Tony D'Souza Answers Book Review Slam of His Home Town

[This is the opening of the lead book review in the recent issue of the NYTIMES Sunday edition. The review was written by Rachel Shteir. It appeared last Sunday. Chicagoan, and RPCV novelist, Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000-02, Madagascar 2002-03), sent his reply to the editor of the Book Section. Read those paragraphs of the review and you’ll see why Tony send a Letter to the Editor. Check it out. The message is: don’t mess with a Chicago writer!]

Published: April 21, 2013

RACHEL SHTEIR wrote:capture

“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?

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.


Letter to the Sunday Books Editor of The New York Times sent by Tony D’Souza:

TONY D’SOUZA wrote:tony

NY City Councilman Daniel Halloran and five others face election rigging charges, and yet New Yorker Rachel Shteir calls Chicago uniquely corrupt and reduces my whole city to Rod Blagojevich? Did you not notice, Ms. Shteir, that we put Blago in prison? That we’ve given you Obama for two terms in the White House?

From a lifelong Chicagoan included in Granta’s “Chicago” issue that Shteir takes such umbrage with, I wonder why the unhappy Ms. Shteir lives here? She cherry-picks our worst and ignores our best, paints an untrue portrait of the economic renaissance we’ve had since the mid 1990’s. She wasn’t here then, has no idea how much the city has been greened, made walkable, more integrated and safer. “Beirut on the Lake” is gone, and we’ve gotten our history right, lionizing the late African-American mayor Harold Washington and relegating Fast Eddie Vrdolyak to ignominy.

Ms. Shteir’s books, “Striptease,” “The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting,” practice the same prurient “gangster-worship” she levels at us. Ms. Shteir, I hope you’ve impressed your New York friends. You’ve only made new enemies here.

Tony D’Souza
1076 W. Roosevelt Road
Chicago IL 60608
Author of Whiteman and Mule
Writing from Chicago


Leave a comment
  • Oh, we Chicagoans do so have boosterism some embedded into our DNA. Criticism hurts since we have worked so hard from–when?–the Chicago Fire in 1871 to build a city that we not only enjoy, but will get us world respect. We can’t stop praising its wonders. And that can be annoying to strangers, which, of course, Rachel Shtier seems to have remained. We always ask those without a proper Chicago birthright to adopt the ardent enthusiasm of converts–and when they do not, we drop our Midwestern civility and attack. Maybe Shtier deserves it. She’s so dour. And as Tony suggests she fails to understand how much better the city has become in the last 40 years. And how changed it has become as once again it shuffles its new immigrants through its neighborhoods. I loved growing up in the city in the 1950s and early 60s. I abandoned it in the 1963 to join Peace Corps — and though I would never come back. But I did in the ’80s as, if you will, a foreign correspondent for TIME magazine, looking at the place with fresh eyes — and renewed admiration. But again moved on to other cities of the world at TIME’s behest: Boston, Tokyo, London, Washington. But each time I return to Chicago for a visit, I think: ahh, yes, this is a great place.

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