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Why Does Chicago Care About New York Times' Dope-slap?

Book review sparks ire.

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May 10, 2013

This article originally appeared in Crain's Chicago Business on April 23, 2013.

By Bill Savage

Chicago is a great literary city.

Not just because we have many great writers, but because a book review can stir up a real shit-storm here, as in the last few days with the brouhaha over Rachel Shteir's "Chicago Manuals" in the New York Times. This gang-review of three books is the sort of hatchet job this town hasn't seen since the Battle of Fort Dearborn in 1812. Or since A.J. Liebling's "The Second City" in 1952.

Liebling fathered one enduring literary tradition: New York writers lording it over Chicago. Sometimes it happens in book reviews.

But Ms. Shteir doesn't just smack down Chicago books. She dope-slaps "poor Chicago."

Ms. Shteir hates it here, the city where she attended college (University of Chicago) and now works (De Paul University). She despises its crime, corruption, expensive parking meters, racial segregation, macho bragging and awful winters.

Welcome to town, professor. Chicagoans hate all of that, too.

I have many conflicts of interest, and too few words, to give the line-by-line rebuttal she deserves.

(Full disclosure: I edited one book she pans, Neil Steinberg's "You Were Never in Chicago." I reviewed another book she misreads, Thomas Dyja's "The Third Coast," for the Chicago Tribune last week. I co-edited, with Paul Durica, one book she cites as a source, "Chicago By Day and Night.")

But this dust-up serves one good purpose: It raises the question, Why do Chicagoans care what New Yorkers think?

BECAUSE WE'RE AMERICANS

We care because we're Americans, and New York is another great American city. We care because Chicago was built by boosters, many of whom came from New York and made their fortunes by bragging (rightly and wrongly) about this place.

We care because New York media shapes how people worldwide understand our nation and our city. No one from anyplace wants to have their home trashed.

Yet at the same time, it's disheartening to see this tired script play out again: New York writer dismisses Chicago as second rate. Chicagoans smack back. New York writer sighs, What do you expect from such rubes but to take umbrage at my deeper understanding of their second-rate town?

Well, Chicagoans — our mayor included — get our backs up when lazy writers fail to base opinion on fact. (For crowdsourced fact-checking and reaction on this piece, go check Twitter and Facebook.)

Ms. Shteir dismisses anything positive about Chicago: “So Chicago is not Detroit, not yet.”

If Chicago were to become Detroit, it would have happened 40 years ago. Anyone who knows anything about urban industrialism and the decline of Rust Belt cities has more insight than Ms. Shteir.

Does she know this is not a one-industry town? So we lost the Stockyards and the South Works. Still we limp along with, oh, La Salle Street, O'Hare, Lake Calumet's shipping industry, several great universities, a maturing tech sector, the Loop and other economic engines. And the city of Chicago's residency rule for municipal workers creates a solid (some might say captive) middle-class/working-class tax base.

The reaction against Ms. Shteir's review is not because she didn't like some Chicago books, but because she doesn't like Chicago. And because her dislike seems to grow from ignorance.

There's a subtext to this kind of civic criticism, that if you love New York, Chicago can't measure up. And if you love Chicago, you just don't know any better. Nonsense.

A few years ago, I was writing an essay in which I had to pluralize “Chicago,” and I wasn't sure how to spell it: “Chicagos,” or “Chicagoes.” So I asked around. The best answer I got was from one of our great Chicago writers, Stuart Dybek, who replied, “The plural of 'Chicago' is 'New York.' "

- Bill Savage is a distinguished senior lecturer in English at Northwestern University.
Topics: Opinion