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Friday, April 12, 2013 02:03 pm

The way they weren't

In noting the recent death of Rich Shereikis, I neglected to note what was perhaps his best work as a critic. In his review of Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Lost City, Rich exposed the nostalgia that so often masquerades as retrospective sociology.

That book espoused what the author called “Forgotten Virtues of Community in the Chicago of the 1950s,” He examined three Chicago communities around 1957 including: the white, working-class neighborhood of Saint Nicholas of Tolentine parish on the southwest side near where Rich grew up. In The Way We Weren't, which ran in a 1996 number of Chicago's Reader, Rich offered a different reading of the time. Explaining his own credentials ([I] misspent much of [the ‘50s] hanging out at [he northeast corner of ] 63rd and Kedzie…technically across the street from Saint Nick's parish, but close enough to be spiritual kin”), he went to catalog the casual racism, the conformism, the oppressive religion overlooked by what might be called Ehrenhalt’s blinking eye.

For Ehrenhalt, today's villain isn't the greed of corporations that downsize and move operations overseas and thereby destroy lives and neighborhoods. It isn't the hypocrisy of politicians who argue for tax breaks for the comfortable while refusing to raise the minimum wage or provide health care for the marginal. No, he declares, it's our worship of choice that has made our families unstable, our schools unfit, and our streets unsafe. We've lost the steadfastness of Ernie Banks and embraced the opportunism of Rickey Henderson, he says, apparently forgetting that Banks and his peers were virtual slaves to their owners and couldn't have moved if they'd wanted to.’

Astute as a review, the piece is even sharper as social history, and showed Rich at his best.

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