Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Rachel Shteir Defends Her Anti-Chicago Essay in a Rare Q&A

Shteir’s recent New York Times story rankled all of Chicago—Rahm included. Now, for the first time since the article’s publication, the local professor and author answers the criticism.

Photo: Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune

Rachel Shteir in the summer of 2011.

One would think that DePaul theater prof Rachel Shteir had lined up our city’s cutest kitties and assassinated them St. Valentine’s Day style—or committed some other heinous crime—so great is the anger directed at her over a front-page New York Times Book Review piece on Chicago (which was, incidentally, about three Chicago-related books she was reviewing).

For the last couple of days, Facebook and Twitter have pulsed with Shteir-related vitriol. Last night, local TV got into it as well, with Carol Marin on NBC 5 and Robin Robinson and Bob Sirott at Fox News 32 expressing their outrage. But all the fiery reactions have happened without any response from Shteir—until now.
 

In a telephone conversation late Monday afternoon, Shteir, 49, told me that her piece is more properly called “an essay.” The books covered are Chicago Tribune reporters Jeff Coen and John Chase’s look at the downfall of Rod Blagojevich; Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg’s memoir of the city and his place in it; and—the only book she liked—Thomas Dyja’s “robust cultural history.” It explains, among other things, how Chicago “snuffed out Midwestern geniuses with radical roots.”*

Reaction to Shteir’s article was quick and emotional, as Chicago readers in particular complained that the Shteir “essay” could be read as a slam at the city wrapped around a warning: If Chicago doesn’t solve its deadly serious problems, it risks becoming the next Detroit. The three books, some griped, were simply a structure on which Shteir built her case against Chicago.

Shteir argues that the piece is being misinterpreted. The fierce response—including one by Rahm Emanuel in which he managed to sound like a less articulate Rich Daley: “Meet the people. Meet our neighborhoods. We have a lot to offer, which is why we’re a world-class city”—Shteir told me, proves her point about the unseemly boosterism that characterizes Chicagoans.

Shteir is no newcomer to Chicago. She grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, and lived in New York for 10 years while teaching at Columbia and NYU. But she has her BA from the University of Chicago (her DFA and MFA are from Yale), and she returned here 13 years ago to teach at DePaul.

The more simple-minded responses urged/ordered her, so to speak, to get out of Dodge. More thoughtful responses, such as the Reader’s Michael Miner, eviscerated her piece as “bizarrely overstated.” “You can’t be so dismissive [of Chicago],” Miner writes, “if you concede that Chicago, in its way, works as a city, but Shteir does not so concede.”

The most exercised Shteir hater is definitely Neil Steinberg, who was obviously stung by Shteir’s harsh evaluation of his book. He even wrote a column about it and also whipped his Facebook friends into a frenzy of anti-Shteir invective that included posting a link to her RateMyProfessors.com page. (Yes, some of her former students don’t like her.) Steinberg also posts a parade of Shteir bashing comments and tweets, including one from Howard Wolfson (New York’s deputy mayor and former top aide to Hillary Clinton): “Mystified by the offensive, mean spirited and inaccurate attack on Chicago … A great city that deserves better.”
 

Shteir seems to have taken the response in stride—she told me that she picked up many new Twitter followers—and her tone during our telephone conversation was confident and feisty.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Shteir for a couple of years—had lunch with her once, have seen her here and there, and have been in occasional e-mail contact. We both write books, and so have a natural affinity.**

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation yesterday:

CF: Have you received hate/love e-mails since the piece appeared?

RS: I had a minor wave of e-mails and posts on Facebook and new followers on Twitter. The hate e-mails called me a fool and worse, vicious, I mean in the style that people talk on the internet. The love ones said, “You nailed Chicago. Fantastic, been upset about living here for 20 years. No one has ever written anything like it.”

CF: Can you be more specific; add details about the hate e-mails?

RS: Neil Steinberg has that covered.

