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Chicago's mindless boosterism proved in response to New York Times Book Review feature mocking Chicago's mindless boosterism

On Sunday, April 21, 2013, those of us who subscriber to the print edition of The New York Times rose to read a humorous if hyperbolic book review making fun of Chicago on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. Those who subscribe to the Book Review alone had received it the day before (if their mail was delivered). And those who go online for their Times may or may not have gotten to the review. But for those of us who are used to reading credulous "Gee Whiz" reporting in the national and local press about Chicago, it was a breath of fresh air.

The early paragraphs of the essay could have come straight from the main stage at Second City.

And, of course, the outrage from Chicago's boosters -- many of them members of the press corps who should know better -- was as predictable as the weekend murder rate out of the city's ghettos; or the week's eight to twelve corporate media events featuring Chicago's mayor; or the stories most corporate media reporters are ignoring about the hearings on school closings every night and every Saturday for the past two weeks and the next week. (A reprint of the review appears below here at the bottom of this report).

Why the outrage? It was as if some Chicago reporters had decided to prove that the Book Review writer was correct.

Chicago has been getting over-the-top adulatory national media for the past couple of years. The proof comes out every day. I've saved dozens, my favorite being by Jonathan Alter in The Atlantic, which revealed how the reporter had a guy crush on our mayor. But in the city that can't take a joke, as usual the joke this week is on us.

Since Rahmfest — what else can we call it? — began in early 2011, Chicago (mostly via Rahm's 24/7 media offensive, most of it a public expense) has gotten adulatory profiles in The Atlantic and other national publications. The placement of Rahmfriendly PR locally and nationally has spawned one of the strangest media realities in American government. Taxpayers and citizens are subsidizing daily propaganda on behalf of one personality in American politics. Both City Hall's and the Chicago Board of Education's press departments -- at a cost of more than $3 million combined per year -- are devoted to pushing the Rahm Emanuel version of reality full-time. But without the daily coverage from the corporate reporters the game would have been up.

Every day, the "Mayor's Press Office" dutifully, and at taxpayer expense, issues another proclamation about how Rahm and his corporate buddies are holding a media event to proclaim another great increase in "jobs" because of Chicago and Rahm. On April 22, the "news" was that Rahm had a deal with Coca Cola. On April 23, the news was that Rahm was going to do an event with the World Bank. The proclamations are issued daily. More often than not, the press release features two events. Then the corporate reporters are lined up, like trained seals, to sit down, shut up, and take notes. Then the mayor's talking points become "news" in Chicago's two daily newspapers, and often on the TV "news" programs.

Nothing else exists in Chicago but RAHMNEWS + (fill in the blank corporation posing with Rahm). At the various national reports, pundits, posing as reporters, have already rated Rahm a GREAT MAYOR -- even before he was finished with a year in office (soon to be two).

Meanwhile, Rahm is busy slaying the dragon of the FAILING STATUS QUO of "school reform."

Trouble with that Rahm Emanuel myth is that Chicago has had mayoral control (Chicago pioneered it for the USA, then preened and exported Arne Duncan, among others) since 1995. So that TERRIBLE STATUS QUO is -- a product of City Hall school control.

It was very un-Chicago and surprised some people. Of course, Rahm Emanuel is also nothing if not ungrateful (as well as crude-mouthed and racist and classist).

But let's just review the ingratitude part. One of the positives about Chicago is that city leaders prize loyalty. Loyalty can extend through generations. But that's one of the many civic lessons Rahm Emanuel never learned. Since he took office, Mayor Emanuel has been trashing the man who gave him the public part of his career (the private millions of dollars came from others, and that's another story).

Who mentored Rahm and promoted his enormous ego and ambition during his early and much younger years?

Richard M. Daley, the guy who created that "failed status quo."

As everyone reading the latest Rahm scripts knows, Rahm has been denigrating the "failed status quo" in the public schools. This "failed status quo," Rahm claims, requires that Rahm and his Board of Education and his CPS Chief Executive Officer save the schools. Last year, it was by pushing the script about the "Longer School Day". This year, it's by closing 54 of the city's real public schools.

The Rahm now savaging both the public schools and his predecessors is the Rahm Emanuel who worked for Richard M. Daley at City Hall before the Clinton White House picked Rahm Emanuel up on the recommendation of Chicago's mayor. One of Chicago's virtues is loyalty -- something you never have to worry about oozing out of Rahm.

Even without the murder thing; and the segregation thing; and the mindless self-promotion thing; and the corporate buddy thing (not since Mussolini has there been such a marriage of a government leader and corporations -- and what was it called then?), the education problems that corporate school reform created in Chicago should be a national joke -- and a local scandal.

