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Poor Seems Kind
April 24, 2013 3:01 PM   Subscribe

On Sunday, Rachel Shteir, a theater professor at DePaul University, wrote a critique of three Chicago-focused books for the New York Times Book Review. Many Chicagoans were none too happy.

Michael Miner's reaction for the Chicago Reader quickly became the most popular, and he subsequently reacted to the reaction. WBEZ's Claire Zulkey found the women writers and asked some Chicagoans to stop commenting about Shteir's looks. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanual took issue of course, but so did New York Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson. NBC 5's Carol Marin took a few minutes out of Monday's broadcast to offer her take.

Neil Steinberg, who wrote one of the books Shteir was reviewing, responded on WBEZ and in the Sun-Times (registration required).

Shteir responded in the Tribune, Chicago Magazine, and on Chicago Tonight.
posted by theuninvitedguest (32 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
As a Chicago resident who moved here from Sunny And Glorious Southern California, let me say: Chicago has a whole heap of problems, but it is a fantastic little town. I'm not really sure Shteir's thesis (that there's only one way to talk about Chicago, and that way is bloviation) holds any water. That she says 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 and suggests that the reaction proves her point strikes as a kind of ridiculously unfair setup in which people's options seem to be basically 1) agree with her or 2) disagree which proves her point.
posted by shakespeherian at 3:15 PM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


I love Chicago, miss it terribly, and would move back in an instant if a job there opened up for me. But a city with its murder rate, rampant inequality and systemic disfunction does not deserve to engage in self-constructed mythologizing.

If you're rich, smart, or (better yet) both, it's a fantastic place to live. If you're poor, it's fucking brutal. Chicagoans should be ashamed for what is happening on the south and west sides. They should be ashamed for what is happening to their schools. They should be ashamed for what the mayors they elected have done to their civic culture. And, being ashamed, they should roll up those shirtsleeves, square those broad shoulders, and start fixing things. A city that rich and that storied cannot live long on nostalgia.
posted by R. Schlock at 3:17 PM on April 24, 2013 [18 favorites]


"Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing-- say [Chicago]. If we think what is really best for [Chicago] we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of [Chicago]: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to [New York]. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of [Chicago]: for then it will remain [Chicago], which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love [Chicago]: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved [Chicago], then [Chicago]would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; [Chicago] would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved [Chicago] as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is THEIRS, [Chicago] in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her."
posted by Iridic at 3:54 PM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you're rich, smart, or (better yet) both, it's a fantastic place to live. If you're poor, it's fucking brutal. Chicagoans should be ashamed for what is happening on the south and west sides. They should be ashamed for what is happening to their schools. They should be ashamed for what the mayors they elected have done to their civic culture. And, being ashamed, they should roll up those shirtsleeves, square those broad shoulders, and start fixing things. A city that rich and that storied cannot live long on nostalgia.

I decided to delete a really irate response to this paragraph and just say that, the most charitable thing I can say about "drama" professor Shteir at this point is that she hit us Chicagoans where it hurts, namely our pride. That there is a gulf between the way things are, and perhaps the way we think they are or ought to be. And in that sense she manages to invoke the exact response she wishes to deride. There is nothing she brought up that, no matter how disconnected or clumsily woven together, isn't true.

Frankly, it's also true that if there is one major city that seem capable of pushing forward practical dare I say equitable solutions to massive political problems and social disorders, it's Chicago. And yet it has fallen devastatingly short of that in recent years. Just as an aside, I am shocked at the pass she gave the University of Chicago. Ethereal conversations aside, anyone from that part of the city knows about the disruptive land grabs and non-existent relationship the school has had with the surrounding community.

Still, I am a former South Sider living in sunny Los Angeles and hands down I would raise my kids in Chicago. I say from experience that things are no worse there than in any other major American city, and the quality of people you can meet there are among the best. But perhaps a greater burden falls on a city with such broad shoulders. I am proud to be from there. But maybe some public shaming could spark some much-needed growth and accountability, particularly, it seems, in the public sector.
posted by phaedon at 3:58 PM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


She seems to have some grudge against Steinberg, who's probably far better known to the general public than she is (and I really liked her book on shoplifting, too.)
posted by Ideefixe at 4:41 PM on April 24, 2013


If you're rich, smart, or (better yet) both, it's a fantastic place to live. If you're poor, it's fucking brutal. Chicagoans should be ashamed for what is happening on the south and west sides. They should be ashamed for what is happening to their schools. They should be ashamed for what the mayors they elected have done to their civic culture. And, being ashamed, they should roll up those shirtsleeves, square those broad shoulders, and start fixing things.