CF: He wrote in his column about feeling “heartsick” about the review, but being cheered up by a taxi driver, Christian, from Nigeria, who told Steinberg he had been in New York and prefers Chicago. “They put garbage in their streets [in New York],” Steinberg quotes Christian as saying. “They [people who disparage Chicago and your book] are unhappy. Unhappy people, they try to hurt other people.” Did you read Steinberg’s reaction to your piece? Are you familiar with his work?

RS: Yes, I’m familiar with Neil Steinberg…What he does in his column doesn’t really interest me. I didn’t read that column [about the review] actually and your description of it makes it sound rather maudlin.

CF: Your Times piece is full of statistics—murder rate, parking meter rate, sales tax, foreclosure rate, segregated neighborhood rate, underfunded pensions rate, governors-to-prison rate, Louis Sulllivan buldings torn down, population reaching no where near the predictions of Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett in 1909. Have any of those stats been challenged?

RS: I don’t know. The piece was fact checked. But remember this is an opinion piece, with facts in it, yes. It seems to me that there’s confusion about what this essay is supposed to do … It’s larger than the books [reviewed]. When someone writes about the theater, that person doesn’t just review the play.

CF: Any regrets over having written it?

RS: No. I think it’s good people are paying attention, provoking people is good. What’s unfortunate is the personal comments about me. … The personal remarks are in themselves a sad commentary on the state of criticism.

CF: Did the Times editors ask you to tone down the anti-Chicago tone of the piece?

RS: I don’t think the piece is anti-Chicago. I feel sad about the way things are going here … Extremely well-known problems in Chicago which I didn’t invent … I object to the premise of your question. What I suggest is that there is a fear that is haunting Chicago. For anyone to say that no one has ever thought of this, of the drop in population and the problems with crime; … that Chicago could end up like Detroit; that this has anything to do with hating the city, I find bizarre. … Am I congratulatory and boosterish? No. The reaction here proves my point. Can Chicago not take criticism? Is there only one conversation to be had in the city as in “Go Chicago?” That was the point of my piece.

CF: A favorite means of trying to discredit you is to post links to the Tablet.com piece of late 2010 in which you write with utter certainty that Chicagoans won’t elect a Jewish mayor and so “Rambo will never be mayor of Chicago.” 

RS: That was an opinion piece … It was my opinion based on certain judgments. A lot of people hated that piece. That was a polarizing piece … Yes, I was wrong, Rahm got elected, but it wasn’t the point of the piece.

CF: Has Rahm as mayor done anything you admire?

RS: He is trying to do the right thing in attracting businesses here … He’s working overtime to do that. Overall, he inherited a difficult job in a difficult city … The biggest problem is the pension mess sucking money out of the city and state … Many, many problems. Who else would want to be Mayor here? [I responded that I could give her a list of 10 off the top of my head.]

CF: How did a East Coast girl like you end up at the University of Chicago?

RS: I think it’s an amazing place and has phenomenal teachers.

CF: When you were a student there, starting in 1982, did you leave the campus and explore the city?

RS: No, I rarely left Hyde Park.

RS: So after college and a decade in New York, what brought you back to Chicago.

RS: I was offered a job at DePaul.

CF: Do you want to leave Chicago?

RS: I’m hoping some day to be able to get out and move elsewhere.

CF: What city would you prefer?

RS: I don’t know. I fantasize about moving back to New York … I’m too old to do that really … I think I’d like to live in different places, move around … Am I ambivalent about Chicago? Yes. But I’d be ambivalent about New York if I lived there.

 

NOTE: I later received an e-mail from Shteir in which she offered a final thought that seemed aimed squarely at Steinberg: “I just want to say that everyone gets negative reviews—I have; everyone has. Everyone who writes or is an artist has to deal with the fact of them.

“However, one unfortunate fact about living today is that some people seem to think it’s okay to turn disappointment at a bad review into a media stunt—a piece of performance art—in which you personally attack the reviewer’s character for your own and others’ amusement. That strikes me as really bad form.”

 

*The books included in Shteir’s essay are 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.

**Titles of Shteir’s books are Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show; Gypsy: the Art of the Tease; and The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting.

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