OUR KIND OF TOWN: A new book by Jewish author Ellen Shubart looks at the things that make Chicago special

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

What, indeed, is with Chicago?

  • Why don’t we douse our hot dogs in ketchup, to the point where violators are deemed akin to sinners?
  • Why is the weather so closely linked to politics and sports?
  • Why do we name our expressways rather than just number them, like in LA?
  • Why were Kup and Royko the city’s “conscience?”

The questions can go on and on, but Ellen Shubart eventually ran out of book and had to cut off the narrative.

Shubart, a native of Skokie, lived and chronicled history as it went along.  She attended Niles High School when it was the only secondary school serving Skokie. Shubart then later wrote about breaking news and the lifeblood of commerce for Pioneer Press and Crain’s Chicago Business. She went on to serve on the Glencoe Village Board and amass a history of the heavily-Jewish suburb. And she acquired a degree in historic preservation from the Art Institute.

Now Shubart has summarized all that has made the erstwhile Second City (LA has passed us up and Houston is closing in) so distinctive in “What’s With Chicago?: The Quirks, Personality and Charm of the Windy City.” A $20.95 book published by Reedy Press of St. Louis, which has produced other Chicago history-centric tomes, “What’s With Chicago?” is a breezy guidebook to a city where politics and the weather whoosh through every nook and cranny.


Author Ellen Shubart. Her husband, Richard, is a descendant of one of the first Jews in Chicago, Benedict Shubart, who arrived in 1840 and operated a tailor shop. He was a founding member of KAM Temple. Ellen Shubart is pictured standing under the plaque in Federal Plaza that designates the location of the first KAM building.

To first qualify for writing the book, Shubart had to branch off from a classic suburban Jewish traditional female role in mid-20th century to become a scribe.

“Skokie was just beginning to be a Jewish community,” Shubart said. “We lived on Kedvale between Dempster and Main. Most people were nice, although the neighbors next to us were somewhat negative because we were Jewish. They wanted no part of us.

“When I graduated in 1960, it was the first time Niles High School had a Jewish prom king and queen. That was a big deal.

Shubart went on to the University of Michigan, never thinking of changing the world as a journalist.

“I went to (college) when women were supposed to be teachers, social workers and nurses,” she said. “I was a teacher, and I got married (in 1963). My mother (Faigie, which means ‘little bird’ in Yiddish), made my wedding dress. She was a seamstress at Saks Fifth Avenue before I was born.”

Husband Richard Shubart descended from one of the founders of KAM Isaiah Israel in Hyde Park, the oldest continuously-running synagogue in the city with roots dating back to 1847.

“When I retired 12 years ago, I said I’d write a genealogy book for my grandsons,” Shubart said. “I haven’t yet done it, but I have enough research. Benedict Shubart came to Chicago in 1840 from a town outside Nuremberg. They called him Scotty for some reason. He was a tailor on Lake Street. He was a founder of KAM. His son ultimately left KAM and went to Sinai Congregation.”

In the 1840s, German immigrants, Jewish and non-Jewish, did not find a welcoming Chicago mayor in Levi Boone, whom Shubart described as “anti-Semitic and pro-slavery.” Wishing to keep a religious-WASP lid on the city on Sundays, Boone clashed with German workers who wanted to drink their lager in taverns on their only day of rest.

Ellen and Richard Shubart, whose family lived in South Shore, were married at South Shore Temple. Having been in ROTC, Richard Shubart was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army. The newlyweds moved to Germany for his service for two years. But Ellen looked ahead for an opportunity once he was discharged.

“I couldn’t get a job anywhere but Chicago public schools with just a letter sent from Germany,” she said. “Otherwise, they’d want an interview. When we got back, I taught at a school at 71st and Wentworth. I commuted by car down there from Skokie.”

Shubart thus acquired her first story that comprised the spiritual basis for the book. When Chicago’s Big Blizzard hit during the school day on Jan. 26, 1967, Shubart had to leave her snow-bound car by the school to make her way home on public transportation.

“When I came back a week later, I found my car in perfect shape,” she said. “But in Skokie, a couple of my friends had their cars trashed.”

The Shubarts moved to Glencoe in 1975. Shubart recalled how the village simply closed all public schools on the High Holidays. Meeting the editor of Pioneer Press’ Glencoe News, she began working part-time covering village events.

Shubart was involved in preservationist efforts to thwart the building of out-sized McMansions. Such activism led her to run for a Village Board seat amid a “caucus” system. Shubart went against the grain to support an affordable-housing ordinance. Nevertheless, she was elected to a pair of four-year terms.

Shubart’s authorship sprung from her dual civic and preservationist bent. She co-authored books on Glencoe history and Italians on Taylor Street for Arcadia Publishing, a South Carolina-based publisher of regional history books.  Through fellow author Molly Page, she linked up with Reedy Press, which has constructed a template of city history books.

Shubart’s mission was to come up with 85 things that made Chicago great, or distinctive. She easily came up with a “good 65” and then had to research the remaining 20.