A lot of us are and do?
posted by liketitanic at 4:52 PM on April 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


If you're rich, smart, or (better yet) both, it's a fantastic place to live. If you're poor, it's fucking brutal.

Detroit. New York City. America. Guatemala. Haiti.
posted by mwhybark at 6:33 PM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure if it's even worthy to respond to such troll bait as what Shteir is throwing out, but I will say this: when she was asked on "Chicago Tonight" what she likes about Chicago, I found it illuminating that all she could muster up as praise was walking on the lakeshore. If a theater professor in Chicago can't even throw a bone to Steppenwolf or the improv scene when asked to mention something nice about the city...well, that's enough proof for me that she wrote the review for the lulz.
posted by stannate at 6:51 PM on April 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


Upfront: I have severe bias towards this whole thing.

But does it strike anyone else as odd that the NYT would feature a drama professor's article about what appears to be a fundamentally sociological topic so prominently? Or is this a common thing in these pages?

It strikes me as troll bait, through and through.

or in my native tongue: "who da fuck is dis New Yorker talkin shit about my town cuz she don' tink da teeter's as good as New York?
posted by graphnerd at 7:03 PM on April 24, 2013


Shteir's article, and the prominence given to it by the NYTBR (front page! you serious?!), is the very definition of troll bait.

It just seems like a completely unfair attack on a wonderful city that, like many places, faces serious problems. "Not yet" Detroit is so far off the mark it's staggering. I don't and have never lived in Chicago, but it deserves a better "critique" than this.

Also, every time I read something like this or hear talk of "flyover country," I think about how NYC and LA are the financial, cultural, and intellectual "leaders" of the country, and how everything sucks. Then I feel better about being from the Midwest.
posted by MetalFingerz at 7:19 PM on April 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


I grew up in Kalamazoo, but I spent a lot of time with family in Chicago, and in my teens, moved into Chicagoland (okay, the burbs) to live with them.

It's a fantastic city, and I'd love to be able to live there again. The only thing that has ever really bugged me is how bent out of shape the city gets at the slightest mention that it's not as good as another city. There's a massive inferiority complex in Chicago, and there's absolutely no reason for it. It's a fantastic place, equal, if not superior to dozens of major cities across the world, and if the city could just learn to ignore crap like this from jerks trying to score points* the city would be so, so much better off. Seriously, the chip on the shoulder is pretty much the least attractive part of the character of the city.

* Seriously, the writer is a professor at a university in Chicago, and is clearly trying to score brownie points with people in New York in a sad, desperate sort of 'rescue me from this place' kind of way. If you've lived in Chicago for as long as she has, and when asked, the only thing she likes is the lakefront, man, she needs to get out more.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:22 PM on April 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


Also, every time I read something like this or hear talk of "flyover country," I think about how NYC and LA are the financial, cultural, and intellectual "leaders" of the country, and how everything sucks. Then I feel better about being from the Midwest.
posted by MetalFingerz at 7:19 PM on April 24


First reaction was that LA is not an intellectual leader of this country. But then I thought, what if it is?
posted by knoyers at 7:23 PM on April 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


I am an American, Chicago born -- Chicago, that somber city -- and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way; first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock; sometimes a not so innocent.
That's the first sentence from Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century. Without Chicago, that rich and revealing book would never have happened. A city that inspires such great and indelible art deserves respect, not knee-jerk hit pieces designed to attract artificial traffic and raise hackles. This essay is so poorly argued that one imagines a Dublin arriviste condemning the great city because no local official quite matches up to Charles Stewart Parnell.
posted by ed at 7:58 PM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's not like Chicagoans are defensive because people say "Yeah Chicago's pretty nice but it's got some work to do." The author of this piece nonchalantly compared it to Detroit like that statement didn't need any elaboration or further justification. These kind of attacks are constant and bear little resemblance to reality. And then it's, "wow don't take it so personal." F*** you, I hope Manhattan falls into the ocean.
posted by MetalFingerz at 7:59 PM on April 24, 2013


Manhattan is already in the ocean.
posted by nevercalm at 8:04 PM on April 24, 2013 [5 favorites]


I saw this on Sunday and what I got was, "I absolutely hate living here and am going to take this opportunity of 'reviewing books' to issue my many complaints and also, incidentally but unsurprisingly, I did not enjoy these books about a place I hate." I rolled my eyes because Chicago-bashing is a grand old tradition and this wasn't all that great a bash.

