The Magazine

Whose Kind of Town?

Understanding the Second City.

Dec 10, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 13 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Twenty years ago an editor for the Chicago Sun-Times told Neil Steinberg—at the time a young reporter for the paper—that he might someday become the next Sydney J. Harris, and Steinberg, for reasons unclear, did not punch him in the kneecaps. Harris was dead by then, but from the 1950s to the 1980s he had tortured Sun-Times readers with a column composed of nothing but aphorisms, sententious squibs, little dollops of uplift that were so banal or dubious they perversely compelled a reader’s attention.

Mayor Richard J. Daley overlooking a public-works project (1966)

Mayor Richard J. Daley overlooking a public-works project (1966)


 “The greatest enemy of progress is not stagnation, but false progress,” Harris would write, letting the sentence hang there all alone in a sea of newsprint until an asterisk pulled a reader’s eye, kicking and screaming, down to the next one: “The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it.” And so on, for a good 10 inches or more, day after day, four days a week. No reporter could have pondered a career as a neo-Sydney J. Harris without a soul-deep shudder. 

Maybe Steinberg is a more forgiving guy than he lets on. As it happens, he did grow up to be a columnist for the Sun-Times—and a four-day-a-week man, too, like Harris. The two columnists are alike in one other (and only one other) respect: They are both distinctively Chicago products. It’s hard to imagine, I mean, another newspaper market in which such odd ducks could not only survive but flourish, developing large and loyal readerships. But then the history of Chicago journalism is rich in newspapermen who were, as they seldom say in Chicago, sui generis—from George Ade to Carl Sandburg and Ring Lardner; Ben Hecht to Mike Royko and Bill Mauldin.

 Steinberg’s new book is a pleasing blend of what makes him and his city distinctive. You Were Never in Chicago is a sort-of memoir of his professional life, a kind-of love letter to the city—a scrapbook, as it were, of Chicago eccentricities. Unlike most columnists who get called “humorists,” Neil Steinberg is a funny writer. A nebbish, too. One of his first books, A Complete and Utter Failure, was a “celebration” of history’s greatest flops and disappointments. The reluctance of readers to wallow in unhappiness helped the book live up to its title, at least commercially. 

Another book ventured into the hottest genre in publishing: chronicles of the business world—except the story Steinberg chose to chronicle was the collapse of American hat manufacturing. He also wrote about a transatlantic voyage he took with his estranged father in a touching attempt at reconciliation; by the book’s conclusion, the two disliked each other more than they had at the beginning. A memoir of his harrowing struggle with alcoholism was accompanied by an acknowledgment that, knowing himself as he did, he’d probably start drinking again before too long. Imagine Mitch Albom—if Albom had spent 35 straight winters in Chicago. 

A celebration of Chicago just now might seem like another of Steinberg’s adventures in perversity. Nobody knows, of course, whether the rough patch the city is moving through at the moment is merely a glum episode or a further stage in a long and irreversible decline. Its newly minted status as the murder capital of the world is just the start. It also has the largest street-gang membership of any city in America, and, by many measures, the worst public schools. And while most cities of comparable size face the same fiscal cyclone of unfunded debt obligations, the refusal of Chicago’s political class to reckon with impending solvency is San Bernardino-like in its obstinate stupidity. 

All 50 city council members are Democrats. True to their faith, they have created a tax and regulatory environment ferociously hostile to any business they don’t like. It took Walmart nearly a decade of petitions and hearings and waivers to open a store where residents of the forsaken South Side could work and shop. The city levies one of the highest sales taxes in the country and imposes a head tax on suburban commuters. 

If you tax something, the economists say, you get less of it, and so fewer and fewer people bother to seek work in the city. The private sector has shrunk accordingly. The top two employers in Chicago are the federal government and the public school -system, followed close behind by the city and county governments. The city lost 200,000 residents between 2000 and 2010.  

Still more shocking, according to recent data, 25,000 of those who fled Chicago in the last decade chose to move to Rockford, Illinois. Have you ever seen Rockford?