You Were Never in Chicago
What is it about Chicago that elicits such feeling? Chicagoans have been accused of unwarranted boosterism, of inherent corruption, of a certain perceived inadequacy ever since—or maybe even long before—A. J. Liebling’s 1952 three-part essay dubbed Chicago the “Second City.”
That essay elicited its own strong responses, among them a postcard that read, simply, “You were never in Chicago.” Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg co-opts that pithy phrase as the jumping-off point of his memoir/history/travelogue You Were Never in Chicago.
Steinberg, who has been at the Sun-Times for more than a quarter of a century, writes about the city and his experiences in it, with a mixture of nostalgia, cynicism, adoration, and wonder. He shares personal anecdotes as well as the stories of various subjects he’s covered as a journalist here for decades. Names of the well known and the unknown are peppered throughout, from politicians to entertainers to mobsters to fellow journalists and from drug-addled crack mothers to hardware store owners to manufacturing company managers. Steinberg revels in the unusual, the underground, the unique, sharing stories about a Chicago that most readers—even many locals—would usually overlook.
In You Were Never in Chicago, Steinberg spends little time roaming the glittering shops along Michigan Avenue or Oak Street. Instead, readers are taken to visit residents of housing projects, to chat with prostitutes, and to tour factories. Steinberg shares his version of Chicago, a city that may resonate with some readers as familiar and true, but also one that may seem foreign, grittier than they know or would care to admit.
But this is no travel guide. Readers will also find stories about Steinberg, his children, and other family members. Indeed, although it wanders from subject to subject, the book is, at its heart, about the people who make up the city. Yes, yes—he tackles the politics and the corruption, the cronyism and the nepotism, but in the end, You Were Never in Chicago is really about the people who color this great city and make it what it is.
In many ways, this is a love letter to Chicago, written by an Ohio transplant who still marvels at the city on the lake. At times, though, the book gets bogged down in self-indulgent ramblings that seem to veer wide off topic. Chapters are loosely structured, and there is little by way of a cohesive narrative arc that ties it all together. Steinberg opens the book with a chapter titled “Manus manum lavat” (one hand washes the other), and that phrase pops up now and again, and it can—and indeed often does—describe Chicago. But that notion in no way colors the entire text, and one is often left wondering what, exactly, the message is that Steinberg hopes to convey with this book.
Steinberg offers several theories about what makes Chicago the city it is. At one point he muses that “This is what makes Chicago the place it is: you can’t be familiar with it.” Later, he asserts that what is central to the Chicago experience is “the value of knowing people, the grease that connections can provide.” Throughout each chapter, Steinberg ponders what it is that makes Chicago tick. In the end, though, there’s no final assessment, no verdict on what it means to actually have been in Chicago. Maybe Steinberg only wishes to raise the question, to make the reader make that determination on his or her own.
At times thoughtful, at times boastful, at times self-deprecating, You Were Never in Chicago may very well, not unlike Liebling’s essay, elicit many responses from many readers, each with his own take on what makes Chicago Chicago. Although not everyone will love Steinberg’s Chicago, it is a Chicago worth visiting, at least for as long as it takes to read his musings.
November 2012, The University of Chicago Press
$25, hardcover, 247 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen