Accidental Critic: God, I Am in Chicago
You Were Never in Chicago
by Neil Steinberg
Reviewed by Kim Kishbaugh, EIL’s Accidental Critic
I’m a Chicagoan. At least that’s how I think of myself. And to friends and relatives who don’t live in Chicago, I’m a Chicagoan. I love Chicago and measure other cities against it.
Neil Steinberg’s book, You Were Never in Chicago, however, reminds me that I am a newcomer, here just over 30 years. And though my mother was born and grew up in Chicago, I came into the world in rural northern Illinois, 100 miles west. No matter how much I love Chicago, I’m not a native. So, to some, I am not and never will be a Chicagoan.
Just what makes someone a Chicagoan is a question central to Steinberg’s book, published in 2013. It’s right there alongside what makes Chicago Chicago. Are you a Chicagoan if you weren’t born in the city? Are you a Chicagoan if you don’t know its full history? What if you move away? Steinberg, who clearly loves the city he adopted three decades ago, comes back to these themes over and over as he tells a series of marvelous tales about Chicago and life in it. He also regales the reader with stories of the newspaper business, in which he has been immersed for most of his professional life.
In the process, he introduces a cast of characters rich enough to pay for construction on Chicago’s Gold Coast—from the city’s first mayor, William B. Ogden, to writer Nelson Algren, poet Carl Sandburg and the Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr.; from Joe Colucci, owner of the old Division Street Russian Baths, and his son Jimmy, to street walkers, cocaine addicts, and the social workers who try to help them. Chicagoans already know some or all of these names; but we don’t know all the stories. They’re rich and enjoyable, and should satisfy both the Chicago native and the newcomer.
“The fine details emerge one by one.”
Steinberg’s book is a very personal one. “My Chicago is not yours,” he writes; “it is not anybody else’s.” But it is packed full of historical nuggets that will please both the neophyte and the hard-core Chicagoan. No matter how much you know about the city, you’re almost certain to learn something new: the reason the Irish settled in Bridgeport; the origin of the Union stockyards or the Chicago public library (now that’s a funny story!); or former Mayor Jane Byrne’s backstory, the plane crash that widowed her and prompted her move to Chicago. “Chicago is a big place, and so is not grasped as a whole,” he writes; “rather, the fine details emerge one by one.” So they do in his book.
It’s hard to imagine now, but Chicago wasn’t always a mighty and impressive behemoth. The city had many things going for it in its early days, including its prime location at the tip of Lake Michigan. But other nascent communities rivaled it—even what we now know as tiny Galena, Illinois, the other terminus of William B. Ogden’s Galena & Chicago Union Railroad. Steinberg’s book pays tribute to Ogden and Chicago’s other founding fathers, whose foresight and vision grew the young city while other cities faltered. He deftly analyzes and shows how the decisions of Chicago’s early leaders paved the way for growth, even while the leaders of other cities stumbled.
Steinberg shows us Chicago both through the eyes of a young boy visiting for the first time, and those of a long-time resident newspaperman who has spent decades getting to know its ins and outs. As a high school senior trying to decide whether to go to college in New York or Chicago, Steinberg says he “was afraid of New York,” despite having a grandmother he visited regularly in the Bronx.
“Chicago, on the other hand, was the Palmer House Hotel. My father had taken me to the city to attend a conference, and we stayed there. Chicago was the Palmer House’s gorgeous Wedgwood lobby ceiling, the nearby Blackhawk restaurant, with its famous spinning salad. ‘Here at zee Blackhawk, we spin zee salad not wance, not twah-ice, but sree times!’ a tuxedoed waiter exalted, while my sister and I laughed into each other’s shoulders.”
The book is part memoir, part city portrait, a mix of history and personal storytelling that resounds with love—love of both Chicago and the people in it. But it’s not uncritical nor overly sentimental, and Steinberg doesn’t take the city too seriously. Chicagoans “endlessly debate whether Chicago can be considered a ‘world class’ city, whatever that means,” he writes in one of my favorite passages, “not realizing that to ask the question is to answer it.” Of the famous Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza: “It’s as if Picasso said, ‘You want high art? How about a big rusty baboon’s ass for you to admire for the rest of time?’ “
Rootless in all other places
So is Steinberg himself a Chicagoan? Clearly not when he first arrives from Cleveland in the 1970s. And not when he heads off to California after graduation from college. But now, after nearly 30 years reporting on and writing about the city for the Chicago Sun-Times? Surely, now, we must consider him a Chicagoan.
To read Steinberg’s book is to examine from all angles the question of what makes Chicago unique and what defines a Chicagoan. And while he never quite brings himself to claim the mantle directly, surely by the most important standard he proves that he has earned it. Through his love of the city, he has claimed it as his own. “If I am indeed a Chicagoan, to the degree that I may be, I would attribute it to being rootless in all other places,” he writes. It’s a good measure and perhaps one that sums up what defines “home” for any person. As for convincing Chicagoans that you are their brethren?
