My father, who lived the first 44 years of his life in Cuba and the last 53 years in Chicago, loved driving around the city. He approached even the most routine daily drives with a sense of adventure and a desire to engage with his surroundings. From my perspective as a frequent passenger, these were my father’s personal Rules of the Road:
1. Don’t take a direct route when a roundabout route exists.
2. Avoid expressways and Lake Shore Drive.
3. Drive below the speed limit.
4. If you see someone you know, pull over and say hello.
5. Stop for Cuban coffee twice a day, on the way to work and on the way home.
6. Keep an eye out for “For Rent” or “For Sale” signs or any other indications of change.
7. Never hurry.
Although Neil Steinberg is a journalist and Jewish and younger than me, his terrific book, You Were Never in Chicago, reminds me of my father. Like my father was, Steinberg is a non-native Chicagoan who takes enormous joy in knowing the city well.
Reading Steinberg’s book gave me the same free-fall feeling I had when riding in my father’s car. There are reasons for Steinberg’s referencing in a single chapter the art of writing obituaries, Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, Kup, the Division Street Russian Baths, Oprah Winfrey, Leon Despres, and Steinberg’s brother, but he takes a roundabout route to his destination and he is in no hurry.
Steinberg seamlessly weaves his personal and family history, Chicago history and present-day Chicago into a colorful and at times poetic narrative of life in Chicago over the past thirty-odd years. When I saw in the first pages the names of the early explorers and founding fathers, I wondered whether I really wanted to read the old swamp tale again. But Steinberg offers fresh insights on our city history and he puts them so well:
“By the time St. Louis managed to throw a railroad span across the Mississippi–the celebrated Eads Bridge–the year was 1874 and it was too late: Chicago had passed St. Louis in population four years earlier and St. Louis’s economic fate was sealed. A reminder that the arrival of transformative technology is nothing new, and those who cling to the past risk losing their future.” (p. 13)
Brimming with little-known facts and forgotten names, Steinberg carries us forward into modern times. Here he recalls the gloomy landscape of the late seventies and early eighties:
“There was still a run-down Woolworth’s 5 & 10 on North Michigan Avenue. Parts of the central business district still seemed like a Reginald Marsh painting — seedy stretches of Wells Street along the elevated tracks, shabby little liquor stores. The shell of the old 666 Club standing alone in a parking lot in the South Loop near the ‘Jesus Saves’ neon cross at the Pacific Garden Mission.” (p. 82)
Steinberg arrived in the Chicago area as a Northwestern freshman and, except for a brief period, has never left. In this book, he answers the question, what does it take for someone who didn’t grow up in Chicago to feel like a real Chicagoan? I am not going to reveal the answer, but I will tell you my father came to exactly the same conclusion.
Title: You Were Never in Chicago
Author: Neil Steinberg
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Pub. Date: October 25, 2012
Hardcover: 256 pages