Nothing that either man or nature can do, apparently, can check the growth of this city that has spread back from the lake like a prairie fire. … Young as she is, Chicago has become the pace-maker of the world. —Newton Dent,
Munsey’s Magazine, April 1907

In 1890 Chicago passed Philadelphia in the national census and became the country’s second city in population, having risen dramatically from the ashes of the 1871 fire, doubling in size since 1880. Throughout the 19th century Chicago had been reputed to be a place where, in Mark Twain’s words, “they are always rubbing the lamp, and fetching up the genii, and contriving and achieving new impossibilities.” By the 1893 World Columbian Exposition the city had established itself as the country’s central railway depot; its grain broker, lumberyard, and meat packer; the home of its largest retailer; soon to become its most productive forger of steel. With its fearsome industrial power, its magnetic appeal to the entrepreneurial, the innovative, and the artistic, Chicago seemed the center of modern American civilization, its driving engine–certain eventually to surpass New York, and perhaps even London, in population, wealth, and possibly grandeur. “This Florence of the West,” Theodore Dreiser called it, his prose reflecting the city’s turn-of-the-century flamboyance. “This singing flame of a city, this all-America. . . . The grip of Caesar in its mind, the dramatic force of Euripides in its soul.”

Fifty years later the engine had stalled, the grip of Caesar slackened. By mid-century the railways had already begun their long decline, the steel industry desperately needed retooling, and the meat packers were shifting their operations westward. Regional transit and public thoroughfares were deplorably inadequate, housing was scarce–except in the slums, then considered the nation’s worst–and municipal government was scandalously corrupt, unable or unwilling to deal with Chicago’s daunting economic and social problems.

With its population at 3.6 million, the city was still the country’s second largest. But by 1950 the middle class had begun its migration to the suburbs, and Los Angeles, having grown by 30 percent since Pearl Harbor, was gaining fast on the outside. It was unlikely that Chicago would retain its hold on second place for long, let alone ever challenge New York for first.

In October 1949, A.J. Liebling leased an apartment with his second wife and her teenage daughter on the city’s near north side. Known then primarily for his New Yorker profiles, his war correspondence from North Africa and France, and his criticism of the press, Liebling had recently left his staff position at the New Yorker to write a series of articles on Henry Luce and Colonel Robert McCormick for Collier’s magazine. The assignment was a lucrative one, and Liebling hoped eventually to convert the material into a profitable book. But the owners of Collier’s apparently found the caustic tone of his first installment unsuitable for their audience, and terminated the contract before he got to McCormick. Family responsibilities forced Liebling to remain in Chicago until the summer of 1950, when he returned to the east coast to resume his position at the New Yorker. In January 1952 he published the first of three articles describing his experiences in and impressions of Chicago. Appearing in consecutive issues of the New Yorker, the articles were entitled “So Proud to Be Jammy-jammy,” “At Her Feet the Slain Deer,” and “The Massacree.”

The “massacree” was, of course, the one that occurred in a Clark Street garage on Saint Valentine’s Day 1929, and “jammy-jammy” was a presumed Chicagoism Liebling overheard at Sportsman’s Park, the equivalent of “chummy” or “palsy-walsy.” The “slain deer” was a literary allusion, deriving from an extended metaphor concocted by an unnamed Tribune reporter in 1893 to glorify the opening of the Columbian Exposition. Liebling quoted it almost in full: “‘In her white tent like Minnehaha . . . stood Chicago yesterday morning and gazed out on a sapphire lake . . . and her Hiawatha, her World Lover, came to her, and laid at her feet the slain deer, the tribute of universal admiration and love.'” Liebling’s mordant response typified his attitude toward the city: “At the world’s feet, Chicago, in return, laid a butchered hog.”

To Liebling Chicago was hardly a city at all, a “not-quite metropolis,” its tall lakefront buildings merely “a theatre backdrop with a city painted on it,” masking “a boundless agglutination of streets, dramshops, and low buildings without urban character.” The neighborhoods, the wards beyond the Loop where the majority of its citizens lived and worked, appeared variously throughout these articles as “an autonomous dreariness,” an “endless succession of factory-town main streets,” or “a large expanse of juxtaposed dimnesses.” In fact, according to Liebling, its middle and wealthier classes sought to escape its confines every evening, commuting en masse to the suburbs and abandoning “the exiguous skyscraper core and the vast, anonymous pulp of the city, plopped down by the lakeside like a piece of waterlogged fruit.”