But I remain mystified by professors -- a well-respected, prestigious profession that automatically makes you a community leader, a member of the elite, and renders you responsible for the education of youth -- who take jobs in communities they hate (I get that part, the market is very tight) and then write vicious public screeds about the communities that entrust them with their impressionable young people. And not, like, "Chicago has a lot of problems, among them corruption and racism, let me tell you about them," which is clearly the role of a scholar, but "I fucking hate this place for not being someplace else," which is a bratty teenager. It happens on a grand national scale at least once a year, it seems.

It's not so much that it's ungrateful and ill-considered and indiscreet (though I think it's all of those things, but those things are fine), but that it's so petulant and provincial and makes the writer look so ... immature and uneducated and incurious about the world.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:07 PM on April 24, 2013 [5 favorites]


Yeah, pretty soon the ocean's going to fall up into Manhattan.
posted by hydrophonic at 8:08 PM on April 24, 2013 [5 favorites]


This should have been headlined: "Remember that famous 'View from 9th Avenue'?

It's like that, but without the joke."
posted by graphnerd at 8:24 PM on April 24, 2013


From Zulkey: E. Most disappointingly, saying "she's ugly anyway" makes Shteir's point for her. It makes us, as Chicagoans, look brutish and clumsily defensive. They would never do that in New York! They would cut you down with some witty bon mot they once heard at some literary cocktail party and then make you feel bad about your real estate. Do we really want to establish the precedent that in Chicago, we're like "Grr, me angry, me hate face"? We can do better.

I desperately want this to somehow be a case of the week plot on The Good Wife
posted by Bwithh at 8:30 PM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ask Metafilter sings an ode to the glory of Chicago.

The author of that hit piece can't seem to get over how "brutal" Chicago winters are. So are New York winters, you know. But -- as mentioned in the AskMe thread -- we Illini simply declared that, for everybody, wearing a giant REI North Face Arctic Mount Everest parka is absolutely de rigueur, and you will not be judged on how dorky it looks. (Unlike Colorado, we still judge you on how you dress once you've taken it off!) I suspect she has refused to "downgrade" her fashion sense since moving out from NYC and has been stylishly suffering for 13 winters.

And our summers are four months of unadulterated happiness and mutual celebration. Take that, Manhattan!
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 8:36 PM on April 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


Garland sang about Chicago.
"Don't tell me sin is rampant and rife
Think of that man who danced with his wife"

And Carl Sandburg had some things to say about Chitown in his 1936 book-length poem The People, Yes. Fine read.
"... so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning."
Here's 3 minutes. [slyt]

Has anything changed? really?
posted by Twang at 9:06 PM on April 24, 2013


I am a native New Yorker and a hopeless New York City cheerleader (especially Brooklyn, my heart and my hope). And I can say, without qualification or reservation, that I liked Chicago a whole lot and think I could live there pretty happily. Let's save the sneering dismissals for cities that really deserve it, shall we?

SLC, I'm looking at you!
posted by 1adam12 at 9:10 PM on April 24, 2013


"First reaction was that LA is not an intellectual leader of this country."

We'll ignore Caltech and JPL, I guess. And UCLA. And all those post-war German academics. Aside from the academic establishment, we have various authors, artists, filmmakers, critics et cetera, I guess we'll ignore those. Unless you live in a large city, given the sheer size in LA, there might be more "intellectual leaders" here than in your whole town!
posted by thedaniel at 9:48 PM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


When people say things we don't like, they are trolls.
posted by AnnElk at 9:53 PM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


She seems to have some grudge against Steinberg, who's probably far better known to the general public than she is (and I really liked her book on shoplifting, too.)

I've read all of Steinberg's books, and if this memoir is anything like his other two, it's depressing as hell.
posted by themanwho at 10:34 PM on April 24, 2013


1adam12: SLC, I'm looking at you!

It's all about what you want from the place you live in. I'll graduate in a month and am currently looking for jobs, and I have to say, I rate SLC a hell of a lot higher than either NYC or Chicago - it has mountains, a much lower crime rate, and it's a reasonably sized city you can actually get out of, in a place that's really nice. The culture is a little messed up... no debate there... but it's not nearly as bad as the reputation would have it. Chicago has notoriously bad weather and a nasty crime rate, and NYC is too large of a city for me and has a ridiculously high cost of living.

I'd really rather say where I am now (Boise) as I view it as pretty much ideal, but I ended up with a pretty specialized skillset and will probably have to go wherever will hire me.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:00 PM on April 24, 2013


I don't get her piece, concluding that Chicago is trapped by the past, and headed for Detroit.

Chicago is the lone Rust Belt city that has a future, with growth and change, as opposed to Detroit, Cleveland, etc.

