[25 November 2012]
“Chicago was so young, so blithe… Here was a city which had no traditions but which was making them, and this was the very thing which everyone seemed to understand and rejoice in. Chicago was like no other city in the world.”
– Theodore Dreiser (1922)
“Before you can come to Chicago, Chicago must come to you”
– Neil Steinberg (2012)
It seems fitting that I’m reading Neil Steinberg’s latest book, You Were Never in Chicago while I’m sitting in the comfort of my apartment in Atlanta and watching the Chicago Bears play during a cold and wet night at Soldier Field. While I ponder this coincidence, the game cuts to a commercial and what is the outro music? “Bound to the Floor” by Local H, one of the best Chicago bands ever. Kismet.
You Were Never in Chicago is Steinberg’s encomium to the City of Chicago, and it as much a reflection on his career as a Chicago Sun-Times writer, as it’s an annotated history and unintended travelogue. It’s also jam packed with delectable bits of trivia, which should appeal to everyone from the American history buff to the suburban mom, from the people who can take the el (elevated train) blindfolded to the tyros who still get lost on the highways because they don’t realize that I-90, I-94, I-294 and I-290 are all different.
Did you know that most of the German street names in Chicago were changed following World War I and the only survivor is Goethe Street? Or that the city is 227-square miles, which makes it larger than 17 countries in the United Nations? Or that St. Louis should have overtaken Chicago, but for a fatal dependence on steamboats versus railroads? Or that the city was saved following the Great Fire of 1871 because thousands of people moved to Chicago to rebuild it?
Steinberg’s greatest gift is his ability to build Chicago in our imaginations as a city that has grown from the efforts of people willing to make it their home, sometimes against unbelievable odds. He weaves wonderful stories of people we now take for granted – Upton Sinclair, Julia Louis Dreyfus, Carl Sandburg, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Theodore Dreiser, Jelly Roll Morton – all who were not born in Chicago, but for whom Chicago became the backdrop onto which they achieved greatness.
For at least the first part of the book, Steinberg also introduces us to the history of Chicago, but in quite a delightful and innovative way, not doing so chronologically, but rather through the motives that brought certain people to Chicago and how their journeys have affected change. For the first time, many native Chicagoans like me, will finally understand the namesakes for places like Ridgeland Avenue, Pilsen, Ogden Avenue, Hoffman Estates, Galena, the Union Stockyards, Joliet, Marquette University and the DuSable Museum, because Steinberg takes the time to explain who the people and events were that inspired such places.
“There are only two ways to get to Chicago,” writes Steinberg. “You either are born here or you arrive.” I am proud to say that not only was I born in Chicago, but I am also the first person in my family to be born in America. This is probably why that great Saul Bellow quote from The Adventures of Augie March (1953)—which Steinberg also cites – has always resonated with me: “I am an American, Chicago born.”
On the other hand, Steinberg may not think I’m “really” a Chicagoan because technically, I was born in Evanston (a suburb immediately north of Chicago), and never grew up in the city, but rather in the suburbs of Mt. Prospect and then Oak Brook. But, says Steinberg, there’s an argument to be made for those live in the suburbs and come to the city occasionally or even daily; maybe they can “experience the best while missing out on the harder parts.” He does, however, dole out the occasional harsh critique of people who have lived in Chicago and put it on the map, like Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan, but who he does not identify as Chicagoans because “despite their years in the city… their feet so seldom hit the street.”
Unfortunately, the book starts to lose its way by Chapter 9. It becomes less about Chicago and more as a sounding board for how he feels about his family (particularly his brother), his children and other topics that are not necessarily related to his earlier statements about Chicago. I suppose that the city finds its way into everything that Steinberg writes about, which is partly the point, but it definitely becomes a burden for the reader to have to bear the cross for Steinberg’s sometimes long and winded reflections on fatherhood – a topic he writes about a tad too much, here.
This is exemplified in an exchange between the author and his boss, Nigel Wade, who tells him, “Every time you write about your son, I get the impression you did not know what else to write about.” Steinberg squirms his way out of that one by saying that he never plans ahead for his columns, but the reader is left understanding exactly what Wade is saying.
As much as Steinberg loves the city, he does occasionally come across as incredibly arrogant, which is infuriating because he is trying to make the case in this book that he really knows Chicago better than anyone else. Sure, he has been to places in the city that I will never see – the Deep Tunnel, Elks National Memorial, the Division Street Russian Baths and a bar actually called 1944 St. Louis Browns – but this book is also full of what can only be described as Steinberg’s hubris at being somehow better than others. There’s his fierce refusal to join a fraternity at Northwestern because he would rather be a GDI – “God Damn Independent.” There’s his observation on public transportation: “I didn’t own a car, so went everywhere by el train – buses weren’t an option; I felt they were beneath me. Poor people took buses.” And there’s his lack of interest that his first son was going to be delivered in Evanston and not within the city limits. “Then,” writes Steinberg, “he could always say ‘I was born in Chicago’ – something that his father could never claim.”
However, the biggest weakness is that Steinberg does not confront the specter of racism much at all in You Were Never in Chicago. It’s no secret that inter- and intra-race conflicts have always been issues in Chicago. Racism and intolerance are widespread in the US and Chicago has its own versions, some due to sheer bigotry of one group towards another and other forms as a mechanism of resistance from those who had settled in Chicago first, but did not want to extend the same privilege to new arrivals.
Steinberg makes a brief comment on racism, which he chronicles during his visit to Visitation Parish on the South Side of Chicago with Ed McElroy, remarking, “Race is the major consideration in Chicago – well, race and money – the twin electrical charges that hold our universe together.” Steinberg also talks about intolerance earlier in the book, but it really just comes across as lip service and again, like other places in the book, he finds a way to paint hostility towards new arrivals in a positive light. He writes, “Though frequently inconvenienced, those who come from other places are also aided by their foreignness. As much as being from somewhere else can hold you back, at least initially, it can also help.” It seems rather convenient for Steinberg to make this summary judgment since he is part of the great American Diaspora from… Ohio.
In the end and despite its flaws, You Were Never in Chicago provides a perspective on Chicago that is rarely seen. Steinberg tackles all the stereotypes of the city from being a gangsters’ paradise to a seat of political discontent and manages to weave a tapestry of a city that almost died – repeatedly – but continues to rise. Maybe the people of Chicago are different than the rest of America. Maybe there’s something in the water that allows groups of people who never coalesce in any other place to come together and forge a common identity to ensure the survival of this city? As Steinberg emphasizes, “Nobody lives in Chicago alone.”