Chicago-bashing and the curse of New York City derangement syndrome

If you’ve lived in any major American city long enough, sooner or later you will have the grave misfortune of meeting a certain type of person. This type is that insufferable bore who is consumed with bitterness, envy, and rage that she’s not living in New York, and can’t ever seem to get over that fact. Chicago resident Rachel Shteir is clearly one of those people, as her recent hissy fit in the guise of a book review all too amply demonstrates. (She even admits as much in this interview: “I fantasize about moving back to New York,” she says).

Shteir’s review, which was published last week in the The New York Times, has caused quite a stir in my hometown of Chicago. The reaction has been overwhelmingly negative. Some of the better responses include this link-rich AtlanticCities.com piece, which rounds up some of the reactions; this expert debunking of many of Shteir’s claims by the Chicago Reader’s Michael Miner; and this New Republic piece, which skewers the very silly journalistic species to which the Shteir review belongs, the city takedown genre.

And hey, since everyone else is getting into the act, I’m going to throw in my two cents as well.

No one is disputing that there are many things that are profoundly wrong with Chicago, as there are with every other major American city. In this space, I’ve written frequently about our horrendous problem with gun violence. Other deep-rooted problems here include Chicago’s corrosive culture of political corruption and cronyism, our insane and grossly inequitable tax policies (most prominently, TIFs), our leaders’ embrace of dubious neoliberal nostrums like privatization and corporate-driven school reform, and the issues of police brutality, structural racism, poverty, chronically underfunded schools and social services, and growing economic equality which, sadly, appear to be endemic to American urban life. Not to mention the hell that is residential parking!

Shteir, who sprays bullets randomly at every gosh darn thing, does hit the occasional deserving target. But on the whole, her piece bristles with so much snarling hostility you’re taken aback by it. Is there nothing about Chicago that this apparently anhedonic woman enjoys or appreciates? Shteir makes no mention of many of the city’s prime virtues and amenities: its gorgeous lakefront, its world-class restaurants, its affordable housing, its friendly, unpretentious people. Attacking the city’s corruption is one thing, but Shteir even snarks at Chicago architecture, which any urban romantic would recognize as one of its legitimate glories. Even after a decade of living here, my heart still skips a beat every time I drive along Lake Shore Drive at night and take in the breathtaking city skyline.

Shteir also sneers at Chicago theater, which she gives no indication of actually patronizing. Yet Chicago theater is hands-down the best I’ve experienced anywhere in the U.S. (including NYC, where I lived for a dozen or so years), and much of it is dirt-cheap. That a theater professor (Shteir teaches the subject at DePaul) apparently derives so little pleasure from the city’s vibrant theater scene speaks volumes about her reliability as a cultural critic.

Several of Shteir’s critiques are bizarrely off-target. For example, there’s that business about Chicago not becoming Detroit “yet.” Who besides Shteir believes that Chicago is in danger of being Detroit? Unlike Detroit, Chicago was never a one-industry town. It has a diversified economy and has managed to survive the deindustrialization that, sadly, dealt a crippling blow to Detroit and other American cities.

There is also the issue of Shteir’s smug neoliberal politics. She takes several swipes at unions (which look out for the economic interests of ordinary working people here, and are one of the key reasons the city remains so livable for middle-class folks) and at union pensions. (Contrary to what she implies, the unions are not to blame for the city’s pension woes; the fault lies with greedy politicians like former Mayor Richard M. Daly, who ripped off taxpayers and recklessly mismanaged public employee pension funds). But she doesn’t utter a word about Chicago’s real estate developers and financial sector, which dominate the city’s politics, don’t pay their fair share of taxes and are at the heart of the culture of political corruption which she so loudly decries.

It’s telling that one of the few things about the city that escapes her wrath is the city’s Wicker Park neighborhood, which she implies sprung up from “empty storefronts and vacant lots.” Sorry, but, um . . . no. Wicker Park is a formerly working class Latino neighborhood that became gentrified. Real people lived there, and were forced out. Clearly she would prefer a city more along the lines of what much of Manhattan has become — a yuppie paradise scrubbed of inconvenient brown people, pink and blue collar types, and starving artists. But Chicago hasn’t become that — yet.

It’s unclear why the Times chose Shteir to review these books in the first place, when there are numerous currently or formerly Chicago-based writers who could have done a far better job. Instead of an academic like Shteir, who has no expertise in urban affairs, how about a first-rate scholar of cities like the former University of Chicago professor Saskia Sassen? If they preferred a professor specializing in the humanities, there are certainly superior choices than Shteir, such as the brilliant Chicago-based academics Lauren Berlant (a literature professor) or Christine Stansell (a historian).

Shteir demonstrably understands precious little about Chicago politics (for example, she made the laughable prediction that Rahm Emanuel could never be elected mayor because he’s Jewish). How about choosing a writer who knows Chicago politics like the back of his hand — like journalist and political consultant Don Rose, for example, who has lived here since approximately forever? Or the distinguished Chicago memoirist and labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan?

Like Shteir, I am a transplanted New Yorker. And make no mistake, I still love New York. But like many people of modest means, I could never afford to live there now — or if I did, I could never enjoy a quality of life equivalent to what I experience in Chicago (where I can afford to live by myself in a one-bedroom apartment in a decent neighborhood that’s 20 minutes away from downtown). Over the past several decades, Manhattan has increasingly become a playground for the rich, even in formerly affordable neighborhoods like the East Village.

Writer Hugo Lindgren recently observed in this New York Times Magazine essay that these days, “You can walk into pretty much any bar in New York wearing a blue blazer and boat shoes, and nobody cares.” In Chicago, things are . . . different. The city still boasts many a grubby old-man bar whose denizens will talk smack about you for dressing like a preppy. For that, Rachel Shteir will never forgive us.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee