Upon Leaving Town

It’s an alluring conceit: Chicago, a city so varied, so complex, and so radically different from one block to the next that one can never truly belong to it.  In “You Were Never in Chicago,” part memoir and part love poem to a metropolis Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg adopted as his own, the city is a subject that remains inscrutable throughout. A newspaperman for more than 25 years, his narrative flits from suburb to city, from neighborhood to neighborhood, from a West Side paper tube company to his son throwing out the first pitch at a Cubs game. Steinberg’s Chicago is a city that never seems to fit together as a coherent whole, a difficult pile of clothing he tries to squeeze into a suitcase bursting at the seams without ever succeeding, a city that transcends easy definition.

And as it is for the city, so it is too for the author himself. The city and Steinberg seem like perfect bedfellows, for just as there’s no one unified Chicago, it also seems as if there’s no real Steinberg. The primary lens through which we view this city is via his role as a journalist, first covering various city beats and then finally as a columnist. Each week Steinberg attempts to give his readership a glimpse into the city beyond the headlines; time and again he recalls Sandburg’s Chicago of big shoulders, of hog butchers and toolmakers, of the city when it used to make things.

Very often, Steinberg’s recollections make it seem as if Chicago has scarcely changed since the turn of the twentieth century, and so the celebrated poem repeatedly drifts into view as he describes Park Packing, an honest-to-goodness pig slaughterhouse, then an indoor chicken farm gone bad after the historic heatwave in 1995. And there too is Cougle Commission Co., which takes the twin pursuits of livestock and knives and throws them together, a company whose sole purpose is to cut up big hunks of chicken for fancy catering outfits with knives specially designed for such a purpose by Chicago Knife.

He’s also a family man, and his personal story seems as if it could only have taken place in this particular city. His pursuit of his wife-to-be survives a bad first date in Evanston, is reignited by a night in a club off Lincoln Avenue just south of Wrigleyville, and is finally concluded in a wedding amidst the glitz of the Intercontinental just off the Magnificent Mile. His professional and family worlds sometimes collide, most memorably in an encounter with Chris Kennedy, the president of the Merchandise Mart. An afternoon guiding his son around the complex prompts a bout of soul-searching, with Steinberg wondering if this field-trip compromised his ability to write about Kennedy with a critical eye.

Yet, it is to the book’s great detriment that Steinberg’s Chicago seems somehow geographically limited. His first introduction to “the city” is in comfortable Evanston, the next act is an extended description of the hardships he faced as an earnest graduate in a cramped apartment in leafy Oak Park. Hemingway is invoked, and he faintly echoes the famous son’s disdain for the bucolic suburb as a place with “broad lawns and narrow minds.” That is followed by an early adulthood settled in Logan Square: a family with Edie, whom he met while she studied philosophy, two children, and then the final, irrevocable divorce from a life led within city limits. The change comes when his wife patiently explains that the public Nettelhorst Elementary in Lakeview is no place to properly educate two young children, and for that one must head to the suburbs.

One therefore yearns to see another Chicago in this richly detailed book, a place where life doesn’t come quite so easily. Missing is a sense of Chicago as a city of immigrants or a sense of the great cleavages in income and comfort that so deeply color one’s personal Chicago. There are only scattered hints that Chicago south of Printers’ Row even exists. An extended eulogy to Hyde Park’s Leon Despres, a principled stick up the first Mayor Daley’s ass; a meeting with Ed McElroy Jr. in Bridgeport, a relic of Chicago’s intricate network of backscratching; an hour’s visit to the Robert Taylor Homes when he takes pride in choosing not to wear a bulky bulletproof vest; a trip down to the now shuttered Jays Potato Chips factory on 99th and Cottage Grove.

But perhaps that’s the point. Steinberg makes no pretensions that he’s relating a Chicago that is familiar to everyone who’s ever come into contact with this complicated city. He freely admits his own myopia, telling us that “This is what makes Chicago the place it is: you can’t be familiar with it. If you fancy you are, you’re not. Not all of it.” His is a Chicago as seen through a kaleidoscope, where “every person occupies the same city yet comes away with a completely different experience.” These are complications he embraces, and the book ends up being a fascinating glimpse into a wonderfully complex city from a person who’s forgotten more about its streets than most of its residents see in a lifetime.