Thin Skin, Chicago?

For anyone who cares to keep up on these things, Chicago has been under the hot lights due to a gratuitous screed of a book review in the New York Times this past Sunday.  The piece was supposed to be a review of three books by local Chicago authors, each a description of aspects of Chicago’s culture and essence.  But the piece, done by theater professor Rachel Shteir of DePaul University (!), spent much more of the piece detailing many of Chicago’s flaws.  Among them:
·         A high murder rate
·         A long reputation for political corruption
·         Stifling segregation
·         A super-high local sales tax
Bad Chicago
But Shteir notes that perhaps the biggest flaw of the city and its residents is its constant boosterism.  She says that Chicagoans are all too happy to tout the positives of their fair city with hardly a mention of anything negative. 

And yet even as the catastrophes pile up, Chicago never ceases to boast about itself. The Magnificent Mile! Fabulous architecture! The MacArthur Foundation! According to The Tribune, Chicago is “America’s hottest theater city”; the mayor’s office touts new taxi ordinances as “huge improvements.” The mayor likes brags that could be read as indictments too, announcing the success of sting operations busting a variety of thugs and grifters.

The swagger has bugged me since I moved here from New York 13 years ago.


Good Chicago
In some ways I tend to agree with her critique, but also with those who’ve challenged her.   As the reaction to the piece shows, Chicagoans can come down hard on dissenters.  Try Googling “Rachel Shteir Chicago” and you’ll find dozens of articles on the Chicago response before you get to the actual NYT article itself.
But the fact is the article is evidence of Chicago losing control of its narrative.  Just a few years ago Chicago’s boosterism was pushing it into the global city discussion.  However, the true global cities have sufficiently recovered from the Great Recession, while Chicago still struggles to get off the mat.  As a result a new narrative – or really, the resurrection of an old one – seems to be emerging.  Chicago’s Rust Belt flaws are showing again.
There was talk on public radio here the other day about this subject.  A caller from Chicago, another transplanted New Yorker who’s been here for 13 years like Shteir, said that Chicago suffers from a poor marketing plan.  Another NYC transplant caller said that Chicago’s value is that it has 80% of the amenities of a global city like New York at 50% of the cost.  That might overstate (or understate) things, but others have made similar points.  If Chicago can ever successfully sell the notion that it has the virtues of walkable urbanism at a more affordable price, perhaps it can develop the determination to take its flaws on.

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