Calumny like this was not to be ignored, of course, and the New Yorker editorial offices were soon flooded with mail from the midwest. But a surprising number of the letters commended Liebling, and many of the angry correspondents could only condemn the messenger for exposing the ugly truth about their hometown–for violating, according to Liebling, the dictum De mortuis nil nisi bonum (loosely translated: “Don’t speak ill of the dead”). Encouraged by the strong reaction and wishing to take advantage of the considerable attention Chicago was then receiving as the site of both the Democratic and the Republican national conventions, Liebling collected the three articles into a small volume, padding it out with an introduction, several full-page Saul Steinberg drawings, and extracts from some of the more colorful letters. He also apologized for several errors–having relocated Wilmette’s Baha’i Temple in Evanston, for instance–although the text remained unchanged, probably due to the urgent publication schedule. The book appeared in the late spring of 1952 under the title Chicago: The Second City, and it seems that ever since that time the label has been reserved for Chicago alone and rarely applied without pejorative intent.

Liebling left Chicago’s terrain almost as scorched as it had been in 1871. With all the dyspeptic glee of a Mencken at play in the fields of the booboisie he ridiculed its institutions, its leadership, its pretensions, its culture, and its spirit. He demeaned its business leaders, “the mail-order giants and puffed-fluff kings,” and considered the financial community to be second-rate, its stock exchange “specializing in Midwestern issues of not quite national magnitude,” its banks unlikely to attempt “ventures on the grand scale.” Although the city still had its share of pirates–it remained the home of Bally Manufacturing, “the one-armed bandit business,” and its saloon keepers were adept at fleecing customers, the B-girls fastening themselves to conventioneers “like tugboats to an incoming liner”–its ruthless entrepreneurial spirit, the “buccaneering drive” that had earlier fueled its phenomenal growth, was dead.

Particularly disappointing to Liebling, one of the period’s few serious critics of journalism, were the city’s newspapers, once renowned for their nurturing of literary talent and investigative reporting. Both the Daily News and the Herald-American, he discovered, had been neutralized by absentee publishers, and of course he could not be expected to stomach the “foam-flecked-lips” editorials and “dreamworld” of Colonel McCormick’s Tribune. The Sun-Times launched impressive (albeit futile) crusades against municipal corruption, but the space it devoted to other news was “below the intellectual subsistence level.”

Chicago was still the home of a great printing industry, but other than railroad timetables and telephone directories, Liebling found little publishing of significance. The writers and journalists had fled–Ben Hecht, he pointed out, had been residing in Nyack for some time–and columnists like Milton Mayer, Sydney Harris, and Irv Kupcinet had taken their place. “For a city where, I am credibly informed, you couldn’t throw an egg in 1925 without braining a great poet, Chicago is hard up for writers,” he wrote, and although Nelson Algren “had stuck by his West Side Poles,” the rest of “the stark Chicago realists” had emigrated to the east coast, Hollywood, or Europe, leaving behind a literary vacuum.

Nor did the other arts offer Liebling any compensatory sustenance. He neglected to comment on the city’s museums and artists, and even ignored Chicago’s reputation as a laboratory for modern urban architecture, although he couldn’t resist a swipe at Colonel McCormick’s empire, calling the Tribune Tower an excellent example of “Wedding-Cake Gothic,” lacking only the crowning touch of “a gigantic double scoop of ice cream, topped by an illuminated cherry.”

Liebling was an avid patron of the theater and the concert hall, and in these areas found Chicago remarkably deficient. Except for performances by occasional traveling companies, the Civic Opera House was dark; as a theater town, he said, the city was “outclassed by Oslo.” His opinion of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conveyed both contempt for its audience and faint praise for its merits: “That it is a pleasant orchestra to listen to when it plays good music is seldom mentioned in print or over cocktails.”

