The Magazine

Whose Kind of Town?

Understanding the Second City.

Dec 10, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 13 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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And yet: Maybe you have to see Chicago close up to understand the glories it’s still capable of—and the love it can inspire in the beating heart of a stubborn enthusiast, of whom there are millions, Steinberg included. As a writer he’s not given to flights of poetry—not even the rough-hewn, horny-handed, tough-guy prose poetry of other Chicago boosters like Nelson Algren and Sandburg. But at moments the place can leave him a little breathless, as on a fog-wrapped night downtown, with the spires disappearing upwards into the mist: “It is an eerie, marvelous sight, this city of mystery and beauty, half-seen, half hidden, distant yet right there.” He’s quite good at evoking the skyline, the lakefront, and the neighborhoods beyond. He knows that the city’s sheer size and variety are both intimidating and consoling, especially for scribblers.

“A small town is lucky to boast one or two central elements,” he writes. Chicago, on the other hand, “can be whatever a writer wants it to be. .  .  . It can be a city of theater and plays, or music and concerts, or food and restaurants. God knows there’s politics—election and corruption. A bottomless pit of crime, if you prefer, a city of murders and murderers.”

The Chicago that Steinberg has constructed for himself as a columnist has pieces of all of the above. Well, not politics, which bores him and about which, on the evidence here, he has nothing interesting to say. He has an eye for the colorful, an ear for the quirky. Anachronisms please him very much. His favorite haunt in Chicago over the years has been the Division Street Russian Baths, the last survivor of the public bathhouses that once dotted the city; as late as 1965 the park district operated eight of them. They were built for working men. 

The baths were always open, twenty-four hours a day, because people worked three shifts. Men labored in steel mills and slaughterhouses and coal yards—not the type of filth and grime you wanted to wash off in your own home if you could avoid it.

The baths bore no resemblance to the health spas outfitted for today’s urban sophisticates; no sweet-smelling cedar paneling, no chipper attendants in polo shirts. They were subterranean rooms tiled in ceramic and running the length of barns, with lead pipes gushing tap water into pickle buckets and roaring ovens that customers tended themselves with discarded two-by-fours. 

The baths were pre-ironic Chicago. This is a Steinberg specialty: a functional enterprise that had essential uses before the age of affluence arrived to place them in self-conscious quote marks—before anyone got the idea to refurbish decaying tenements with exposed brick walls and Viking ovens, or to open faux “diners” with gouda cheese fries and make-believe “dive bars” selling $12 mocha-appletinis. People lived in that older Chicago not for its cultural amenities or its bistros serving fusion cuisine or its “walkability” or its bikeshare racks; they lived there because it’s where the work was. 

They earned their livelihoods in the factories that Steinberg shows us in the moments before they vanish: the Jays potato chip factory at 99th Street and Cottage Grove; the Chicago Mailing Tube company on North Leavitt; the Brach’s candy plant on Kinzie, which is the largest candy manufacturing plant in the world.

Or was. Like the baths, most of the manufacturing that enthralled Steinberg as a Chicagoan and a columnist are gone. He’s a clear-eyed nostalgist, however. He knows it’s in the nature of cities to change texture and shape—and in the nature of city dwellers to lament the passing of the golden age, which always seems to have ended the day before yesterday. 

Pick whatever era in history seems most exciting, most distinctive, real and alive, then examine that period closely; you will find that Chicagoans of the time were also nostalgic, also troubled by what they considered society’s decline, also confronting a problematic present while mourning some imagined superior past.

In Chicago, the point holds true even in the face of a declining population, the coming fiscal calamity, the murder rate, and those combat-zone schools. Every new era brings its compensations, and even a member of the vast Chicago diaspora will recognize some of them: Neil Steinberg, for example, has replaced Sydney J. Harris. Every reader of this funny and touching book will be grateful. 

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.