This article by Rachel Shteir published Sunday in the New York Times Book Review — a retrospective of books about Chicago — has been causing a bit of critical flurry on the interwebs. Since the New York Times doesn’t have the best track record in representing Chicago — this article by Stephanie Rosenbloom is one that I still cringe just thinking about — it’s my impression that some people are particularly sensitive about anything remotely critical of Chicago… especially if it’s something published in the New York Times. And I get that. Of my first 38 years, 30 of them were spent living in Chicago or its suburbs. For a very, very long time it was my place (read “The Things I Miss About Chicago” for more on that). I was one of the first people to ever get a Chicago flag tattoo — the first person I ever knew who had one, at least (they are now, sadly, a staple of hipster Chicago culture).
For many years, even though I acknowledged New York City was a fine place in theory, I believed deeply that Chicago was a superior city in all ways (except, maybe, when it came to pizza). My younger son’s father hails from New York (Long Island via Queens), and I remember multiple arguments in which we’d go back and forth about which city was best. Though I spent my childhood in Texas — from age eight to 16 — and consider myself “from” Texas, as an adult I came to identify as a Chicagoan, and deeply so. Since then, though, I’ve evolved.
As noted in “The Things I Miss About Chicago,” I don’t think anyone can say any one place is superior to another in a categorical and/or universal way. So when I talk about why I made the decision to leave Chicago — a very difficult decision despite the lightbulb-moment realization I had in which I just knew I’d move to New York City — it’s not because I think New York City is intrinsically or universally superior to Chicago (or Omaha or San Francisco). Different people value different things, from cities and states to food and drink. There’s no sense arguing whether vanilla is a better ice-cream flavor than chocolate; there’s no way to prove either side. It all comes down to personal preference.
That being said, one reason I left Chicago — and the No. 1 reason I intensely dislike going back (which I would not do if not for my children living there) — is that I grew increasingly aware of how defensive everyone I knew in Chicago was about the city. (Several people I know have moved away, mostly to L.A. or New York City; all of us have gotten backlash and taunted for doing so. I do not think this is a phenomenon unique to Chicagoans, but I do think it’s more intense in Chicago than in other places. No one taunts me about not living in Texas anymore when I visit there.)
Growing up in the Midwest, there’s a certain defense mechanism you cultivate about being in “flyover country,” a chip on your shoulder about the scorn and derision that come from being alternately mocked and ignored by both the east and west coasts. The South tends to view Chicago differently, more of a Northern mecca (possibly because of the great migration of African-Americans in the past, perhaps not); at my ten-year high-school reunion, a former classmate said to me, “it must be wonderful to live in a city where things of international importance happen.” At the time I laughed, because I thought it such an absurd statement. It was just Chicago, not the U.N.
But over the subsequent 11 years — I moved to New York City that long after my high-school reunion — I became acutely aware of the ways in which “Chicago pride” was misplaced. And since moving, I’ve become even more aware. It’s like a birthmark on a person’s face that I can’t ignore while trying to look him straight in the eye and am failing miserably. And the person with a birthmark may be a very nice person and all, and I may like him very much, but if he goes around yelling “MY BIRTHMARK IS PERFECTLY OKAY AND I KNOW IT’S THERE AND YOU DON’T HAVE TO KEEP REMINDING ME AND ANYWAY YOU ONLY WANT TO POINT IT OUT BECAUSE YOU’RE JEALOUS YOU DON’T HAVE A BIRTHMARK, TOO AND/OR YOU’RE FEELING SUPERIOR BECAUSE YOU DON’T HAVE A BIRTHMARK,” then at some point I just won’t want to be around that person.
And so it goes with Chicago. Every time I visit, here’s what I hear (without ANY provocation whatsoever, just merely by visiting a city I decided was no longer one in which I wanted to live):
- “Chicago is so much cleaner.”
- “The CTA is much better than the New York subways.”
- “Our pizza is better.”
- “You moved away because you think you’re too good for Chicago.”
- “Rahm is so much better than Bloomberg.”
- “We have a beach.”
- “Lake Shore Drive is better than any road in New York.”
- “Chicago traffic isn’t as bad as New York’s.”
- “The Yankees/Mets/Nets/Giants/Jets suck.”
- “We have a better hockey team.”
Lest you think that New Yorkers, on average, sit around and talk down about Chicago every time I mention I moved here from there about a year ago, rest assured: they do not. Do you know what native New Yorkers say about Chicago when I mention my relatively recent move?
- “I visited there last year and really liked it.”
- “The lake is so pretty!”
- “The Art Institute is one of my favorite museums.”
- “It’s so neat to ride around the Loop on the El.”
- “It’s very clean there.”
- “Chicago is like a smaller version of New York, right?”
- “The people there are so nice.”
- “I tried Chicago style pizza and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”
NOT ONCE has anyone in New York City heard that I lived in Chicago for 22 years and expressed either confusion or derision for that fact. No one has ever in my presence even tried to make comparisons between Chicago and New York City — with one exception: a friend from Chicago is in town and some mutual friends and I went out to dinner with him; the two men in the group started sparring (as men, particularly, are wont to do) about which city was better… and it didn’t surprise me in the least that the sparring was STARTED by the guy from Chicago (though, to be fair, the NYC guy kept it going). But my point is: despite what you might think from the media — especially the New York Times travel section — the average New Yorker (I’ve encountered) has nothing but positive things to say about Chicago unless provoked into a friendly bantering session with someone who’s visiting New York for the first time.
