Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Open season

Trust me, I haven't been seeking out articles that slam Chicago, they're just everywhere to be found these days, even where you least expect them.

Like everybody else, I've been pouring over accounts of the multiple tragedies in Boston last week, beginning with the two bombs set off at the Boston Marathon. I just came across an article by David Gergen titled: Boston Never Surrenders. In it, the author listing some of the hardships suffered in The Hub over more or less the last three centuries, says this:
In the late 1980s, gang violence and murder were rampant; by 1990, Boston felt like Chicago today as it had the highest number of killings in its history, many among the young.
The spike of murders that Chicago has been experiencing in the last couple of years, has indeed gotten us unwelcome worldwide attention. That attention peaked, hopefully, after the murder of a teenage girl, Hadiya Pendleton, who had participated in the inauguration ceremonies of the president just a few weeks earlier, and was killed not far from the Obama family house in the neighborhood of Kenwood.

There is simply no obfuscating tragedies like this one, they have sadly become a fact of life in many parts of Chicago. This is not a new phenomenon, the murder rate in Chicago today is in fact far less than it was in the eighties. Without question, one murder is one too many, and to waste a human life, no matter how young or old, rich or poor, significant or seemingly insignificant, is horrible and unacceptable.

However, it's not simply a Chicago problem. These tragedies are happening all over the country, as they have ever since human beings inhabited the world. There are many causes for violence in our time: the breakup of the family, the ready availability of guns, excessive violence in the mass media, poverty, loss of hope, faith, and values of decency in our society, the list goes on and on. Chicago becoming the symbolic, if not the actual murder capital this country, while somewhat unfair and unfortunate, is understandable. Given readers' short attention spans and the professional laziness that is rampant among many journalists looking for an easy, glib hook to their stories, we can expect this dubious distinction to hang over our heads until we become famous for something else. Where's Michael Jordan when we need him?

Two of my recent posts featured a trend in journalism, something I consider to be a prime example of journalistic sloth: the internet top ten list. As you may recall, one of these lists, courtesy of the folks at Forbes Magazine,  rated Chicago the fourth most miserable city in the country, just behind Detroit, Flint, MI, and Rockford, IL. Another from HuffPost Travel, lists Chicago as the seventh most overrated place to visit in the ENTIRE WORLD.

The latter list cites the lack of Chicago to live up to the boosterism that is so common among its advocates. Again I have to admit that we in this city are guilty of being hucksters to the extreme. As I said in the earlier post, depending upon how you look at it, bluster is either our greatest fault or our greatest charm.

Someone who decidedly finds no charm in our bluster is Rachel Shteir whose article, ostensibly a review of three recent books on Chicago, made the cover of this Sunday's New York Times Weekly Book Review. Shteir uses the books as a launching pad into a diatribe; the article is a no holds barred trashing of this city. Shteir opens her piece with this:
“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.
Then she reads off a litany of a widely divergent set of problems such as the Cubs' record, bad weather, Ritchie Daley's parking meter fiasco, the drop in population, the high murder rate, the high sales tax, the high foreclosure rate, the high segregation rate, the state's pension crisis, the Tribune's bankruptcy, and of course Hadiya Pendleton.  The tag line about the tragically symbolic Ms. Pendleton was redundant since our high murder rate was already mentioned, but how could she resist mentioning the teen?

Shteir goes on to say calling Chicago "'poor' seems kind."

You can spin statistics to tell any story you like and Ms. Shteir does seem hellbent to paint as bleak a picture of Chicago as possible. There's nothing wrong with her laundry list, it simply paints an incomplete picture, by a long shot. Except for the Cubs of course, Chicago is not alone in suffering any of these ills. To balance the Shteir list of misery, I could compose my own list of inspiring things about Chicago, but what would be the point? Cities exist as complex organisms, you take the good with the bad; if you tackle one problem you invariably create another one. It's true for example that Boston and New York City's murder rates have gone way down in the last few decades. It's also true that in the same period of time, those two cities have virtually priced themselves out of the market for poor and even some middle class people. Poverty as we know is at the heart of much discontent in our society, and that discontent sometimes leads to crime. Boston and New York did not all of a sudden create magnificent opportunities for the poor, they just became too expensive; poor people in those cities were forced to move to the fringes, out of sight and out of mind. If you look at Chicago's declining population that Shteir mentions, you'll find that a good number of the people that left town, were also poor. While this may be a band-aid solution to the crime problem for a community, it's certainly not a good one.

Shtier also mentions Chicago's high segregation rate. I'm not an expert on how data regarding segregation rates in cities are gathered, but I assume they're made by measuring populations, community by community. Chicago certainly has many community tracts where the population of one race or other is over ninety percent. My own community, Rogers Park by contrast, is probably one of the most integrated in the United States. About as many black people live in Chicago as white people. Chicago also has a large Latin American population, one of the few cities in the country represented by significant numbers of people from all the regions of Latin America instead of just one or two. Chicago in fact has significant numbers of people from all over the world, my guess is that only New York City is more ethnically diverse in the US.

