Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Love letter to Chicago...a reply to Rachel Shteir

A recent book review in the New York Times looked at Thomas Dyja’s “The Third Coast”, and a number of other books about Chicago including Neil Steinberg's book "You Were never in Chicago". In doing so the reviewer let forth a torrent of criticism about my (and her) current home city. Reviewer Shteir concludes that: "the city is trapped by its location, its past, and what philosophers would have called its facticity — its limitations, given the circumstances. Boosterism has been perfected here because the reality is too painful to look at. Poor Chicago, indeed." 

Like Shteir, I'm not native to Chicago. But her description of this city is unrecognisable. Easy to live in, cheap to get around, plenty to do, world class museums and culture. And, of course, there is always the beach. It is also hard to emphasise enough, without sounding like the tourist board, just how family friendly the city is and how welcoming people are. Spend a few days in New York, then come here. You'll know.

Shteir's litany of complaints includes that parking meters charge "up to $6.50 an hour". Rather like my broadband speed of "up to 100MB", this weaselly phrase tells us nothing truly relevant. Such as how much meter parking costs, nor whether having a top rate of $6.50 in some places is such a bad idea because it means that spaces are always available. Having lived in London for many years (and reported from Paris and New York), I can say with certainty that getting around Chicago is trivial. Public transportation and taxis are easy and cheap. Driving right into the city is relatively easy.

Another complaint is that "of the largest American cities" in 2012 Chicago had the "second-highest murder rate". OK, so there has been a recent uptick in homicides in some gang-riddled parts of the city. Does that mean the rest of the city is doomed because of flare ups in two wards? Not at all.

The complaints go on: the "ninth-highest metro foreclosure rate in the country". Seriously? And apparently the bankruptcy of The Chicago Tribune (one of the two daily papers here) is another mark of our failure. As regional newspapers around the country topple like pins hit by the internet bowling ball, does this event really add a meaningful data point to the Shteir's Chicago Tragedy?

Like any big city there are problems. Some of which Shteir nails: a legacy of racial segregation (which is why the homicide uptick so heavily weighs on just a few communities), underfunded infrastructure but most seriously its crappy schools. But the idea that Chicago is heading the way of Detroit is preposterous for the reason that if, as a big company, you have to be in the middle of America it is more often than not the best place to be.

Whatever else Shteir thinks of it, the young technology hipsters, the wives of the men of money in the financial centres, and the expensively educated Midwestern graduates all gravitate to Chicago to find culture, like-minded smart people and jobs. In all directions Chicago stands out of the Great Plains like Dorothy's Emerald city--glowing on the horizon with promise. Whether you live in Des Moines, Omaha, Milwaukee, Columbus, Indianapolis or Springfield, it is and always will be the Big City. To the logistics companies, Big Ag, the higher education sector, finance, the architectural firms, and retailers, Chicago remains a centre of gravity either in the region or nationally. That isn't boosterism or pity, just fact.

What is truly fascinating about Chicago is that given the public pension deficit, and high taxation, that companies seem increasingly happy to set up here. Why did United Airlines, BP and Willis Group Holdings decide to move downtown in 2011, when they should have been rushing for the door given Shteir's thesis? Why is the city, rather than the metropolitan area, showing a resurgence in appeal to companies of all kinds? Why is there a revival here?

Sure there are tensions with the old Chicago, every now and then signs of the machine and the corruption resurface. And Illinois, with its dysfunction, continues to act as a drag on the city. But if one looks beyond a worn-out view of the city one would find data that do not fit the hypothesis. A city on the forefront of transparency and public information, or in innovative ways of financing public infrastructure, or having increased its graduation rate from its community colleges by 60% in a few  years. To dismiss all of this, as well as the bike lanes, the riverside walk, the teachers in libraries, and even the hard won longer school day is to miss the real story. Chicago is, and always will be, a compelling place to live and work and that is because of both its real assets but most importantly because of the people who live here, and their positive attitudes about the city.

Call it boosterism if you wish, but to revel in urban misery is to miss a trick. I know this, having lived for most of my life in London. Here the citizens are as rude as any you will find in New York or Paris, but Londoners also wear their authentic despondency like some kind of banner. We gripe and moan and bitch about London and its transport, its weather, its high prices and the impossibility of finding a decent home. But secretly we know that it truly remains one of the best cities in the world even if we never choose to celebrate that fact. It was for that reason we spent most of the run-up to the Olympics dreading the event.

Lastly, and this is the giant flaw in Shteir's thesis, a city is fundamentally about much more than its infrastructure and politicians. It is about its people and their attitudes and this is where Chicago overflows with abundance.

What I love about Chicago is the way that people engage you in conversation, or are happy to sit on their front porch or have their children play on the sidewalk. The way they are open to chatting to passers by. And when I bump into someone in the supermarket they say "excuse me" as an apology if they were so rude to be in my way. There is a Midwestern openness and expansiveness that inspires great affection. So different from the more uptight, doomy, Londoners who peek behind their twitching net curtains and think that anyone sitting in their front garden is slightly odd. Chicagoans join in on things. They throw block parties, and street festivals, and fun runs at the drop of a hat. They are relentless do-ers and joiners. And that is what makes Shteir an ill fit for this city because loving it is part of what makes it great.