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2:47 pm
Fri April 26, 2013

'Poor Chicago' Critique Touches Raw Nerve In The Windy City

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. "Poor Chicago," so begins an essay in The New York Times Sunday Book Review. The author uses her review of three books about Chicago to criticize everything from the city's political corruption and murder rate to its cold winters. Most of all, the reviewer calls out the Windy City for its swagger in the midst of all that is wrong. Needless to say, the piece has touched a nerve in Chicago, where NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: DePaul University theater professor and writer Rachel Shteir is quoting a friend from a recent conversation when beginning her review with the words: Poor Chicago. She then adds: Given the number of urban apocalypses here, I couldn't tell which problem she was referring to. Ouch. Shteir then lists many of those problems, including violent crime, racial segregation, corruption, parking meter rates, the abominable weather and, oh, yeah, the Cubs never winning. And yet, Chicago never ceases to boast about itself, Shteir writes. The swagger has bugged me since I've moved here from New York 13 years ago.

JACK D'AMATO: I think she's stayed here 13 years too long.

SCHAPER: Jack D'Amato is one of many lifelong Chicagoans riled up by Shteir's piece.

D'AMATO: If that's the way she feels, she should move back to New York.

SCHAPER: D'Amato says Shteir just doesn't seem to get Chicago.

D'AMATO: She's missing the people. Our people here are a lot more kinder, more generous people than New York. We're not as rude.

SCHAPER: And it's not just regular Chicagoans taking issue with Shteir's essay. A testy mayor, Rahm Emanuel, urges residents to not even bother reading it.

MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: You know, it didn't note that the city of Chicago has the most Nobel Prize winners of any city in America. And they think we shouldn't be proud of ourselves? I'm quite proud of the city of Chicago, and I would recommend that writer, while they've been here in the city of Chicago, go see our city, meet the people, meet our neighborhoods.

SCHAPER: Newspaper columnists, talk radio hosts, bloggers and others are sounding off too. Many call Shteir's piece pretentious, arrogant and condescending. I caught up with Shteir at a cafe near the DePaul University campus, and she says she doesn't hate the city.

RACHEL SHTEIR: I feel a great deal of affection toward Chicago, but I also feel sadness about Chicago.

SCHAPER: And Shteir doesn't apologize for her sometimes harsh words in describing the city's problems.

SHTEIR: These are things that seem stuck to Chicago, so I think that they're apocalypses. I mean, it's a provocative piece.

SCHAPER: Provocative indeed, even at Chicago's comedic institution The Second City.

CARISSA BARECKA: Yes.

ROSS BRYANT: She could have been more scathing.

BARECKA: Oh.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHAPER: Ross Bryant and Carissa Barecka are cast members at The Second City.

BRYANT: I don't think she went far enough.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHAPER: Barecka and Bryant say Shteir isn't wrong about Chicago's problems.

BARECKA: I think the difference between what she's doing and what we do on stage, we put it from a place of love, and she's literally just tearing Chicago down brick by beautiful brick.

BRYANT: The tone of the article seems to be it's like I live here, but I'm not one of those people.

BARECKA: Yeah.

SCHAPER: I asked Barecka and Bryant to tell me their favorite jokes or skits about Chicago. They told me I'd have to buy a ticket for the show.

BRYANT: It's the Chicago way.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHAPER: Indeed, it is. Although I wonder if my alderman can clout me in for free. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Tomorrow, Scott Simon speaks with Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan about an astonishing case: Prosecutors say inmates at the Baltimore Detention Center were working with prison guards to run a drug and cellphone smuggling operation. That's tomorrow on WEEKEND EDITION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.