In place of the theaters were strip joints, all of them with “a permanent window sign reading ‘Welcome Conventioneers.'” The convention trade also seemed to have degraded the quality of Chicago’s restaurants, which for the most part required floor shows or food served on flaming swords or “six cowboy violinists in fringed pants to play ‘Tales from the Vienna Woods,'” or some other such gimmick to attract patrons. The locals ate at home or dined out on “pig’s ribs” doused in barbecue sauce. This lack, incidentally, of what he considered to be fine cuisine was a particular hardship for Liebling, who was to become a gourmet of substantial reputation and girth. (One of his only books still in print is Between Meals, a memoir of his early culinary adventures in the bistros of Paris, a sort of glutton’s coming-of-age.)

The sporting scene was equally dispiriting. A great fan of boxing and one of its best chroniclers, Liebling discovered little enthusiasm for the sport in Chicago, and the action at Sportsman’s Park, the nearest racetrack, was what “one would expect to find at a county-fair meeting.” He also considered Chicago baseball fans to be lacking in both spirit and faith, accusing them of failure to support the Cubs or the White Sox, both of which had been languishing for some time in the second divisions of their leagues. (In this instance Liebling was clearly mistaken, having confused a healthy inbred skepticism with indifference.)

The single spectacle that appealed to him was the International Livestock and Horse Show, which he preferred to the stiffer New York version. Yet his patronizing depiction of the “maneuvers by a club of Midwestern Arabian horse fanciers” also seemed to confirm his view of Chicago as a town whose tastes were dictated by successive waves of conventioneering yokels: “The bifocals bounced on the noses of the Sheiks-for-a-night and their ladies as the pearls of the Iowa desert bore them swiftly past the hot-dog stand.”

He opened the third and final chapter, “The Massacree,” with a relatively straightforward account of Chicago’s housing shortage and its simmering racial tensions (“Chicago’s greatest present danger,” according to Liebling), which had erupted in the Cicero riots the previous summer. These were not suitable subjects for light treatment, although Liebling did find some amusement in the antics of the City Council and its inability to deal with such crises. From this depiction of municipal paralysis he turned to the political impotence and intellectual pretensions of the lakefront liberals. Then, having apparently exhausted his own fancy, he inserted an interview with Paddy (“Everybody Gets Something”) Bauler, the 43rd Ward’s notorious alderman, always a sure thing for any out-of-town journalist in need of lively copy.

Liebling closed the essay with a portrayal of Chicago’s schizophrenic affair with the Mob. Reluctant to admit their civic pride in the deeds of Capone and Company, Chicagoans nevertheless hearkened back nostalgically to the age of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, when their city was at least number one in something. But people were no longer eliminated in such numbers and in so many spectacular ways, and Liebling audaciously suggested that the Syndicate had become largely a fiction, a shadowy front for a vicious and corrupt government. He left his Chicagoans lamenting the demise of “their great tradition . . . in the plight of the Greeks at the beginning of history, when the gods commenced ceasing to manifest themselves.”

Abbot Joseph Liebling would seem to have personified every midwesterner’s nightmare of the superior eastern cosmopolite, ever on the prowl for the provincial and eager to sharpen his pen against unsophisticated ways. Born on the Upper East Side, Liebling was a resident of Manhattan for much of his life, and most of his earlier works–particularly his New Yorker pieces–were drawn from his observation of its streets and citizens. With his wide social circle and his appreciation for New York’s considerable cultural offerings, he probably would have regarded a lengthy stay anywhere else as an exile.

With the exception of Paris. As a boy Liebling traveled to France several times with his family, and he lived on the Left Bank as a student for a year. In late 1939 he replaced Janet Flanner as the New Yorker Paris correspondent, fleeing from the Germans only hours before they occupied the capital. He was one of the first journalists to return to the liberated city, and he visited Paris and Europe frequently thereafter.

