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 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 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.


1 year ago
Posted by Yellowbird73

I addressed the weird defensive reaction to this article at -- I'm with you all the way on this one, Ms. Shteir. I'm shaking my head at the reaction.

1 year ago
Posted by Shawna Atteberry

The thing that bothered me the most wasn't all the Chicago bashing. She didn't review the books. She wrote an op-ed about why she doesn't like Chicago. As a writer I can't imagine finally having a book reviewed in the Times then seeing that my book didn't get reviewed--the reviewer took the opportunity to bash the subject of my book, and not review the book. Plus she is not doing women writers any favors. The Times does not review that many books written by women, and they don't have that many women book reviewers. Publishing an op-ed instead of a review reinforces their sexist belief that women shouldn't be taken seriously in the literary world. She whined that Chicago doesn't have that many women writers, but she didn't do us any favors by writing a fluff piece for the Times Book Review.

1 year ago
Posted by Lynstra

Obviously Shteir doesn't like living here, so her bias doesn't really surprise me. It seems funny that she is so annoyed by Chicago's boosterism. What annoys me is that she didn't bother to mention the things that make this a world-class center of culture: Chicago Symphony, Lyric Opera, Art Institute, and a thriving theater scene—to name some highlights. I guess she's just not into culture.

1 year ago
Posted by MrJM

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.

No further questions, your honor.

-- MrJM

1 year ago
Posted by BRen

"When someone writes about the theater, that person doesn’t just review the play."
Actually, yes, when someone reviews a play, I do expect a review of the play.

Also, she said she hopes to "some day get out of Chicago." Is she in prison? Being held hostage? People move to new cities every day. But she's "too old" to go back to New York. She's 49; how is that too old?

1 year ago
Posted by bucktownpaul

While I like the reality check that Shteir brings in her piece, and it's healthy to do an honest to god assesment now and again, it seems that Shteir wrote this hoping to elicit exactly this type of overwrought response. and I think that's evident in the way she gives short shrift to the actual review of the books. I think her motive was pretty transparent here. The notion that Chicago is anywhere even close to turning into Detroit is beyond ridiculous. the city works well, despite the glaring problems. It bothers me to no end that we can't deal with pensions, which sucks the lifeblood out of our city and state daily. Our political intransigence is starting to take its toll

1 year ago
Posted by Jonnynonos

The problem with Shteir's piece isn't that it bashed Chicago, the problem is that it was a preposterous piece of writing. I will take her central thesis as she reframes it here, that Chicago "could end up like Detroit."

Only one wholly unfamiliar with Detroit would venture such an opinion. The two cities are no more comparable than Dubuque and New York. That isn't Chicago rah-rah-ism; its an acknowledgement of reality expected of people who are capable of differentiating between things like a hamburger and a grapefruit, or a basketball and a feather pillow. Advancing such an idea in 2012 is also utterly ahistorical.

Of course this isn't the writer's first foray into absurdity, as evidenced by her 2010 prognostication that Rahm "doesn't stand a chance" in the mayoral election.

If people are responding to her in a "simpleminded" fashion it's likely because her piece, despite appearing in the New York Times, doesn't merit a thoughtful response.

She seems to me to essentially just be a troll.

1 year ago
Posted by Elizabeth3004

Shawna, an above commenter, hit the nail on the head: What was so irritating about Ms. Shteir's "book review" was that it wasn't a book review at all. The books she mentioned seemed mere afterthoughts. For someone who used the front page of the Times to whine about a city she so hates, you'd think she'd take it upon herself to leave.

This photo is also not doing her any favors: She looks downright miserable. I feel a bit sad for her and hope she finds something that makes her happy.

1 year ago
Posted by Tho

This quote says it all:

"Am I ambivalent about Chicago? Yes. But I’d be ambivalent about New York if I lived there."

She's clearly not happy with life and is taking it out on her immediate surroundings. She complains that people are commenting on her character, but it's because the tone and angle of her piece says far more about her personality than it does about Chicago, and what it says is not good.

1 year ago
Posted by St. George

I don't know why anyone even cares about this person or her opinions. Her claim to fame is being wrong about Emmanuel being elected. Yawn.

