Rachel Shteir, writing in the New York Times Book Review, took aim this week at both the city of Chicago and the people who defend and promote it. “Boosterism has been perfected here because the reality is too painful to look at,” Shteir postulates, while reviewing (mostly unfavorably) a handful of new books about the city for Sunday’s cover.
Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for the angry letters to be printed in the next Book Review. The counter-manifestos are already here! In the past few days, it seems, everyone from Gary to Milwaukee has read Shteir’s “Chicago Manuals” piece, resulting in a groundswell of angry rebuttals. (Even New York City reached out: New York deputy mayor Howard Wolfson tweeted that he was “mystified by the offensive, mean spirited & inaccurate attack on Chicago… a great city deserves better.”)…
But, Shteir digresses, she has a bone to pick with Chicago that’s bigger than any book review. She singles out Chicago’s early 20th century optimism, which nearly every Northern and Midwestern city shared (Burnham and co. also made grandiose predictions for New Haven, among other cities), and also its destructive urbanism of the mid-century, which, again, was hardly particular to the Windy City. She groups some real issues—last year’s shameful murder rate—with some not-so-serious problems, like the continual failures of the Cubs. She implies that Chicago is going the way of Detroit, when in fact the city’s population has been more or less stable for the past 20 years. Her praise, and there is some, seems deliberately facetious: “Thanks to global warming, the winters have softened.”
But her central beef with Chicago is how resolutely proud everyone seems to be of the city, despite its issues. It’s the opposite of New York, where everyone complains about everything all the time. In Chicago, per Shteir, the city’s unshakeable sense of greatness is wildly incongruous with its problems, a willful blindness that has become something of a civic calling card.
This sounds like a battle of urban “personalities”: a more critical viewpoint of New Yorkers versus a more optimistic Midwestern view in Chicago. Both cities have very real problems to face even as they are both major global cities.
But, it is not surprising to see this battle flare up again. Chicago is somewhat skittish about its position vis a vis other major cities, Chicago already lost its status as “Second City” to Los Angeles, and recently fell behind the population of Toronto, and New York is the clear lead city in the United States (if not the world). These “personalities” may be affected by these relative statuses: New Yorkers can afford to be critical because they are already at the top while Chicago is competing with other cities and has a long history of boosterism (including its early booster efforts in the late 1800s that were aided by some transplanted New Yorkers).