by Dan Savage
on Fri, Nov 30, 2012 at 11:26 AM
I'm currently rereading You Were Never In Chicago, Neil Steinberg's terrific new memoir. (I read the book in MS form, a year ago, to blurb it—and, hey, full disclosure: someone named "Chicagofan" edited the book.) Steinberg, a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times, was a night reporter at the second city's second daily for many years and covered many a zoning board meeting. Gotta love this:
Covering fires and murders or bumbling into brothels were the exceptions. Many more night shifts were spent at public meetings—though to be honest, the participants at zoning board hearings offer a dimmer view of human nature than murderers and whores do. At least people kill each other out of uncontrolled passion, or naked greed, or gross inebriation, or some other extreme form of human emotion or behavior. Prostitutes are invariably drug addicts feeding a habit; they aren't acting out of the finely calibrated selfishness that prompts sober citizens to line up behind a microphone in a well-lighted room at a zoning board meeting. You can't hope to jam a stick in the ground without all its potential neighbors jostling each other to be the first to explain exactly how the stick will destroy the quality of their lives; how, while playing, their children will stumble against the stick and be abraded, giving rise to fatal infections, or how the stick will eventually start to lean, undermining property values. At such hearings, the distinction between city and suburbs is effectively nil. In the suburbs, every new structure more complex than a mailbox is portrayed as the emotional equivalent of a pit lined with spikes and covered with a grass mat. In the city it's no better: the prospect of a new high-rise condo downtown draws every resident from every surrounding, nearly-identical high-rise constructed within the past ten or fifteen years, people who testify with straight faces that Chicago is full—the city reached its point of maximum human saturation, alas, with the arrival of themselves, and now the addition of even one more person to their neighborhood would, it pains them to report, mark the advent of a nightmarish dystopian world of overload, gridlock, and social breakdown. Oh, and the views from their apartments would be ruined.
Neil's book is terrific. You Were Never In Chicago isn't just for Chicagoans. His take on what a city is—the people that create a city, what it means to live in a city, whether it's possible to love a city (and whether a city ever loves you back)—is for anyone who's interested in urban issues and urban life. (Or, for that matter, what it was like to work at a daily newspaper during the decline and fall of the industry.) Get it here.