“Being a Chicagoan is a claim you have to press, a case you must make,” Steinberg writes. “Maybe that’s the definition–you’re a Chicagoan if, wherever you are at the moment, Chicago is the place you’d like to be. … Being a Chicagoan is not a matter of how long you reside here, but how it affects you. It is a process, an attitude, a state of mind.”
Chicagoan or not, native or newcomer or observer from afar, there’s something in this book for everyone—a history lesson, a portrait of the news business, an examination of personal relationships. It would be a shame if only Chicagoans read it.
Among other things, it is a newspaperman’s lovely and loving memoir.
“The true beauty of being a newspaper reporter is that you are constantly being sent places that you would never imagine going to, and compelled to delve into topics that you heretofore never thought about. You must become an expert in the span of a few hours and present your findings the next day to a public that will immediately seize upon any error, no matter how slight.”
Steinberg beautifully evokes the draw of journalism to its practitioners, and describes the life of a reporter. From breaking into the news business to covering deadly fires and prowling the streets on the night shift, he brings a reporter’s world to his reader—and it’s fun to read. I went down memory lane in a few places, and it’s been decades since I worked in the Chicago news business. An added bonus is “A Visit from the Angel Nacht,” in which Steinberg writes of his love for writing obituaries, a job generally relegated to the junior staff member except when someone—like Steinberg—comes along and seizes the opportunity to turn it into an art form. Longtime Alderman Leon Despres died in 2009 at the age of 101. But not before Steinberg had studiously researched his life and interviewed him for his own obituary. “Most Chicagoans don’t know who Frida Kahlo is, and here was a man who went on a date with her,” Steinberg writes. Steinberg is fairly well known for his obituary work, at least in circles where people pay attention to such things. Chicago media critic Robert Feder wrote of Steinberg’s obituary prowess in 2012; it’s a treat to read Steinberg’s take on it first-hand.
Errors, questions, and the washing of hands
Steinberg doesn’t get everything right in this book. Comparing the North Side with South, he errs by portraying South Siders as a clannish and less-than-friendly lot who “shoot cold, appraising looks at each foreigner passing through the doorway and demand to know where he’s from and why he’s there.” That’s a Cubs fan’s portrait of his South Side counterpart (or should I say rival?), understandable but inaccurate.
Steinberg also sometimes seems too accepting of racial prejudices and inequities in the city, and I was given pause by his apologetic portrait of what we call the Chicago way, the trading of favors that is at the heart of both “the city that works” and the official corruption for which it is well known. Manus manum lavat, as he says; one hand washes the other. This is how Chicago works, and I wouldn’t have Steinberg or anyone else deny it. But I know more than one reporter who will be made at least a bit uncomfortable by his admission that he allows his newspaper column to be influenced by those to whom he owes favors.
“Some reporters never accept a free lunch. I never turn one down,” he writes. Publicist Ed McElroy “is a friend who expects me to write about his clients in the newspaper, and I am a friend who expects him to pick up the lunch check. … Though I may turn him down, once or twice or even three times, eventually the chit becomes due and I have to cough up some publicity or our friendship would begin to sour.”
Steinberg examines that relationship in the thought-provoking essay “Driving with Ed McElroy,” in which he confronts the ethical questions posed by Chicagoans’ approach to friendship and patronage—manus manum lavat. The fact that Steinberg’s friendship with McElroy is a “Chicago kind of friendship” doesn’t mean that it doesn’t raise ethical questions. He acknowledges this:
“Am I doing my job? Does Ed provide my readers with a fascinating glimpse into a hidden world…? Or is this stuff pallid, public relations pap that I occasionally spice up best I can and spoon-feed to my tolerant audience as payment for a car ride and a steak lunch?”
Steinberg deserves credit for his honesty. For those who may disapprove of this friendship or this way of doing business, he has the defense of saying that he has hidden nothing.
If you find that you disapprove, there’s one other fact you should know about “Driving with Ed McElroy,” published first in Granta in 2009: We have this essay to thank for the entire book. As Steinberg writes in the Acknowledgments for You Were Never in Chicago, “Robert Devens, an editor at the University of Chicago Press, read ‘Driving with Ed McElroy‘ and wondered what kind of book I might write about the city. This is it.”
Thank you, Robert Devens.
Kim Kishbaugh is no kind of artist at all, but a lover of art in many different forms. She travels through life with an open mind and open eyes in search of magic, and sometimes finds it. She is Escape Into Life‘s social media editor and a long-time journalist with an unsettling history of seeing the companies she works for go out of business. She blogs occasionally at kkish.net.