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Oliver: Anti-Chicago essay misses rest of picture

Published: Wednesday, May 1, 2013 9:12 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, May 1, 2013 9:38 a.m. CDT

Who among us doesn’t bristle when something we care about comes under fire?

Of course, not all criticism is created equal.

For instance, if a fellow fan of your favorite hockey team decides to rail about the goaltending, that’s one thing. In theory, you’re both on the same side.

How about if that same rant comes from someone who roots for a hated rival?

Even if the criticism is valid, it probably isn’t being offered constructively, right?

That seems to be the spirit behind an anti-Chicago screed that appeared April 18 on the front of the New York Times Book Review.

Rachel Shteir, who is a DePaul University theater professor, ostensibly was reviewing three books with ties to Chicago – “The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream” by Thomas Dyja; “Golden: How Rod Blagojevich Talked Himself Out of the Governor’s Office and Into Prison” by Jeff Coen and John Chase; and “You Were Never in Chicago” by Neil Steinberg.

Instead of actually reviewing the books, Shteir’s “essay” asserts that Chicago is a declining city on its way to “turning into Detroit.”

Particularly galling to Shteir is the way Chicagoans are forever touting the city.

The boosterism is unseemly, she contends, given all of the city’s well-known problems.

Dare to disagree and, well, you’re just proving her point.

Granted, she does concede Chicago has a couple of things going for it: Lake Michigan and Millennium Park. Oh, and global warming has improved the winters.

Tepid praise at best.

Shteir spent her undergraduate years at the University of Chicago, and after getting her master’s and doctoral degrees from Yale, she taught for 10 years at Columbia and New York University. For the past 13 years, she’s lived – unhappily, it seems – in Chicago.

Yet, the problems to which she points are real, and they are issues that must be addressed.

Shteir cites an appalling murder rate, a shockingly high combined sales tax and a crippling foreclosure rate. Then there’s the parking deal that former Mayor Richard M. Daley stuck the city with, as well as the state’s public pension crisis.

Amid all of that negativity, it’s no wonder Shteir can’t seem to focus on the rest of the picture.

Perhaps, as in her undergraduate days, she doesn’t get out much. (In a Q&A piece with Carol Felsenthal that was posted on Chicago Magazine’s website, she admitted that back then she rarely left Hyde Park.)

If she did, she’d see the truly world-class museums, theater, opera and dance. She’d eat at some remarkable restaurants.

She’d hear the roar of the crowds at the United Center for the Bulls and the Blackhawks. She’d see the diehard fandom for the Cubs, White Sox and Bears.

She’d also have a chance to see the city’s diversity and all of its beauty beyond the lake. 

Oh, wait, that sounds like boosterism.

Maybe it’s more of a fan’s perspective, one of someone who loves the city despite its faults.

After all, Midwesterners – and Cubs fans in particular – are good at making the best of tough situations. You don’t survive blizzards by wallowing in all that’s wrong.

Shteir says she hopes to be able to “get out” of Chicago someday. Here’s hoping she gets her wish sooner rather than later.

More than a few people no doubt would be willing to help her pack.

•  Joan Oliver is the assistant news editor for the Northwest Herald. She can be reached at 815-526-4552 or by email at joliver@shawmedia.com.

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