1 year ago
Posted by LeighH

Here is my own defensive, knee-jerk reaction: Her essay described a city that seemed at odds with my experience of Chicago. Yes, it is a big city with all the big city problems, like New York City, which I also love.
I live in Seattle now, (unavoidable, unfortunately) and have lived in San Francisco as well, and not a day goes by where I’m not missing some aspect of Chicago, where I could rub shoulders with many different people from all over the world, where I could zip downtown on the el, (I sure miss good mass transportation) walk along leafy side streets, or by the lake, (thanks to some of the smartest urban planning in America) where I could look at gorgeous buildings, go to whatever neighborhood I was in the mood for, walk through the Cultural Center to see the current exhibits, along with those at the Art Institute, eat pierogies for breakfast, eat lunch in Pilsen and dinner at Fulton Market/Randolph where some of the best food in America is being produced. Sit outside with a drink and people-watch, feel the weight of the history and see that history reflected in the architecture and the faces around me. Chicago is beautiful, vibrant, dangerous. OF COURSE there are problems. Of course there is ugliness, but I remember all of these things as well.

1 year ago
Posted by carlosd

She did not really "review" the actual books. Defensive or not, the amazingly consistent negativity towards the city of Chicago by New Yorkers or other outsiders is beyond tedious. I honestly don't know of any other American city that is so consistently criticized at this point on so many levels. Sorry, but Chicago is just not that awful or different from the rest of the country. You'd think we were located in the deepest Amazon the way the city is discussed by outsiders. The irony is that most foreigners and people from the south, midwest, or west tend to love Chicago.
Are there problems here? Absolutely. Are we Detroit? Absolutely not. I'd advise her to spend a day or two in Detroit and see if she can muster some sympathy or understanding from her elitist Princeton background for that broken city.
On another note my respect for the New York Times has dropped a lot from this. Who edits this kind of garbage review of four books anymore? And why would I pay to read it? I also feel sorry for the lousy attention the writers of those books are now getting.

1 year ago
Posted by carlosd

Oh I forgot to bring up her outstanding analysis about how Rahm Emanuel could never be elected mayor of Chicago due to his Jewish background. Absolutely brilliant it was!

1 year ago
Posted by pmarble

I, like Ms. Shteir, came to Chicago from Princeton and New York, but the city I live in is clearly not the one in which she resides. The fact that she cannot accept her fallibility (as evidenced by the hugely wrong piece about which she tries, unconvincingly to change the subject); that her views of Chicago are so personal as to be unhelpful as opinion; and that she cannot grasp that the unrelenting sourness of her piece renders it hard to take for anyone, not merely a Chicago "booster" as she dismissively claims -- all of this combines to make it easy for one to right her off. Smart, sophisticated people bristle at her snide writing, and this "interview," in which she comes of as a nasty snob, does her no favors in that regard.

1 year ago
Posted by pmarble

oops, that should be "write her off"

1 year ago
Posted by Bolano

Apparently, to Ms. Shteir, anything beyond abject despair is "boosterism." Cities have problems, and Chicago is no different, but to imagine that Chicago has anything in common with Detroit is simpleminded in the extreme (and shows a lack of historical context regarding either city). And to be so clueless that she thinks that attacking the character of a city is not going to result in people attacking her character is bizarre...and her thin-skinned response to Neil Steinberg in the coda appending the Q&A above is actually pitiable. If she had offered solutions to the problems she identified, I suspect the reaction would have been quite different. She wants to leave, and that's fine: everyone is entitled to their opinion on any given place. She doesn't need to justify her opinion, any more than her critics. I just wish that she would have admitted her biases and that the New York Times would have considered a different, more objective reviewer. I also hope that she finds happiness, somewhere - no one should be that unhappy.

1 year ago
Posted by Mark M

She looks and acts like a vampire but she can't be because she was looking at her reflection in the mirror while she was writing this hateful article. She needs to go to Wiener Circle at 2 am on the weekend and have a talk with the girls.

1 year ago
Posted by Tally

She looks much older than 49.

1 year ago
Posted by David P. Graf

Hmmm...I always thought that the point of a book review was to review the book itself and not turn it into an "essay" about one's likes and dislikes. After reading her review and this Q&A, I am embarrassed for her. She just doesn't get it.

If she wants to go somewhere else where she would be happier, there's nothing stopping her but herself. We only have one life to live. You shouldn't live a life tainted by regret and I say that with all sincerity and no sarcasm.

1 year ago
Posted by Diandra R.

This woman is an elitist, pure and simple. Well, Ms. Shteir, we're all so sorry you have to slum here in Chicago, which has one of the most vibrant and inventive theater communities in the world, wasting your MFA and DFA in Dramaturgy. New York is surely missing yet another pretentious, shrill, overeducated, anorexic spinster who has had to leave its bosom to make a salary in her chosen field of study. Because apparently you couldn't get a job in NYC, could you, Ms. Shteir?

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