So, all that being said: it wasn’t until I moved to New York City that I was able to put Chicago egoism into perspective. I previously thought that it existed in the context of “average New Yorkers” going to town against “average Chicagoans” in a friendly competition of sorts. And maybe it does, or at least did, or maybe still does in regard to sports teams (which kind of makes sense to me in a way that arguing over pizza and whether you put your garbage on the street or in alleys does not). But my overwhelming experience has been that the only people who are super defensive and/or insistent about where Chicago lies in relation to other cities are people who currently live in Chicago. And this is, frankly, annoying, and it makes me hate visiting Chicago, and it makes me wish everyone in Chicago would just stop being so darn sensitive about their city.
The main criticisms I’ve heard about the Shteir article are that the author (a) overstates how positively Chicagoans view their city, (b) underestimates how critical Chicagoans are of their city, and (c) complains about Chicago way too much for someone who currently and/or deservedly lives there.
About (a), I’d say Shteir is absolutely correct. I experience it every time I visit Chicago. EVERY. TIME. And it is explicit, unprovoked, constant, and unremitting. The only people prouder of where they live than Chicagoans, in my experience, are the people who for the past 170-some-odd years have been upset Texas joined the United States and want it to become its own republic again. (Also, possibly French Canadians in Montreal.) When the French and Texas separatists are the people you’re lumped in with in regard to geographic pride, that’s saying something.
As to (b), I tend to agree with the criticism I’ve heard — to some extent. I think people who live in Chicago are acutely aware of the city’s issues. In fact, I’d say that the average Chicagoan can and does complain about a LOT. But I also strongly believe that said complaints are at least balanced out by the phenomenon in (a)… because, really, why would you still live in Chicago if it weren’t on the whole an okay place (unless, of course, you we’re blinded by geographic bias…)? A perfect example of this: Chicagoans LOVE to complain about the winters in Chicago (or at least they used to, back when the winters were a force with which to be reckoned). But no matter how much they’d complain about the winters, you’d always hear those complaints followed up with something like “…but it’s worth it because we have such nice summers.” (Again, this was back when Chicago’s summer climate was less like New Orleans’, but it’s still not unusual to hear a winter complaint followed up by a summer balancing act.) Chicagoans know there are a lot of problems in Chicago, and perhaps they sometimes try to do something about those problems, but for the most part (in my experience) they just then point to things in (a) to compensate for whatever failings they are willing to admit. And then they throw in some comment about how New Yorkers put their garbage on the sidewalk and make pizza all wrong.
And as for (c): Seriously? Shteir has lived in Chicago for 13 years. THIRTEEN. YEARS. If you want to make (c) as a criticism, go ahead, but you’re kind of proving her point. If the masses judge it impossible to be a “grateful” or “good” Chicagoan if you live in Chicago but then also criticize the city too much/too harshly/with the wrong tone/in any section of the New York Times (even, presumably, the obituaries), then seriously: What. The. Fuck? [I try very hard not to swear in my writing, but I cannot help myself here.] People asking “why does she live here if she dislikes it so much?” are — I’m afraid — completely unaware of the irony this question contains. Shteir’s written a book review about books about Chicago and made the (I find) largely accurate claim that Chicagoans are full of themselves and try to compensate for their city’s shortcomings in bizarre ways and therefore cannot handle valid criticism… and the response to that is criticism of her criticism? Oy vey!
It’s possible (likely) I’m overthinking this. It’s also entirely possible (if not probable) that I’m a current New Yorker and former Chicagoan who is overly sensitive to Chicagoans being overly sensitive about New Yorkers criticizing Chicago (however — ahem — accurately). For me, though, what it all comes down to is that this sort of thing is just not MY thing.
When I used to teach college writing, I sometimes — I don’t remember why — would talk about the difference between valid and invalid criticism. (Oh! I remember why!) We’d do a lot of peer review work and I wanted to ensure that students didn’t get too bogged down in what their peers thought of their work. For instance, if someone were to tell me I’m morbidly obese right now, they would be factually wrong. I would have evidence supporting my case, so I could in response to such accusation get all up in their face and start showing them BMI charts and what have you to prove that THEY ARE WRONG!!!! Or I could think to myself “I know that’s false,” disregard the incorrect criticism, and move on. I wouldn’t obsess about having been called morbidly obese.
Same sort of thing with peer review: any time you are criticized or a suggestion is made, you have to ask yourself if it makes sense given the context. Maybe your peer reviewer is bad at grammar and doesn’t know anything about the correct use of the subjunctive (ENTIRELY POSSIBLE). Maybe you’re a whiz at the subjunctive (ahem), in which case you KNOW you are correct and disregard the bad criticism. You move on and do not have cause to call into question the entire premise of your paper, the character of the peer reviewer, and/or your skill as a writer overall. (Heck, if you know how to use the subjunctive mood correctly, I’ll overlook a dozen other grammar mistakes. Or at least one.)
This is a lesson Chicagoans need to learn. Maybe not individually — I can think of some exceptions — but certainly collectively. Not every criticism needs a response. And certainly not every slight deserves getting all up in arms. You know what New Yorkers do when they get criticized (mostly by people who have NEVER BEEN THERE and NOT people who’ve lived there for THIRTEEN YEARS)? They shrug their shoulders and say, “meh, New York isn’t for everyone.” And then they head to Grimaldi’s for pizza. Seriously. Chicagoans should learn to shrug their shoulders similarly instead of bragging about how big they are. (And opening up a decent NY-style slice place wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.) Chicago isn’t for everyone. So what? Don’t take it so personally.
- Not Her Kind Of Town: NYT Book Reviewer Disses Chicago (chicago.cbslocal.com)
- City at a Crossroads: Chicago Confronts Urban Blight, 1954 (life.time.com)