Not quite Detroit—Chicago as described by a New York Times book critic

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Lamentably stuck in adolescence, according to Rachel Shteir
  • Basil D Soufi/Wikimedia Commons
  • "Lamentably stuck in adolescence," according to Rachel Shteir
Many years ago, trying to convey the scope of a serious problem facing Chicago (or someone somewhere—I don't remember the story at all beyond its compelling argument), I asked readers to consider some highly troubling statistics. I advised readers not to take the numbers literally as I had just made them up. Even so, they "should give you some idea."

Writers with urgent arguments to make can't afford to slow down for yellow lights. The critical job to be done must be approached the same way movie cops approach a high-speed auto chase through city streets: exactitude is just another fruit cart to barrel into and clear out of the way. Rachel Shteir has a lot to say about Chicago in Sunday's lead review of the New York Times Book Review, and in the course of saying it she flings a lot of grapefruit and banana hither and yon. Much of her case against the city strikes me as bizarrely overstated—but I don't deny it gives readers some idea.

Her review begins:

"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?

Apocalypses, are they? Every one? The Cubs' troubles? Metered parking? Sam Zell? It's been a cold, rainy spring, but apocalyptic? "Actually, 'poor' seems kind," continues Shteir, who never does tell us what her friend had in mind. (Did she ask?) "And yet even as the catastrophes pile up, Chicago never ceases to boast about itself."

The books Shteir is reviewing are The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream, by Thomas Dyja; Golden: How Rod Blagojevich Talked Himself Out of the Governor's Office and Into Prison, by Jeff Coen and John Chase; and You Were Never in Chicago by Neil Steinberg. Shteir by and large applauds the Dyja book, whose author, she notes approvingly, moved away from Chicago. She applauds The Third Coast for telling the story of a "tragedy"—the tragedy of how "Midwestern geniuses with radical roots" once flourished in Chicago but were "snuffed out" in the mid-50s by the "American mass market."

She is, like the cub reporter who wishes to God he'd gone drinking with Ben Hecht, yearning for a golden era she was born too late for. Shteir teaches theater at DePaul University, yet she doesn't identify herself with, or even seem to notice, anything interesting going on in Chicago theater since those same mid-50s, which by coincidence is when the Compass Players were launched in Hyde Park. And that's odd, as the one thing Shteir faults Dyja for is his not fully appreciating the merits of her alma mater, the University of Chicago. Whether this lapse of his is apocalyptic or merely tragic and catastrophic she doesn't say.

The other two books are another matter. She allows that Golden is rich with anecdote; but she regrets that it was written for the audience that might actually want to read it—people who live in Cook County. You can tell that's so, she explains, "because of its tone of weary resignation." For Chicago "to thrive," she explains, "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."

I have trouble tracking this passage. I don't quite understand why our nation needs any book at all about Rod Blagojevich, let alone a more animated book, and why unless this need is met Chicago will not thrive. To me, this passage is so much tomato and apricot splattering about as the careering critic leans on her horn. The following adds to my confusion: "weary resignation" is apparently the tone of choice when Chicagoans discuss their troubles with Chicagoans, yet Shteir complains that "even as the catastrophes pile up, Chicago never ceases to boast about itself. . . . The swagger has bugged me since I moved here from New York 13 years ago."

Steinberg's book fares worst of all. You Were Never in Chicago is not a perfect book. I've criticized it myself for the Reader. But it's an interesting book by a complicated writer puzzling out himself, the city, and his place in it. Shteir barely notices any of that. Steinberg's book, she reports, calls Chicago "a state of mind" and "pitches even more indulgently into platitudes" than Coen and Chase's. Steinberg "argues that payola is both the city's distinguishing feature and his own," she says, but she doesn't engage the argument.

I think this passage from You Were Never in Chicago is provocative:

Nobody lives in Chicago alone. It is all a web of relationships and interactions, loyalties and grudges. . . . You cannot have your hand against the world—you need friends, colleagues, people you trust, people you look out for and who in turn trust and look out for you. Often in Chicago it would be people you grew up with, who you went to school with, or your fellow church members or neighbors. Why? You know them, you like them, you trust them. . . .

Indeed, the idea that it should be otherwise—that everybody should suffer the consequences of their actions, should rise and fall on their worth, their resumes, without nebulous personal considerations getting in the way—is the rarity, the impossible standard that people pay lip service to and then ignore. Like communism, it's a lofty idea that deflates on the thorns of how human beings actually are.

Shteir just waves it away. You can't be so dismissive if you concede that Chicago, in its way, works as a city, but Shteir does not so concede. "Chicago is not Detroit, not yet," she concludes. "But the city is trapped by its location, its past, and what philosophers would have called its facticity—its limitations, given the circumstances."

Her bill of particulars extends to Chicago's "anemic economy," its cultural scene favoring mere "functionality and social reform," and even to a lack of cafes. She approvingly notes that Saul Bellow, according to James Atlas's biography of Bellow, once recalled, "Cafes indeed! I would have kissed the floor of a cafe. There were no cafes in Chicago. There were greasy-spoon cafeterias, one-arm joints, taverns. I never yet heard of a writer who brought his manuscripts into a tavern." What there was, Atlas continued, still quoting Bellow, was "the place, the incredible vital, sinful big city," and this energy, Atlas asserted, "was the catalyst of Bellow's art." Now, of course, Chicago has cafes galore, so what Shteir is actually complaining about must be a loss of that energy. Or maybe she's lamenting that the city's energy isn't working for her. Or maybe she's the one trapped by Chicago's past. I don't know. Maybe she's just driving too fast to steer.

In the fall of 2010 Shteir wrote a piece on Chicago politics for Tablet, a daily online Jewish magazine. Her article was called "Out of the Loop," and here's its thesis:

It doesn't matter how big a war chest Rahm Emanuel can accumulate, to whom he sends dead fish wrapped in newspaper, or how many folksy features the New York Times runs to give his campaign legs. "Rahmbo" will never be mayor of Chicago . . .

Emanuel doesn't stand a chance here because, as one longtime Chicagoan put it to me recently, he is "too Jewish" in a city that has never had a Jewish mayor and a state that has never had a Jewish attorney general or U.S. senator, despite having the fifth-largest Jewish population of any U.S. city, according to the World Jewish Congress.

After all, Shteir reasoned, Chicago is a city that "still seems lamentably stuck in adolescence." But surely she wasn't so stupid as to really think there was no way Emanuel could wind up on the fifth floor. She was writing with her pedal to the metal. "Don't take this argument literally," she could have said by way of introduction, "because I just made it up. But it should give you some idea."

There's an interesting postscript to this article as it appears online:

NOTE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Illinois has never had a Jewish state senator. It also misidentified Richard M. Daley's job title in 1988. He was Cook County State's Attorney not attorney general.

Mistakes get made. But I think of this as peaches and strawberries being scraped off the windshield.

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