Chicago's problems should be a warning to school districts across the USA. Instead, Chicago is exporting all of them across the USA. With Arne Duncan still in D.C. as U.S. Secretary of Education, our former schools "CEO" (who never taught a day in his life) has been working with his Chicago Boys to undermine the nation's real public schools. So the virus is spreading. Chicago has been exporting "education" leaders with no teaching experience (but Chicago "reform" experience) based on numerous Chicago myths for a decade: Paul Vallas, Arne Duncan, Robert Runcie, Rick Mills, Jennifer Cheatham, and Hosannah Mahaley are just a few of those. Stephen Zrike is decamping from Chicago back to the Boson area after no years of Chicago teaching and fewer than three as a "Chief of Schools." So... Chicago takes one accurate hit and the civic wagons are circled, the booster brigade is unleashed... and Rahm's Chicago proves what the review in Sunday's New York Times already said.

BOOK REVIEW IN NEW YORK TIMES SUNDAY APRIL 21, 2013

Chicago Manuals ‘The Third Coast,’ by Thomas Dyja, and other books...

By RACHEL SHTEIR

“Poor Chicago,” a friend of mine recently said. Given the number of urban apocalypses here, I couldn’t tell which problem she was referring to. Was it the Cubs never winning? The abominable weather? Meter parking costing more than anywhere else in America — up to $6.50 an hour — with the money flowing to a private company, thanks to the ex-mayor Richard M. Daley’s shortsighted 2008 deal? Or was it the fact that in 2012, of the largest American cities, Chicago had the second-highest murder rate and the second-highest combined sales tax, as well as the ninth-highest metro foreclosure rate in the country? That it’s the third-most racially segregated city and is located in the state with the most underfunded public-employee pension debt? Was my friend talking about how a real estate investor bought The Chicago Tribune and drove it into bankruptcy? Or how 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who performed at Barack Obama’s inauguration, was shot dead near the president’s Kenwood home?

BOOKS REVIEWED: THE THIRD COAST. When Chicago Built the American Dream

By Thomas Dyja

Illustrated. 508 pp. The Penguin Press. $29.95.

GOLDEN. How Rod Blagojevich Talked Himself Out of the Governor’s Office and Into Prison

By Jeff Coen and John Chase

Illustrated. 486 pp. Chicago Review Press. $27.95.

YOU WERE NEVER IN CHICAGO

By Neil Steinberg

247 pp. The University of Chicago Press. $25.

Actually, “poor” seems kind. And yet even as the catastrophes pile up, Chicago never ceases to boast about itself. The Magnificent Mile! Fabulous architecture! The MacArthur Foundation! According to The Tribune, Chicago is “America’s hottest theater city”; the mayor’s office touts new taxi ordinances as “huge improvements.” The mayor likes brags that could be read as indictments too, announcing the success of sting operations busting a variety of thugs and grifters.

The swagger has bugged me since I moved here from New York 13 years ago. So I was interested to learn in “Chicago by Day and Night: The Pleasure Seeker’s Guide to the Paris of America” — an 1893 guidebook being reprinted by Northwestern University Press next month — that it initially surfaced in the era of wild growth after the Great Fire of 1871. In their 1909 plan, Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett predicted that by 1950, Chicago would house 13.5 million people.

Today, Chicago has fallen short of such dreams. The city’s population, for example, is currently at 2.7 million, having dropped since a high of 3.6 million in 1950. But the bloviating roars on, as if hot air could prevent Chicago from turning into Detroit.

Before anyone accuses me of being some latter-day A. J. Liebling, whose 1952 book “Chicago: The Second City” infuriated residents, let me say there are some good things about living here. The beauty of Lake Michigan. A former rail yard has become Millennium Park. Thanks to global warming, the winters have softened.

In 1968, Norman Mailer called Chicago “the great American city,” but he was particularly prone to Chicago’s idea of itself. Today, a big part of Chicago’s problem stems from that mythology; while the mayor embarks on a P.R. campaign for the “global” city, many locals cling to its tough-guy, blue-collar, gangster-worship identity.

“Golden,” by Jeff Coen and John Chase, is a case in point. The authors describe the ex-governor Rod Blagojevich’s crookedness by employing Nelson Algren’s garish phrase about Chicago’s founders — “they all had hustler’s blood” — as if being born here predisposes you to graft.

It’s easy to see why Coen and Chase, both reporters at The Tribune, lean on such clichés. Blago is the fourth of the last seven governors in this state to go to jail. “Golden” takes its title from a notorious moment in an F.B.I. wiretap, made public during his 2011 trial, when the ex-governor crowed about selling or trading the president-elect’s Senate seat. “I’ve got this thing and it’s [expletive] golden,” he said.

Relying largely on the public record, Coen and Chase tell Blago’s story, from his poor beginnings on the Northwest side to his trial in a courtroom downtown. They ­recount many details of the ex-governor’s eccentricities, including his Elvis obsession and his helmetlike coif, which he would groom with one of nearly a dozen hairbrushes his staff kept on hand. There are also bizarre moments, like the one in which Blago complains that David Axelrod, then his media consultant, has declined to commit to his gubernatorial race because of an impression that Blago lacks “gravitas.”