Pardon me for showing a little swagger in defending my city, apparently it does nothing to help. In Shteil's words:
...the bloviating roars on, as if hot air could prevent Chicago from turning into Detroit.
Those are fighting words to be sure, not just in the hearts and minds of Chicagoans, but especially in those of Detroiters. For if we in Chicago don't appreciate being the symbol of murder and mayhem in this country, imagine how our brothers and sisters in Detroit feel about their city being labelled the symbol of all that can possibly go wrong in an urban area, as I can only assume Shteil intended it to be. I have no idea what she knows about Detroit, I wouldn't be surprised if she's never been there. While she's lived in Chicago for the past thirteen years, she apparently hasn't visited much of this city either. Here's what she writes about her alma mater, the University of Chicago:
I have often wondered if geographical isolation — the campus is seven miles away from downtown, connected by a highway that circumvents the poor neighborhoods in between — breeds myopia even more devastating than that in the rest of the city. Did Milton Friedman ever see the burned-out projects as he sped along Lake Shore Drive?
Why does she call the University of Chicago "geographically isolated?" No, it's not surrounded by an industrial region or in the middle of a corn field; it's smack dab in the middle of the city. Northwestern University is twice as far from downtown and nobody, presumably not even Rachel Shteir would call it isolated. You take the same Lake Shore Drive most of the way up to NU from downtown as you do to go down to the Uof C on the south side. The difference is that Northwestern is surrounded by the affluent, tree lined, lily white (at least the area around the university) suburb of Evanston, while the University of Chicago is surrounded by urban neighborhoods whose population is predominantly African American. In those neighborhoods, home to hundreds of thousands of people, some poor, some rich, some in between, you will find some of the most beautiful parks and residential blocks in the city of Chicago. The "burned out projects" she speaks of were indeed once clearly visible as she sped by them on Lake Shore Drive, but anybody taking the time to explore the city between the University and the Loop would realize those projects (now  demolished) in no way represented that part of the city. I can't speak for Milton Friedman, but clearly Rachel Shteir never bothered to take the time to discover those neighborhoods for herself. You can draw your own conclusions as to why.

If there is in fact myopia in the world view of the University of Chicago, then Rachel Shteir would be the standard bearer for it. Shteir's piece evokes the memory of A. J. Liebling and his 1950s New Yorker essays on Chicago grouped together in book form as Chicago, The Second City:
Before anyone accuses me of being some latter-day A. J. Liebling,... let me say there are some good things about living here. The beauty of Lake Michigan. A former rail yard has become Millennium Park. Thanks to global warming, the winters have softened.
She's right, she's no Liebling. His pieces lambasting the city are filled with cheeky humor, combined with at least a superficial understanding of the city. At times he nails Chicago to a tee:
People you meet at a party (in Chicago) devote a great deal more time than people elsewhere to talking about good government, but they usually wind up the evening boasting about the high quality of the crooks they have met.   
and again:
Walking through a cocktail lounge and into another dining room in the Sherman, known as the Well of the Sea, I was handed a bill of fare proposing "Bahama Conch Chowder with Barbados Rum, said to be a favorite soup of Ernest Hemingway, believed by the natives of the Bahama Islands to promote virility and longevity" and "Scallops in Season: Called St. James Shells in England. Says Elliot Paul, 'Cleverest and most tasty of Mollusks.' " The Sherman menu writer is in the great tradition of a Chicago restaurateur named Dario Toffenetti, who opened a New York suecursale, where, in season, he sells "Autumnal Pumpkin Pie in an Avalanche of Whipped Cream.
Now there's some New York parochialism and arrogance at its finest. By contrast, the writing of Rachel Shteir, (who lived in New York before moving to Chicago), is simply mean and vindictive. Compared to Ms. Shteir's rantings about Chicago, Liebling's book reads like a love letter to this town.

Which brings up the question of why anyone who hates a place so much, would choose to live there for thirteen years. Perhaps it comes from a burning desire to write negative, scurrilous works. In that vein, Chicago appears to be a muse, providing her much inspiration. She has published three books, one called:  The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. The other two books are about strippers. I haven't read any of them so I'll give her the benefit of doubt that she refuses to give the city of Chicago, that is, withholding comment on something which I know virtually nothing about.

To illustrate my point, Shteir once wrote an essay for an internet magazine called Tablet. It was written during the last Chicago mayoral election. Here's a sample:
Chicago might be rough and tumble, but where Jews are concerned the most racially and ethnically segregated city in the nation prefers repressed politesse, a country-club attitude more pre-Civil Rights than post-racial. Whenever I complain about this to New Yorkers I get bewildered stares and shrugs. They’re too concerned with Palestine to bother with what’s going on in a flyover zone.
Bullshit like that merits no comment, it stands on its own. It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that the Tablet article those insightful comments came from was titled: Out of the Loop: Rahm Emanuel won’t be Chicago’s next mayor, because the city won’t elect a Jew.

Well she was dead on about that one.

Her last sentence in the Times piece reads:

So Chicago is not Detroit, not yet. But the city is trapped by its location, its past, and what philosophers would have called its facticity — its limitations, given the circumstances. Boosterism has been perfected here because the reality is too painful to look at. Poor Chicago, indeed.

Stuck in the "flyover zone" for thirteen years, readers of the New York Times should really be saying this: "poor Rachel Shteir." I think we Chicagoans all owe her a debt of gratitude for pointing out our foibles, that is, fooling ourselves into believing that we live in a special place. In her honor, I'd like to propose a fund in her behalf, to purchase a one way ticket to get her out of this hellhole of a city, to someplace, anyplace where she could be happy.

You can put me down for one hundred dollars.

CODA

Chicago Sun Times writer Neil Steinberg whose book, You Were Never in Chicago which was lambasted by Ms. Shteir, had this to say about being panned in the New York Times.

Rachel Shteir, hounded by local media after her article, granted one interview, to Chicago Marazine. Here it is.

Thomas Dyja whose book The Third Coast actually received some faint praise from Shteir, was interviewed this afternoon on the local Chicago Public Radio station WBEZ. He was less than thrilled about the article implying that Ms. Shteir really didn't understand what he was getting at in his book. He agreed to a point, as I do, that excessive boosterism, especially without any insight, is tiresome at best, harmful at worst. But he added, why on earth should people not be proud of the place in which they live.

1 comment:

blogsolomon said...

I'm in for 100, Jim.