Chicago, this may not be the easiest thing to read on New Year's Day. And God knows, you probably don't want to hear this coming from a former Rhode Islander. But today, our day of new beginnings, this time when we pause, reassess and vow to do better in the next 12 months, is the perfect time for Chicago to proclaim: We can take a joke, we can take criticism, we will listen when others say Chicago isn't ideal and (as much as we say we don't) we will not get defensive when people talk smack.
As a native of a state so small that its name will not fit inside its borders on most maps (and instead tends to float listlessly in the Atlantic Ocean) and a native of a city (Providence) that operates in the shadow of Boston, which, in turn, famously operates in the shadow of New York, I understand this mentality.
And I see trouble looming, for two reasons:
The first is a pair of high-profile prospective blockbusters set to arrive in 2014. If it's not too late to toss in a "Christmas Carol" metaphor, they feel like Ghosts of Chicago's Future: "Watch Dogs," a hotly anticipated PlayStation 4 video game (expected to arrive before summer), is set in an intricately mapped Chicago of the near future that turns our metropolis into an intensely paranoid quasi-surveillance state. And "Divergent," the first in a planned trilogy of films adapted from Chicagoan Veronica Roth's young adult best-sellers, imagines a dystopian, insulated Chicago, resistant to dissent, cut off from the rest of the United States.
Beware the soothsayers!
Not so long ago we were the city of bright romantic comedies starring Vince Vaughn. But even the "Batman" and "Transformers" movies made here hinted at a brighter future than "Watch Dogs" and "Divergent." Deeply in debt, with a downgraded credit rating and an abysmal violence problem: Could it be the world sees us differently now?
And, if so, can we take it?
Don't answer yet, because the second reason I see a collective conniption looming for Chicago is how we have handled criticism in the recent past. The last 12 months have been telling in terms of how the world sees Chicago and how Chicago sees the world. And, frankly, we come off thin-skinned, too easily rattled, as vain as Los Angeles.
The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat decides Chicago will lose the tallest-building-in-America title to New York. Our mayor gets publicly dyspeptic (New York magazine: "Sore Loser Rahm Emanuel Bashes One World Trade Center's 'Antenna'"). Jon Stewart says he hates our pizza. We have a hissy fit. Note that the most high-profile song to emerge from Sweet Home Chicago recently is Chief Keef's "I Don't Like," basically a litany of stuff Keef finds unfortunate and disagreeable, thank you very much.
We seem defensive, parochial, ever eager to be called a "world-class city," yet unwilling to listen to the world.
We need a New Year's resolution. Something doable but culturally transformative.
Say it with me:
We, the people of Chicago, will not get apoplectic every time we are criticized. Even by New York. We will speak up for defend ourselves, and we will retain a sense of humor. And we will gain the confidence not to not care so much.
That said, as anyone who ever made a New Year's resolution knows, it's one thing to make a resolution and another to follow through, particularly in the face of adversity. Which is why, a few weeks ago, as universal good will toward man danced in the holiday air, I met with Rachel Shteir for lunch.
She would prove a good test of our new resolve.
Her name should ring a bell: She's a DePaul University theater professor who has written well-received cultural histories (of shoplifting and the striptease, as well as a biography of Gypsy Rose Lee). And, oh yes, eight months ago she wrote a New York Times review of three Chicago books, using the works — "Golden" (about Rod Blagojevich, by Tribune reporters Jeff Coen and John Chase), "You Were Never in Chicago" (a Chicago tribute from the Sun-Times' Neil Steinberg) and "The Third Coast" (a history of the cultural mindset of Chicago, by former Chicagoan Thomas Dyja) — to take the city's temperature.
Her conclusion: "Boosterism has been perfected here," the New Jersey native wrote of her adopted hometown of 13 years and its tendency to throw out its chest, "because the reality is too painful to look at."
OK, now you remember.
Chicago, formerly City of Big Shoulders, turned into City of Big Veiny Foreheads and Snarky Online Passive-Aggression. Shteir's tone annoyed. Her prognosis (not rosy) rankled. She brought up underfunded state pensions for public employees, the history of geographic segregation, the snow, the parking, the Cubs.
Stuff we know about, of course. Except she also alleged an intense self-regard and perverse pride in the city's seemingly endemic problems that have come to resemble mass self-denial. Within a week — though she also had bemoaned the possibility of becoming the next A.J. Liebling (vilified in these parts for dubbing Chicago "the Second City" in The New Yorker) — she became Chicago's biggest literary pariah in recent memory.