Yet despite his cosmopolitan tastes and a formidable intellectual arsenal (he was a friend of Camus and well acquainted with Sartre and his work), Liebling was not a snob. One of his complaints about the Chicago cocktail parties he attended was that he was constantly being “conversationally impaled by determined ladies who want to discuss Lionel Trilling” when he would have preferred arguing about football or the proper serving temperature of beer. If anything, he was susceptible to reverse snobbism, more at ease with the rank and file than the celebrated or powerful, fascinated by the con man and hustler, attracted to the lower depths and the declasse. According to Raymond Sokolov (author of Wayward Reporter: The Life of A.J. Liebling, from which much of this biographical material is drawn), he considered his beat the back alleys of Broadway, the Lower East Side, the Bowery dives, the racetrack, and Stillman’s Gym. His New Yorker profiles were often of figures like Father Divine (a flamboyant black evangelist); Samuel Burger (a cockroach-race promoter), and other assorted pitchmen, hangers-on, and minor-league impresarios.

He might even have grown fond of Paddy Bauler if he’d settled in Chicago for a longer time. But in the fall of 1949 he realized that his move from New York had been a mistake, to be reversed as soon as possible. His lucrative contract with Collier’s–which he had hoped would lead to greater recognition, wealth, and independence–was canceled within weeks of his arrival, leaving him in debt with no immediate source of income and in unfamiliar territory. With a new wife and daughter to support, he surely felt pressured and isolated, and even though he was to remain in Chicago for less than a year, he took at least four extended trips out of town, primarily on free-lance assignments. As soon as his stepdaughter’s school term ended, he leased an apartment on Riverside Drive and returned to his desk at the New Yorker, where he would be obliged, to quote his editor Harold Ross, to “eat crow.”

Liebling’s personal and financial setbacks probably added some bile to his dyspeptic view of Chicago. But other factors contributed far more to his literary demolition of the town. Liebling had first visited the city in 1941 to interview the leaders of the America First Committee for an article on propaganda. There he was informed by General Robert E. Wood, the committee’s chairman and chairman of the board of Sears, Roebuck & Company, that the concerns of the eastern seaboard did not represent the interests of America, “whose rich, red heart,” Liebling was told, “beat within the walls of the Chicago Board of Trade.” Wood appeared untroubled by the possibility of a German victory in Europe; in his eyes, according to Liebling, preoccupation by a U.S. citizen with any other nation than his own was “treasonable.”

Such an attitude appalled Liebling, who had been steeped in European culture and whose beloved France was just then being dismembered by the Third Reich. Although he wore his Jewish heritage lightly, he had always been a fervent anti-Nazi, considering anti-Semitism as only one of the Nazis’ many barbaric manifestations, and when he returned to New York after the fall of France he was deeply troubled by the American refusal to recognize its serious implications. Views like Wood’s seemed not only indecent but dangerously shortsighted at a time when the United States was, in Liebling’s words, “as naked of armament as a garden worm.” The fact that Wood and his committee were supported by numerous Chicago business leaders–including a representative from Quaker Oats as well as “the man who made Spam and a man who made steel and a man who had investments in salt, teletype machines, and wristwatches”–could not have endeared the town to Liebling.

And, of course, there was Colonel Robert McCormick, the man who had drawn him to Chicago in the first place. Liebling, once a low-salaried reporter and a charter member of the Newspaper Guild, considered most newspaper publishers to be advocates of the rich and powerful, enemies of both the working class and the truth. But McCormick was a special case, not only for his fervent isolationism but for his rabid hatred of the British: he firmly believed they were conspiring with the Communists to dominate the world and had already succeeded in extending their empire to the banks of the Hudson River. For years Liebling had been taking potshots at McCormick, particularly in his “Wayward Press” critiques of journalism featured in the New Yorker after the war. Often merely quoting from McCormick’s paper was sufficient, as Liebling did in his November 1946 column on a Tribune series called “The Alien East: A Thing Apart From America,” ostensibly a review of the New York media. Tribune correspondent Charles Gotthart contended that New York newspapers had replaced “patriotism with Anglomania” and that a “pattern of Anti-Americanism” could be found in such Luce magazines as Time, Life, and Fortune. Gotthart also asserted–and again Liebling quoted him directly–that a “considerable pink has colored the political complexion of Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, and Harper’s.” In a subsequent column Liebling cited a radio address during which the colonel himself declared that “if New York were destroyed, with it would be destroyed all the subversive elements of our country.”