None of the issues Chicago faces, are any different from those any major American city faces. Miami, Phoenix, New Orleans, Los Angeles face similar and different challenges. New York might differ, in that the long Wall Street boom and international hot money are turning Manhattan itself and parts of Brooklyn into an enclave of wealth for those lucky enough to swing it.

Increasing inequality, racial segregation, cultures of violence, educational challenges, and weakening government/corruption are widespead issues in urban America.

Also, twas ever thus with Chicago. It essentially didn't exist a century and a half ago, and from that boomed on the back of immigration and industrial revolution, with all the ensuing social problems mentioned above from the get-go. Yet its a practical place, often with more potential solutions on offer than many places, and that pride of identity is a largely positive force.
posted by C.A.S. at 1:23 AM on April 25, 2013


That reminds me. Back in '87 the NYT Magazine published a piece, "Can Miami Save Itself?" dissing that city. Dave Barry famously responded.
posted by mono blanco at 2:20 AM on April 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


I live in DC and used to live in Buffalo. Both are places where New Yorkers frequently retreat to talk about how everything sucks in [non-NYC] and everything is sooo much better in NYC. This has taught me that New Yorkers are so overprotective of their city that they feel the need to proactively and aggressively defend it, to the point of bashing another city without cause.

Why would they be so defensive if it is indeed the greatest place ever? I remember reading a previous comment on Metafilter about how the thing non-New Yorkers need to understand about New York is that it is *hard* to live there. It's expensive, dirty and crowded and those are things that kind of grate on you the longer you live there, tempering the joys of living there. There are really great events and tickets are super expensive and sell out immediately, amazing restaurants where you can never get a table and a burger is $30, the subway is super convenient if you are prepared to be extremely intimate with those around you during your trip. Occasionally the cards line up and things work out but there were so many other little disappointments along the way.

I briefly harbored dreams about moving to NY. Then I visited and thought, I actually don't like this. Things may change but right now, life in NY is not for me. Life where I am, doing what I'm doing, is for me. Knowing that helps me keep a straight face when dealing with the bores who talk about how everything is SOOOOOOOOOO much better in New York, even when I want to scream at the top of my lungs SO GO BACK THERE.

Chicago, on the other hand, is a place where I could see myself. High murder rate? I live in DC. Cold winters? I'm from Buffalo. Consider this your warning, Chicago.
posted by kat518 at 8:01 AM on April 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm so confused. Who is Rachel Shteir? DePaul has a theater department?

Excuse me while I relax on this sunny day in a 4 bedroom stand-alone house in Chicago--a short walk to multicultural restaurants, public transportation, and lushly green parks--which costs me half per month in mortgage than I would spend on a studio apartment in Hell's Kitchen.

Don't get me wrong, I love my hometown of NYC. And despair at the needed changes that have come to Chicago more slowly than those which transformed the NYC of my girlhood (remember the old Times Square? XXX good times!) Both are such different cities, I can't compare them. They are both lovable and despicable in different ways.
posted by jeanmari at 12:45 PM on April 25, 2013


There are a lot of cheap shots in here- it seems like the author never gets out of Lincoln Park or the Loop when considering upsides, which is going to, er, constrain one's perspective.

As for the downsides, working at U of C in the past may be part of the dissonance. Being from the Detroit area, I can confidently predict that Chicago will never turn out a Detroit. However, Chicago contains an entire Detroit distributed throughout the South and West Sides.

For many North Siders, impoverished neighborhoods consist of places like Uptown or Humboldt Park, and the wholesale decline and devastation of the South Side is not super apparent when you take LSD down to the Museum of Science and Industry or what have you. However, residents of Hyde Park, especially students and the lower rung of scholars, are almost 'imprisoned' in a small island of affluence surrounded by degrees of poverty ranging from substantial to abject. The demographic collapse in Chicago didn't empty the city out almost uniformly as in Detroit- most of those millions who left were from the areas that are now hardest hit. It is almost as if there are two adjacent cities connected only by the local news.

That said, New York has a few Detroits distributed across the boroughs that aren't Staten Island and Manhattan (and Manhattan has its share of poverty). Thinking back, I can remember the scene in the Bonfire of the Vanities prior to the main plot hinge in which Sherman McCoy, despite considering himself a knowledgable resident of NYC, almost immediately finds himself disoriented in the Bronx after making a wrong exit. While NYC may be less 'scary' than it might have been at the time that book was written, 20-25% of Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens still lives below the poverty line.
posted by monocyte at 1:24 PM on April 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


"The swagger has bugged me since I moved here from New York 13 years ago."

Others said it better above, but this was an instant red flag.
posted by stratastar at 4:01 AM on April 26, 2013


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