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A Takedown of the City Takedown

Why it's worth ranting against Rachel Shteir's Chicago essay

Getty/Jeff Haynes

This past Sunday, the front page of the New York Times Book Review ran a caustic essay by DePaul University professor Rachel Shteir about "poor Chicago." Disguising it as a review of three new volumes about the city's past, Shteir wrote a blistering epitaph for its present and future. She complains about the murder rate, rightly, but also about the weather, a certain baseball team, the cost of parking, and even the sales tax. So crummy are things in Chicago that “the mayor’s office touts new taxi ordinances as ‘huge improvements.’” Warning that "Chicago is not Detroit, not yet," she concluded that "the city is trapped by its location, its past, and what philosophers would have called its facticity—its limitations, given the circumstances.... Poor Chicago, indeed."

Chicagoans were outraged, and for good reason. Routine hyperbole from a communications flack is hardly a legitimate data point, and as for the Detroit warning, even a certain New York newspaper is willing to concede that Chicago approaches New York and London as a critical hub of international finance. The Chicago Reader's Michael Miner has sunk his teeth so far into Shteir's other fallacies that I don't need to go further. Besides, her great sin is not that she trained her guns on my hometown. It’s not even that her indictments of Chicago, as Miner documents, run the gamut from contradictory to inane. It’s that Shteir has indulged in one of critical journalism’s stupidest tropes, a tired rubric that needs to die: the city takedown.

The New Republic is itself guilty of embracing this form: In a February essay, “Take This Microbrew and Shove It: Why do we keep anointing 'it' cities?,” Chuck Thompson lampooned the efforts of small-ish urban centers to ape the cool of a world-class city like New York. To Thompson, efforts of cities like Nashville—Nashville!—to increase their desirability was funny and futile; for New York–based media to reward them for it approached heresy. “There are few more insufferable banalities in modern urban life than a town recently deemed cool” by the likes of GQ and the New York Times, he griped.1 New York Daily News, not exactly a bastion of refinement, can get on board with hifalutin literature if it means a chance to make fun of Los Angeles: When the city selected a poet laureate in 2012, NYDN’s books blog snarked, “Los Angeles finally gets a poet laureate—just a few decades after Brooklyn.” Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan is less discriminating with his disdain, writing that “even Boston residents cannot stand the outdated and ineffective infrastructure that plagues the cramped burg—nor is there a decent school or restaurant to be found within a cannon shot’s radius of the twee downtown area,” and elsewhere that, “No one outside of D.C. has ever been tempted to subscribe to any of D.C.’s trends, something D.C. takes as a point of pride. D.C. is happy being friends with D.C. D.C. does not need to be friends with you.”

As was pointed out at the time, Nolan—who, admittedly, insults cities more for sport than for serious argument—easily could have written those words about any place. That's one of the chief pitfalls of the city takedown2: The criticisms are interchangeable. Insular culture, cruel bureaucracy, and inequality are facts of life in every American urban center, even New York. But the city takedown, as a rule, doesn’t care. Through anecdote and factoid, the writer broadly assesses a city’s culture—or specifically a part of that culture, like its food scene or infrastructure—and proclaim them to be inferior. By what metric? It varies. Perhaps the city is not as good as it could be (Shteir’s complaint) or simply isn’t as good as New York (Nolan implies this; Thompson just says it). Of course, you can’t prove the writer wrong, because the metric is subjective and the evidence arbitrary. Having enumerated that place’s shortcomings, the author marvels that sensible urbanites can live there and say they like it, and somehow still sleep at night.

That’s pretty much all that drove Shteir to try to puncture Chicago’s self-image. Despite living in a deeply flawed city—a segregated, violent, slowly shrinking city whose weather is shitty, whose banner baseball team keeps redefining failure, and who hasn’t seen the likes of Mies van der Rohe since he kicked the bucket, Shteir wrote—Chicago’s residents seem to really like where they live. “The swagger has bugged me since I moved here from New York 13 years ago,” she wrote. In an interview with Chicago magazine’s Carol Felsenthal, Shteir adds that she thinks that “a fear” prevents Chicagoans from examining their city’s shortcomings, lest they discover something they don’t like. “Can Chicago not take criticism?” she asked. “Is there only one conversation to be had in the city as in ‘Go Chicago?’ That was the point of my piece.”

Except “Go Chicago” is not the only sentiment Chicagoans can muster in the face of its shortcomings. We know that Chicago is a city with dire problems because Chicagoans document them all the time. There's Alex Kotlowitz, who begat a whole new genre of urban reporting with There Are No Children Here, his non-fiction account of an infamous Chicago housing project; the many academics at the University of Chicago’s Poverty, Promise & Possibility initiative, which produces some of the best scholarship on urban poverty in the country; and the Chicago-based radio program This American Life, which recently served up two shows examining what it’s like to be a Chicago kid who is routinely subjected to gang violence; and Steve James, the filmmaker who has chronicled the city's poverty and violence in documentaries like Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters. In fact, you’ve probably only heard of Hoop Dreams because another longtime Chicagoan—the late Roger Ebert—was its tireless champion, back when that mattered to a movie. So much for Chicagoans hating criticism.

Indeed, where all city takedowns go wrong is their reliance on a city’s tiresome stereotypes. Shteir wrote that “many” Chicagoans “cling to its tough-guy, blue-collar, gangster-worship identity.” But that’s a bogus stereotype in and of itself. If I may make a statement just as anecdotal and improvable as Shteir’s, your average Chicagoan is under no delusions that he’s living in Carl Sandburg’s burly, Caucasian City of Big Shoulders. In assailing supposed Chicago myths, Shteir asks you to believe a myth of her own.

You could read this defense of my hometown as proof itself that Chicago really is insecure about its standing among America's great cities. But the opposite, in fact, is true. If Chicagoans can't muster a decent defense when someone lobs bombs at them from a New York publication, then Chicago indeed would be a city not worth living in, proving Shteir right. Let’s not give her the pleasure.

Follow me on Twitter @mtredden

  1. There's something rich about the Times anointing Nashville an "it" city and making Chicago sound like a cultured urbanist's hell.

  2. This is not to be confused with Mark Leibovich's forthcoming takedown of Washington, This Town—a hitjob on hacks, not the urban space itself.