Political Animal


April 28, 2013 3:25 PM Chicago-bashing and the curse of New York City derangement syndrome

By Kathleen Geier

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


  • buddy66 on April 28, 2013 8:05 PM:

    What do I know? Why should I care? I live a little north of San Francisco (yes, the parking sucks) and I go there a lot and have lived there a lot. I know New York and Chicago...


  • ArlingtonBigFish on April 28, 2013 8:20 PM:

    Sheesh, I thought the Shteir article was kind of tame. I live in the suburbs of DC; if we got our knickers in a twist every time someone bashed Washington, we would have a permanent wedgie. You'll get no sympathy from here on the Potomac...

  • Thomas on April 28, 2013 8:35 PM:

    Of all the takedowns, yours was the best.

  • rayspace on April 28, 2013 9:01 PM:

    Congratulations, Kathleen--you're the 4,587th person to respond to Shteir, miss her point entirely--and publish it!

    Where, oh where, is the Kathleen who has trained such an unflinching eye on the unbelievable level of violence which afflicts this city? I worked for the city for 7 years during the Daley Administration. When I would mention the plethora of city problems that Daley was ignoring or exacerbating, North Siders and suburbanites would inevitably come back with, "Yes, but the city looks so beautiful! The trees! The planters!"

    You don't get points for just listing the city's problems. These are serious and real. We are the 3rd most segregated city in the U.S. (and no, NYC is not 1 or 2). Our homicide rate did not fall like those of most major cities in the past 20 years, and no, it wasn't because Daley was a great civil libertarian. (Jon Burge, anyone?). By far the most serious problem, and the one that affects all the others, is the toleration of corruption, which is far worse here than elsewhere.

    The idea of Chicago as a "friendly" city is just the boosterism that Shteir is criticizing. In Chicago, you are an outsider if you can't name the parish you grew up in or the fact that you attend Reverend So-and-So's church. At our church, we were told that we didn't find out certain pertinent information because we are "outsiders." (We've been parishoners for 15 years). The surprising thing is that this was not surprising to us. Chicago hates "outsiders" and makes its feelings known. This has the potential to get in the way in light of the global economy that all the kids are talking about.

    At some point, we should talk about the fact that public education outcomes and investments are determined almost entirely by race. Any of this sound familiar, Kathleen? Or should we just talk about the trees and architecture?

  • howie on April 28, 2013 11:22 PM:

    I used to work with someone who had been brought in temporarily to work on a project from our offices in another city. Here in Baltimore, our pizza wasn't as good as his hometown. Night life, TV news, even the haircuts were better back home.

    He was from Chicago. He also jumped at the chance to relocate here permanently when it came.

  • Crissa on April 29, 2013 1:28 AM:

    I'll never forgive the hideous park built over the airstrip on the lake. But New York City is totally overrated. City that never sleeps is a total lie. Ugh.

  • DJ on April 29, 2013 1:36 AM:

    Chicago hates "outsiders" and makes its feelings known

    Gee, I wonder what President Obama would say about that. He wasn't born in Chicago, either, but only the looniest of Chicagoans would deem him an "outsider."

  • rayspace on April 29, 2013 6:43 AM:

    DJ, if you know Chicago at all, you know that the political machine was happy to support Obama running for the Senate and for President because that meant he wouldn't run for Mayor, which they believe is where the real power (patronage) resides.

  • alwaysiamcaesar on April 29, 2013 7:05 AM:

    I am with buddy66 in the spirit of Boston , San Francisco's older and wiser sister . He he he .
    I do think Kathleen owes rayspace a riposte , and I am not saying that just to start trouble . Annoyed as rayspace seems at the missed opportunities it seems likely that K G will pass , despite some dry fuel in that fire .

  • DJ on April 29, 2013 9:02 AM:

    Rayspace, I've lived in Chicago my entire life. My grandfather was part of the Machine during the administration of the first Mayor Daley. So, yes, I dare say I know something about how my city works. Which is why I'm puzzled you'd bring up patronage, which is not the source of power it used to be since the Shakman decree and its related cases have reduced the number of jobs that a mayor has direct control over to a bare minimum.

  • wvmcl on April 29, 2013 10:46 AM:

    Having lived in quite a few cities in the U.S. and elsewhere over several decades, I've come to a definite conclusion:

    No matter where you are, there are some people who hate it and some people who love it.

  • KK on April 29, 2013 11:05 AM:

    Spot on WVM

    The only thing I will bother to take issue with is the derision heaped in my town by Crissa questioning the "city never sleeps". Wow, not sure what your looking for but I can assure u, whatever someone might want is available 24/7. Without much effort I shall add.
    Used to go Chi Town on biz a lot. Fun City, great food, great music. Pretty as well. However, that's the extent of my knowledge. Ripping NY is a waste of time, we don't give a shite :)

  • Demosthenes on April 29, 2013 4:24 PM:

    The critique here is spot on! As a third generation Chicagoan who loves his city, I found Shteir criticisms over-reaching and appallingly inaccurate. She actually lives in Chicago? I find it hard to believe. As for the rest of you trashing Chicago, stay home. We can keep our great city for ourselves.

  • rayspace on April 29, 2013 10:15 PM:

    DC, since you are a native Chicagoan, you certainly know that the Machine thrives now on pinstripe patronage, whereby 49% of all city contracts (the ones that are for professional services) are exempt from competitive bidding. This allows big law firms, bankers, developers, hedge fund managers and the like to give large, mostly unregulated funds to the Machine in exchange for lucrative contracts. This is far more beneficial to the Machine than the small-scale kickbacks that used to come from giving someone's ne'er do well nephew a low-level no-show job.

    And while the Shakman Decree has abolished some patronage abuses, you forget that outrages like the 19-year old who had a job as a city building inspector persisted into the second Mayor Daley's tenure. (From what I know, you can't have the necessary experience and know-how at 19 for a building inspector job).

    Demosthenes, thanks for proving Shteir's point.