Such idiocy was laughable to Liebling, but by the time he arrived in Chicago in late 1949 accusations like “subversive,” “anti-American,” and “pink” were not to be taken lightly. Liebling was as distressed by the rhetoric and extremism of the early days of the Cold War as he was by its isolationist antecedents, and the HUAC investigations that were accelerating at that time not only outraged his sense of justice but also threatened many of his friends and associates. (Alger Hiss, among others, was a close acquaintance.) Despite his editor’s desire to insulate the New Yorker from language and themes that might subject it to government scrutiny, many of Liebling’s “Wayward Press” pieces exposed the emptiness of the red-baiters’ accusations and the mendacity of the publishers who devoted so much coverage to this “long, dreary exhibition of prosecution by innuendo.”

Little of these Cold War polemics slips into the pages of Chicago: The Second City. But Liebling rarely overlooked the opportunity to heap abuse on McCormick, and he included a long sequence ridiculing one of the colonel’s buffoonish performances on The Chicago Theatre of the Air, a variety program broadcast from the Tribune Tower. He considered McCormick “the town’s tutelary deity” and one of the “molders” of the city, along with Al Capone and Samuel Insull. In that overheated political climate, his impressions of Chicago were surely influenced by his belief that its government was “just a front for Colonel McCormick and for the railroads that don’t want to be moved off the streets and for the landlords who don’t want to lose the swollen rents from their hovels and for all the nice, earnest people who . . . really don’t want anything changed if it costs money.”

Liebling probably overestimated McCormick’s political clout and the extent to which his ideology controlled public opinion. But he was certainly accurate about the city’s inability to effect change. Nor should he have been expected to ignore its government’s corruption and its visible links to organized crime. Although he was again overreaching when he proposed that the Syndicate was a myth fostered by city officials to divert attention from their own graft, Chicago’s reputation for municipal malfeasance was well earned, and in the early 50s was greatly enhanced by a series of nationally publicized scandals, including exposures of a cigarette-tax counterfeiting ring, gangs of phantom workers on the public payroll, and the execution of two teenagers by a police detective. The early years of the decade were also enlivened by six political murders and scores of bombings, several of them connected with the Mob’s attempt to coerce butchers and restaurant owners to replace hamburger with mule- and horse-meat. The Kefauver Committee visited Chicago in 1950 to investigate criminal infiltration into legitimate businesses, and shortly after Chicago: The Second City appeared the director of the Chicago Crime Commission, Virgil Peterson, published Barbarians in Our Midst, confirming many of the Kefauver Committee’s findings.

Nor was Liebling exaggerating the thinness of Chicago’s literary and artistic offerings. “When Chicago gets going,” Eugene Field had written earlier in the century, “she’ll make culture hum.” But by the time Liebling arrived on the scene the hum had been reduced to a mumble. As Liebling observed, the Civic Opera House had been without a resident company since 1932, and by 1953 the CSO–with its eccentric programming, budgetary crises, and unpopular directors–had become “the Sick Man of Chicago,” as Time called it. Writing in the July 1951 issue of Theatre Arts, which featured the state of the arts in Chicago, Richard Gehman announced that “nobody in his right mind” could deny that theater in Chicago was “a dead duck.” Burton Rascoe, the city’s most influential critic in palmier days, agreed that, other than a handful of imports, theater had disappeared in Chicago, its legitimate houses having almost all been converted into movie palaces. Arthur Todd, writing in the same issue, reported that dance was “in the doldrums.” Once a showcase for the talents of Ruth Page and Katherine Dunham, Chicago was now just “part of the great American road,” homegrown dancers leaving “for bigger things as soon as they can.”

The writers had left too–seemingly Chicago was more famous for those who had decamped than for those who stayed on. Ernest Hemingway, Richard Wright, Edna Ferber, James T. Farrell, John Dos Passos, James Gould Cozzens–and these were only the novelists–had all abandoned what Mencken had identified in the 20s as “the literary capital of the nation.” Albert Halper, a Chicago expatriate himself, writing in the 1952 convention issue of the New York Times Magazine, blamed this exodus on an “insularity” that “has driven the bulk of the creative talent from the city that nurtured it.” A few months earlier in Holiday magazine another ex-Chicagoan, Harry Hanson, claimed that “most writers simply could not extract from Chicago’s spiritual atmosphere enough oxygen upon which to live.”