The natural glue – not politics – that ties Chicago together are Lake Michigan, the Chicago River (and its gateway to Mississippi River shipping) and the radically changeable weather, with the lake and weather often interacting.  Chicago surely has its four seasons, some intruding well into another as winter hung around until the third week of April this year.

Weather, of course, changed the course of political history when the 1979 blizzard caught Mayor Michael Bilandic in a big lie about snow removal, as Shubart describes in the book:

“Between January 12 and 14, 1979, a total of 20.7 inches of snow fell on Chicago, on top of the eight inches that had blanketed the city two weeks earlier. Though Democratic Mayor Michael Bilandic appeared on TV news shows to reassure residents that streets were being plowed and schoolyards made available for parking, city crews simply could not keep up. The schoolyards remained covered in snow, ice, and slush, and residents fumed.

“The city’s failure to cope with the blizzard became the key issue in the mayoral primary held the following month. Jane Byrne, a Democrat and commissioner of consumer affairs under the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, had been fired by Bilandic, and many observers believed that her mayoral candidacy was motivated by a desire for retribution. But the way the city had dealt with the snow emergency overrode that concern. Garbage had not been collected, mass transit had been unable to keep up with the increased volume of riders, and it was revealed that the city’s ‘snow emergency plan’ was less than satisfactory.

“The result: Byrne defeated Bilandic, the choice of the Democratic machine, in the primary. She then easily beat the Republican in the general election, going on to serve one four-year term and becoming Chicago’s only woman mayor.”

Space prohibited Shubart from extending the narrative, a domino effect extending into the present.  The maverick Byrne became a City Hall insider in her one term. That opened the opportunity for veteran South Side power Harold Washington to knock off Byrne in the 1983 mayoral primary and become Chicago’s first black mayor. When Washington died suddenly of a heart attack early in his second term in 1987, a weak mayor, Eugene Sawyer, ascended to the fifth floor. And Sawyer, in turn, was supplanted by Richard M. Daley for a 21-year run until he retired, allowing the first Jewish mayor, Rahm Emanuel, to get elected.

Chicago acquired its Windy City nickname not because of the velocity of gusts off the lake, or from the southwest, which helped spread the catastrophe of the 1871 Chicago Fire.

‘Windy’ was how politicians were referred to for their braggadocio going back to the chest-thumping in the 1890s when the Windy City title was given to Chicagoans boasting about their city to land the World’s Fair.

Shubart calls her book “fairly comprehensive,” referring to the array of subjects covering everything from food to architecture.

One piece of architecture she looks at is Tribune Tower and the world-ranging source for the historic blocks that were added to its construction:

“The base of Tribune Tower, a neo-Gothic landmark located north of the Chicago River on Michigan Avenue, is studded with more than 120 stones or fragments. Not just old rocks, these stones come from all over the world.

“Each small piece, approximately six inches square, is labeled as to its origin. Pieces exist from the Great Wall of China and the Berlin Wall, from structures in all 50 states and countries around the globe. Colonel Robert R. McCormick, onetime owner and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, began collecting the pieces during World War I, before the tower was even built, with fragments from the city hall in Arras, France, and the cathedral at Ypres in Belgium. According to writer Katherine Solomonson, McCormick was among many Americans who were ‘urged to hurry abroad’ after the war so they could take a piece of history home ‘before the battlefields were cleaned up.’

“But McCormick didn’t stop there. He subsequently assigned the Tribune’s foreign correspondents to collect artifacts, gathering them as they gathered stories. ‘If you can get stones … from such buildings as the Law Court of Dublin, the Parthenon at Athens, … or any other famous cathedral or place or ruins – possibly a piece of one of the Pyramids – send them in,’ he wrote his reporters.

“McCormick wanted correspondents to collect by ‘honorable means,’ although some thought they were being given a license to steal. Whatever the means, the Trib called the contributions a ‘community endeavor’ and a testament to the newspaper’s international reach.”

The author also reminds readers that although the city was saddled with the “Second City” nickname, the nearly 60-year-old comedy club by the same name was an incubator for all-time comic talent. The likes of John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Tiny Fey and Stephen Colbert cut their comic teeth here.

One final Shubart observation is that Chicagoans, with the possible exceptions of the Daleys, do not have a distinctive accent like New Yorkers, Bostonians, Southerners or residents of the Great Plains.

“Our speech pattern is more related to Buffalo,” she said of the western New York city whose residents sound nothing like those in the Big Apple. WLS-TV sportscaster Mark Giangreco, for one, is a Buffalo native, and he sounds like he grew up here.

“TV has had an influence, with a flattened (purged of regional sounds) accent,” said Shubart.

But hot air or the big freeze, whether generated naturally or through the work or mortals, is the currency by which a good historian like Ellen Shubart has generated a good book.

1 Comment on "OUR KIND OF TOWN: A new book by Jewish author Ellen Shubart looks at the things that make Chicago special"

  1. Ellen Shubart | May 15, 2018 at 8:37 pm | Reply

    This is for George. Thanks so much for the nice article. I think you covered the book and my family with clarity, good writing and skill. Thanks a lot.

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