she lists are hard to argue with— the murder rate, poor economy, political corruption. Even the Trib’s bankruptcy and the Cubs history of futility get a mention.
Her list of the city’s good points is shorter— 21 words, to be exact. The lake, Millennium Park, and winters that have “softened” because of global warming.
That’s it. You’d think Shteir, the “Head of Dramaturgy” at DePaul, might have mentioned the city’s terrific theater scene, or its status as an improv-comedy mecca.
Chicago is, for a major urban center, peculiarly insecure and insular. The Chicago angle of any major story, no matter how minor, is often played up to a ridiculous degree. A local TV station recently reported on the “Chicago ties” of the Boston Marathon bomber— turns out Tamerlan Tsarnaev once fought a Chicago boxer in a Golden Gloves bout.
Celebrity interviews in Chicago’s newspapers usually include a question about what the actress/actor/singer thinks about Chicago and its audiences.
The Chicago-centricity sometimes reminds me of a parody of a local newspaper by the Harvard Lampoon decades ago. The headline— “Local Couple Missing”. The subhead below— “Japan Destroyed by Earthquake”.
Shteir claims civic bloviating precludes any discussion of Chicago’s faults— a “brilliantly self-protected” piece, as the Trib’s Chris Jones has pointed out. Indeed, Steir claims the blowback from angry Chicagoans proves her point— “Can Chicago not take criticism? Is there only one conversation to be had in the city, as in ‘Go Chicago’? That was the point of my piece.”
Shteir doesn’t seem to have consumed much Chicago media. For all the boosterism around town, it’s a two-newspaper town, and the media here doesn’t go easy on politicians and civic leaders. Just ask former Mayor Rich Daley, who famously complained about how closely he was “scrootened” by the media.
Shteir contends that Chicagoans keep talking up their city “as if hot air alone could prevent Chicago from turning into Detroit”, later adding “Chicago is not Detroit, not yet”.
She points out that Chicago, like Detroit, has lost population since the mid-1900’s, glossing over the actual numbers— Chicago’s population has dropped 26% since 1950, while Detroit’s has plummeted 61%. The local economy’s troubled, but it’s not a one-trick pony like auto-dependent Detroit.
Shteir’s take on Chicago was an entertaining read, and surely appealed to New Yorkers who think they’ve cornered the market on cosmopolitanism, that you can’t get a good bagel outside the five boroughs, etc.
For a 13-year resident, though, she doesn’t seem to have much of a handle on her adopted hometown. In October 2010, she flatly predicted Rahm Emanuel would be rejected at the polls, because “the city won’t elect a Jew”. Four months later, Emanuel won 55% of the vote in a multi-candidate election.
Shteir’s been quoted as saying she “fantasizes” about leaving Chicago. Many of her fellow city residents want to help her pack.