Artists also had trouble surviving. In a 1951 Atlantic Monthly essay the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, Daniel Catton Rich, admitted that most of the gifted painters and sculptors had emigrated to one of the coasts, leaving behind only their teachers and those doing “penance in commercial art.” That same year in Theatre Arts Emily Genauer attributed these defections to the absence of commercial galleries, all of which had failed because Chicago collectors preferred buying their art in New York or Paris. Without the galleries to exhibit and sell their works, the region’s artists had to establish studios elsewhere, resulting in what Genauer called “an irreparable loss to the city’s cultural life.”

Once the site of the nation’s most ambitious and innovative urban architecture, Chicago had added no significant structures to its skyline since the Field Building in 1934. A pair of Mies van der Rohe apartment blocks in the new International Style rose along Lake Shore Drive in the early 50s, but the city of the big shoulders would have to wait until the middle of the decade for its next skyscraper. Beyond the lakefront, the dreariness that had so appalled Liebling was also noted by others. Joseph Duffy, writing in Commonweal in 1954, was struck equally by “the hubristic thrust of the Loop” and “the countless miserable acres of ugliness behind,” and Halper discovered “an impenetrable jungle” in those same “gray guts of this Midwest colossus.”

Halper conceded that Chicago was “the convention city of the nation.” But for him this signified a ceaseless stream of “Elks, Moose, Redmen, Shriners, Rotarians . . . furniture dealers, dry goods men, butchers, Bible students, chiropodists, and hairdressers.” Whatever the economic benefits, many would probably have agreed with Liebling that such invasions led to a flattening and devaluation of cultural and entertainment options, as the city, like some trans-Caucasian bazaar along the Silk Route, strove to placate and exploit eager and undiscriminating hordes of merchants and travelers. In his Theatre Arts critique of Chicago nightlife William Leonard described a city “infested with ‘strip and clip’ joints,” insisting that “the number of legitimate night spots offering entertainment any more elaborate than a dance band has dwindled practically out of sight.” Chicagoan Irv Kupcinet, writing for Holiday in 1951, disagreed, maintaining that there was still “plenty of life in the Old Town yet.” Still, he too portrayed a nightlife dominated by the convention trade (and traveling salesmen, whom he added to the mix). “Nowhere in America,” he wrote, presumably in the city’s defense, “are there more or better strippers. Nor as bold.”

In 1953 Alson J. Smith published Chicago’s Left Bank, a hodgepodge of literary, artistic, and historical commentary, and since he was examining the contemporary scene found he couldn’t ignore “a modern writer cerebrating in a New York magazine” who had denigrated Chicago as the second city. Smith struggled to demonstrate that Chicago was not “a cultural Sahara,” but he made a poor case. Conceding that the city never recovered from “the wallop in the ego” inflicted by the Depression, he uncovered some signs of activity; but other than Nelson Algren and Ivan Albright, most of the writers and artists he named would be recognized by few today. He was optimistic about the future of Chicago architecture (though he admitted construction was pretty much at a standstill) and Chicago-style jazz (though most of its practitioners were based elsewhere), and he closed by praising the accomplishments of the University of Chicago: “Great Books courses; B.A.’s for bobby-soxers; atom bombs.”

(Liebling, incidentally, did not leave the University of Chicago untouched in Chicago: The Second City. Although he did not discuss what the atom bomb–which had its genesis under the Stagg Field football stands–might portend for the city, he did feel that the university’s innovative policy of admitting high schoolers had turned the campus into “the greatest magnet for neurotic juveniles since the Children’s Crusade.”)