“Poor Chicago,” a friend of mine recently said. Given the number of urban apocalypses here, I couldn’t tell which problem she was referring to. Was it the Cubs never winning? The abominable weather? Meter parking costing more than anywhere else in America — up to $6.50 an hour — with the money flowing to a private company, thanks to the ex-mayor Richard M. Daley’s shortsighted 2008 deal? Or was it the fact that in 2012, of the largest American cities, Chicago had the second-highest murder rate and the ­second-highest combined sales tax, as well as the ninth-highest metro foreclosure rate in the country? That it’s the third-most racially segregated city and is located in the state with the most underfunded public-employee pension debt? Was my friend talking about how a real estate investor bought The Chicago Tribune and drove it into bankruptcy? Or how 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who performed at Barack Obama’s inauguration, was shot dead near the president’s Kenwood home?

Today, Chicago has fallen short of such dreams. The city’s population, for example, is currently at 2.7 million, having dropped since a high of 3.6 million in 1950. But the bloviating roars on, as if hot air could prevent Chicago from turning into Detroit.

Before anyone accuses me of being some latter-day A. J. Liebling, whose 1952 book “Chicago: The Second City” infuriated residents, let me say there are some good things about living here. The beauty of Lake Michigan. A former rail yard has become Millennium Park. Thanks to global warming, the winters have softened.

In 1968, Norman Mailer called Chicago “the great American city,” but he was particularly prone to Chicago’s idea of itself. Today, a big part of Chicago’s problem stems from that mythology; while the mayor embarks on a P.R. campaign for the “global” city, many locals cling to its tough-guy, blue-collar, gangster-worship identity.

“Golden,” by Jeff Coen and John Chase, is a case in point. The authors describe the ex-governor Rod Blagojevich’s crookedness by employing Nelson Algren’s garish phrase about Chicago’s founders — “they all had hustler’s blood” — as if being born here predisposes you to graft.

It’s easy to see why Coen and Chase, both reporters at The Tribune, lean on such clichés. Blago is the fourth of the last seven governors in this state to go to jail. “Golden” takes its title from a notorious moment in an F.B.I. wiretap, made public during his 2011 trial, when the ex-governor crowed about selling or trading the president-elect’s Senate seat. “I’ve got this thing and it’s [expletive] golden,” he said.

Relying largely on the public record, Coen and Chase tell Blago’s story, from his poor beginnings on the Northwest side to his trial in a courtroom downtown. They recount many details of the ex-governor’s eccentricities, including his Elvis obsession and his helmetlike coif, which he would groom with one of nearly a dozen hairbrushes his staff kept on hand. There are also bizarre moments, like the one in which Blago complains that David Axelrod, then his media consultant, has declined to commit to his gubernatorial race because of an impression that Blago lacks “gravitas.”

Some of this is familiar, but Dyja zooms in on the qualities Chicagoans value and does it better than anyone else I’ve read: informality; the desire to be “regular”; the conviction among artists that “the process was as important as the product.” These attributes created hospitable conditions for such distinctive genres as Modernist architecture, storefront theater, improv comedy, poetry slams, oral history (perfected by the city patron saint Studs Terkel) and outsider art, even as they alienated writers and artists interested in more than functionality and social reform. Saul Bellow complained about the lack of cafes. “There were greasy-spoon cafeterias, one-arm joints, taverns. I never yet heard of a writer who brought his manuscripts into a tavern.”

Like other chroniclers of mid-20th-­century Chicago, Dyja partly blames the 1955 election of Richard J. Daley for the city’s decline. But he goes further, harnessing Daley’s support of segregation and the political machine to Chicago’s cultural disintegration: Playboy’s founding in 1953 not only commercialized sex, it exemplified the city’s shift from a rich, idiosyncratic art lab championing the individual to a place where only the affluent mattered, a city “demolishing . . . what was best about itself.” The city’s former strengths betrayed it. “Democratizing the arts and knowledge was a Faustian bargain: it put them into the marketplace where the market would determine their ‘value.’ ”

Still, Dyja stumbles when he condemns the University of Chicago, which he depicts as “a place where attacking and defending ideas was honored more than analyzing them.” Having studied there, I can say that the university’s ethereal, argumentative commitments provide a welcome relief from the crude trade-school mentality at many other institutions of higher learning. At the same time, I have often wondered if geographical isolation — the campus is seven miles away from downtown, connected by a highway that circumvents the poor neighborhoods in between — breeds myopia even more devastating than that in the rest of the city. Did Milton Friedman ever see the burned-out projects as he sped along Lake Shore Drive?

Dyja’s book ends with the demolition of almost 6,000 buildings, many of them by Louis Sullivan, between 1957 and 1960. (Only 21 of Sullivan’s structures remain.) And Dyja, whose book jacket boasts that Studs Terkel once described him as “a real Chicago boy,” falls victim to a bit of wistfulness too: “Chicago never became the city it could have been.”

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.



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