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Taking on Chicago

It’s not clear whether DePaul University professor Rachel Shteir anticipated controversy when she penned a damning critique of her adopted hometown of Chicago in the The New York Times’ Sunday Book Review. In “Chicago Manuals,” Shteir argues that Chicago is crippled by its own misplaced sense of “boosterism.” She argues residents are willfully blind to the city’s darkest problems – for instance, an “anemic economy, the crippling legacy of machine politics, the uncompromising unions and the handful of dynasties running the city.” She writes:

“So Chicago is not Detroit, not yet. But the city is trapped by its location, its past, and what philosophers would have called its facticity — its limitations, given the circumstances. Boosterism has been perfected here because the reality is too painful to look at. Poor Chicago, indeed.”

Expected or unexpected, Shteir’s essay has provoked a firestorm of controversy and commentary. Since it was nationally published on Sunday, it’s electrified Chicago’s “chattering class” – that is, the city’s most prominent writers and opinion makers – to defend its hometown. In the past few days, just about every major news outlet in Chicago has published some sort of reaction.

In Crain’s Chicago Business, cultural historian Bill Savage calls the essay “the sort of hatchet job this town hasn't seen since the Battle of Fort Dearborn in 1812.” Also in Crain’s, columnist Greg Hinz reacts to the piece by quoting British statesman Benjamin Disraeli, who once said, “It is much easier to be critical than to be correct.”

Neil Steinberg of the Chicago Sun-Times – whose place-based memoir You Were Never in Chicago was panned in Shteir’s piece – fears the “contempt” the piece could bring upon Chicago.

In an NBC-5 commentary, Carol Marin says Shteir’s argument made her “blood boil,” calling it “pretentious” and “condescending.” At the Chicago Reader, Michael Miner writes that, as a critic, Shteir may be “driving too fast to steer.” Her case against the city, he says, is “bizarrely overstated.”

Even New York City’s Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson added his voice to the chorus, tweeting that he was "mystified by the offensive, mean spirited & inaccurate attack on Chicago.” He tweets, “A great city deserves better.”

What does this small firestorm say about the way Chicago is viewed by the rest of the country? Or how it handles criticism? Is there anything Chicago can learn from this moment? Rachel Shteir joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm to share her intentions behind the controversial essay.

What are your thoughts about Shteir’s take on Chicago and the resulting backlash? Post your comments below or sound off on our discussion board.