“Chicago is, and has been since its beginning, the center of Americanism in the United States,” declared Colonel McCormick in a 1951 Holiday tribute to the city, and it was this kind of boosterism, with its undertone of chauvinism and self-satisfied cant, that was sure to draw the fire of an eastern sharpshooter like Liebling. But at mid-century McCormick’s celebratory yawp seemed an echo out of the past, and even those who found in Chicago a reflection of the national spirit recognized there both the brighter and darker sides of the American experience. To Duffy the city was “a symbol of undiscriminating power–an aspect of America itself.” Yet he refused to ignore the brutality of that power, and condemned Chicago for its indifference to beauty, intelligence, and taste. Halper identified in Chicago “clearer than [in] any other community the entire nation’s achievements and faults. Here is corruption and violence, and here are accomplishments and hope. Here indeed is America.” Others were content to make a virtue of the negative, so long as achievements and faults were both on a grand scale. “Where else will one find a lake so blue-green, vast and cold–and a river so rotten with scum and filth?” wrote Alson Smith, stringing together a series of clashing images. “Where else will one find clean cloud-piercing buildings . . . looking down on the worst slums in the New World? Where will one find so many preachers? . . . Where so many crooks, con-men, gangsters? Where so many good-looking stenographers? Where so many strip-teasers?”

In Chicago: The Second City Liebling saw such schizophrenic juxtapositions as being typical of Chicago boosters, who seemed to value quantity over quality and whose voices often rang as hollow as that of any pitchman defeated by the tawdriness of his goods. Liebling admitted that the city may once have approximated “the great, howling, hurrying, hog-butchering, hog-mannered challenger for the empire of the world.” But somewhere along the line–most likely at the onset of the Depression–“it stopped as suddenly as a front-running horse . . . with a poor man’s last two dollars on its nose,” and by 1950 it was suffering from advanced stages of economic arteriosclerosis. In fact Liebling attributed the isolationism of its business leaders to their disappointment at the city’s failed bid for grandeur, saying the city was like “a man brought up in the expectation of a legacy who has learned in middle age that it will never be his.”

“The drawbacks,” wrote Liebling, “of the first-or-nothing psychology in a city that, it seems certain, will never be first, impress a visitor . . . gradually, one by one.” Liebling did not name his candidate for the first among American cities, but it was clear which one he had in mind; and although he never presented a formal case, his intent in Chicago seems not only to relegate the city to second place but to establish beyond a doubt which urban center remained number one. Certainly he contrasted New York and Chicago often enough in the book, invariably to the detriment of the latter. The saloons along West Madison, for instance, were nothing more than “a Bowery of a more raucous sort.” Chicago’s commercial, financial, and entertainment districts–which in Manhattan were “strung out from Central Park South to the Battery”–were so concentrated that it seemed as if Times Square and Radio City had been “set down in the middle of a vast Canarsie.” Its financial community was in “a secondary position,” its stock exchange was “minor league,” and its banks were fearful of any grand venture “without the assent of the still biggest banks in the East.” Even one of Chicago’s economic strengths, its central location, he claimed isolated it from the cultural enrichment of “the coming and going of ships, as in New York.”

After several months’ immersion in Chicago’s newspapers, Liebling felt like “a diver returning to the light” upon reading his first New York Times; and he attributed the demise of Chicago theater to Chicagoans’ preference for traveling east to attend Broadway productions. There they also acquired their fashionable wardrobes (apparently with little effect, since Chicago women appeared as uncomfortable in the presence of their New York counterparts, Liebling wrote, as Englishwomen were in the company of the French). In every way Chicago was slower, duller, and shabbier–so “marvellously dilapidated” in fact that new arrivals from the east soon looked back on New York as “a kind of Spotless Town.”

