Chicago on the Defensive

In the days when planes had to stop and refuel when flying coast to coast, Chicago sat at the crossroads of America; it’s now a dot in the landscape as transcontinental planes fly overhead. But when flipping through the annals of America’s twentieth-century history, it’s hard to go far without registering the significance of this sprawling Midwestern metropolis. Shirking the glitz and glamour of its coastal counterparts, Chicago was home to the development of “regular” or standardized American culture. It was the stomping ground of people like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, whose architectural innovations changed the face of American cities, and Ray Kroc, whose global fast food franchise revolutionized the way our country views meals. More recently, Chicago has suffered from the stain of growing crime rates, drastic segregation, and political corruption. Its growth has leveled off and its influence has been tempered.

At the end of April, the New York Times published a review of three books aimed at analyzing Chicago’s history and culture: “You Were Never in Chicago” by Neil Steinberg, “Golden” by Jeff Coen and John Chase, and “The Third Coast” by Thomas Dyja. The review was written by Rachel Shteir, a DePaul University professor who returned to the city of her alma mater (the UofC) after living in New York for ten years.

Her review essentially accuses Chicago of having unjustified “swagger” and describes the city as likely to go the way of Detroit. Her attacks address the political corruption, murder rates, economic issues, and segregation. She uses a condescending and critical tone when discussing “You Were Never in Chicago” and “Golden.” In her mind, both fail in their aims due to pitching “even more indulgently into platitudes” and a “tone of weary resignation,” respectively. Labeling these books as too high in their praise and conversely not animated enough, Shteir presents “The Third Coast” as being just right.

Shteir’s preference for “The Third Coast” could be coincidental, but it is also possible to draw a coastal conclusion, as Shteir is a New York native and Dyja is currently a New York resident himself. It is as if Shteir couldn’t trust native Chicagoans to expound on their own city of residence and had to turn to a New Yorker as a higher authority. This fact, combined with her harsh attacks on the “Second City,” has sparked many vehement reactions to her review among Chicagoans.

Passionate advocates have turned to Twitter, expressing their conviction that Shteir should either learn to appreciate Chicago or move away. As Bill Savage noted in Crain’s Chicago Business, “The reaction against Ms. Shteir’s review is not because she didn’t like some Chicago books, but because she doesn’t like Chicago. And because her dislike seems to grow from ignorance.” Dyja’s book seeks to remedy this type of ignorance in a moderated, realistic fashion. His carefully researched book backs up Savage’s statement that “there’s a subtext to this kind of civic criticism, that if you love New York, Chicago can’t measure up. And if you love Chicago, you just don’t know any better. Nonsense.” Chicago has its own rich and tangled history, impressive in its messiness.

In “The Third Coast,” Dyja begins with an account of how the social and technological development that seized the nation during the mid-twentieth century was physically represented in Chicago by the modern glass and steel architecture of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. His buildings pushed the city forward technologically while also promoting its burgeoning segregation. Dyja describes how the Mecca, a tenement building in Bronzeville, was bought by the Illinois Institute of Technology in the hope that–with enough managerial neglect–its African-American residents would vacate and the university would finally be able to raze the building to make way for a new Mies van de Rohe—designed campus.

Dyja also addresses the growth of consumerist America as promoted by Ray Kroc and Hugh Hefner, the Chicago-based innovators who, respectively, founded McDonald’s and Playboy. Dyja describes their homogenizing endeavors as being in line with the Chicago ideal of “regular,” as opposed to coastal pursuits of flash and fame. McDonald’s was the hallmark of smart business at the time. “The company that today for many epitomizes mindless conformity was conceived as a profoundly American innovation–a mammoth corporation built out of every man’s hunger to be his own man,” he writes. Kroc and Hefner each worked to make their respective commodities, food and sex, normalized, efficient, and socially “regular.” The corporatization of America began in Chicago.

The UofC doesn’t escape Dyja’s critical eye, as he analyzes its academic innovations as enacted by Robert Maynard Hutchins, a prominent president of the university and a man who disliked Chicago as much as Chicago disliked him. Hutchins spearheaded the Great Books initiative, which made education a commodity, a process in line with Kroc and Hefner’s own goals. Under his supervision, authors like Plato, Marx, and Melville were brought together in a fifty-four-volume collection that attempted to provide a comprehensive compilation of foundational Western literature. But during the university’s years under this drastic leader, “little about its course of study encouraged engagement with the world.” While the UofC is located seven miles from downtown, it is connected by a stretch of highway that allows academic travelers to circumvent the poorer neighborhoods in between. While later presidents like Lawrence Kimpton attempted to focus “the university’s full attention on the condition of Hyde Park,” Dyja expresses concern over the university’s drastic isolation: “the university and in particular the College, beaming with intellectual energy, removed themselves from the surrounding city.” Time has not done much to remedy this removal.

In “The Third Coast,” Dyja surveys Chicago’s history with a critical but appreciative eye. His key assertion is that an understanding of Chicago is significant to the broader understanding of America and should therefore not be written off. The city has served as a hotbed of social, cultural, economic, and political evolution, with its own developments acting as catalysts for national trends. Shteir claims that Chicago’s time is over. With its continued segregation and high crime rates, as well as its political corruption and stagnating development, she no longer sees it as a crossroads of America; instead, it is slipping in relation to the coastal cities of New York and Los Angeles.

Her analysis is too dismissive. Dyja’s book, while critical, portrays a rich Chicago history, rife with both struggles and successes. Devoid of the glamour found in America’s larger cities, Chicago is a place for the regular, and there is something laudable in that. Despite its tumultuous past, there is still room for optimism and an informed appreciation. As Dyja asserts, “restoring Chicago to its central place in American history is a crucial step toward reassembling a nation that has lost its shared sense of identity and experience.” Chicago is inextricable from its diversity, disorder, and development, attributes it has made essential to the creation of American culture on a national scale. Despite its weaknesses, Dyja ultimately concludes, Chicago remains “the city that most genuinely expresses America as a whole.” This does not always mean that Chicago is good, but it does mean that it’s usually interesting.

This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: June 14, 2013

An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Rachel Shteir’s time in Chicago. Shteir attended the UofC as an undergraduate, moved to the Northeast, and later returned to Chicago after ten years in New York.