Of course, Liebling would draw from his own lifelong experience of New York for comparisons. Civic pride would also have dictated his preferences; and his original audience, the readers of the New Yorker, would have been largely sympathetic to his bias. Yet, particularly in view of Chicago’s cultural impoverishment, its economic decline, its political corruption and impotence, and its dwindling population at mid-century, the arguments against the city hardly seemed worth making. Other cities, such as Detroit and Los Angeles, might have been dominant in certain industries, but for the kinds of intellectual and social activities Liebling valued–literature, theater, journalism, music, cafe society, even spectator sports–no other place in the nation could approach New York. In fact, with London still rationing food, Paris and Rome also recovering from the war, and Berlin a graveyard, New York was certainly the wealthiest and probably the most vibrant city in the world, the financial and cultural capital of the United States at the pinnacle of the American century. If Chicago was the second city, it was a poor second, and even such a booster as Smith was compelled to admit “that few if any countries have more than one dominant cultural center, and that in the United States New York is, and is likely to remain, that center.” If, in Liebling’s eyes, Chicago was the center of anything other than trade conventions and the slot-machine industry, it was the center of “Americanism” as defined by Colonel McCormick, and as used by McCormick, this signified for Liebling isolationism, chauvinism, antiintellectualism, and red-baiting. As such, Chicago was worthy only of ridicule and contempt.

Yet, almost as Liebling’s book was being published, Chicago was emerging from its lethargy. In 1953 Fritz Reiner, who would lead the orchestra back to world-class status, was appointed director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and a year later the Lyric Opera of Chicago would celebrate its inaugural season. In 1954 the Fort Dearborn Project was unveiled, a $40 million plan to demolish the cheap hotels, rooming houses, and honky-tonks that were suffocating the Loop and replace them with commercial developments and parks. In 1955 the Prudential Building, the first skyscraper to be built in Chicago in 20 years, was completed, and in the next decade, according to Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade’s Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis, over a billion dollars would be invested in downtown construction. The city was also strengthening itself as the midwest’s financial, banking, and business service center, and the modernization of the south-side steel plants would, by 1954, turn the region into the world’s foremost manufacturer of iron and steel. Although the age of the railway traveler was at an end, Chicago continued to grow and profit as a hub for railway freight and for trucking, airline traffic, and inland shipping.

At the same time, other developments were making it more and more difficult for any one urban center to maintain economic and cultural hegemony. The increased mobility of American society, the communications revolution, the vast dissemination of federal funds on public works and defense, the growth of university and college systems with the consequent dispersal of intellectual and artistic talent all proved to be centrifugal forces, scattering wealth and culture–high, low, and popular–throughout the nation. In addition, the trends Liebling observed in Chicago–suburbanization, urban blight, corrosive racial conflict–were affecting other municipalities. Chicago was not a unique case but a precursor of the troubles that would be afflicting the country’s major cities, not least of which was New York.

In 1951 the five boroughs of New York supported over one million manufacturing jobs and, according to Jason Epstein (writing in the April 9, 1992, issue of the New York Review of Books), sustained a “cultural life that only the richest city on earth could afford.” Forty years later it had lost two-thirds of those jobs and a quarter million others in the wholesale and retail trades, leaving the city, in Epstein’s words, “adrift in an uncharted sea, and its engine has begun to die.” In recent years it has not been difficult to find commentators eager to bemoan, or gloat over, New York’s decline (in 1991 George Will found the city to be “so far down at its heels it could hardly aspire to seediness”), and although reports of its demise have turned out to be, if not exaggerated, at least premature, the representation of the city as a network of privileged citadels mired in a swamp of poverty, crime, trash, and despair is close enough to reality to have become a cliche.

In the face of such massive transformations and dislocations it would be foolish to claim that a single urban center now plays a dominant role in the nation’s economic and cultural life, whether it be New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. (In fact, Karal Ann Marling in the March 3, 1991, issue of the New York Times Book Review argued that modern American culture no longer originates in any major urban center but in the suburbs.) Perhaps even Liebling would reconsider his opinion of Chicago were he alive today to appreciate its vigorous theater, its full musical calendar, its diversity of restaurants and clubs, its thriving galleries and museums, its lively sporting scene, and its dynamic architecture stretching upward and outward–especially now that Colonel McCormick’s legacy has faded. Liebling would probably still have preferred his hometown, but his clear reporter’s eye would not have been blind to New York’s deep and public decline, and he certainly would have been reluctant to appear as ridiculous as a Chicago booster of 40 years ago by championing a superannuated notion of regional preeminence. He would also have realized that without a clear candidate for first place, the notion of a runner-up, a second city, becomes not only anachronistic and misleading but an absurdity as well.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Will Northerner.