The Third Coast
When Chicago Built the American Dream
Though today it can seem as if all American culture comes out of New York and Los Angeles, much of what defined the nation as it grew into a superpower was produced in Chicago. Before air travel overtook trains, nearly every coast-to coast journey included a stop there, and this flow of people and commodities made it America's central clearinghouse, laboratory, and factory. Between the end of World War II and 1960, Mies van der Rohe's glass and steel architecture became the face of corporate America, Ray Kroc's McDonald's changed how we eat, Hugh Hefner unveiled Playboy, and the Chess brothers supercharged rock and roll with Chuck Berry. At the University of Chicago, the atom was split and Western civilization was packaged into the Great Books.
Yet even as Chicago led the way in creating mass-market culture, its artists pushed back in their own distinct voices. In literature, it was the outlaw novels of Nelson Algren (then carrying on a passionate affair with Simone de Beauvoir), the poems of Gwendolyn Brooks, and Studs Terkel's oral histories. In music, it was the gospel of Mahalia Jackson, the urban blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, and the trippy avant-garde jazz of Sun Ra. In performance, it was the intimacy of Kukla, Fran and Ollie, the Chicago School of Television, and the improvisational Second City whose famous alumni are now everywhere in American entertainment.
Despite this diversity, racial divisions informed virtually every aspect of life in Chicago. The chaos—both constructive and destructive—of this period was set into motion by the second migration north of African Americans during World War Two. As whites either fled to the suburbs or violently opposed integration, urban planners tried to design away "blight" with projects that marred a generation of American cities. The election of Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1955 launched a frenzy of new building that came at a terrible cost—monolithic housing projects for the black community and a new kind of self-satisfied provincialism that sped the end of Chicago's role as America's meeting place. In luminous prose, Chicago native Thomas Dyja re-creates the story of the city in its postwar prime and explains its profound impact on modern America.
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Under the light of a single bulb, the old drunk slipped into a coma. Louis Sullivan, the greatest architect in a city of great architecture, lay dying of kidney disease at the Warner Hotel on 33rd and Cottage Grove, five years after the White Sox had met there to fix the 1919 World Series. His last designs had been a series of extravagant little banks in midwestern hamlets, jewel boxes cascading with his glorious ornament, but they’d paid nothing, so old friends like his former protégé Frank Lloyd Wright had chipped in for this dingy room. As the bulb swung and his breathing shallowed, Chicagoans went on shopping in his department stores, cooking dinner in his homes, shuffling papers in his offices, dozing off in his theaters, and praying in the churches he’d created. Few had any clue how Sullivan had given form to the functions of their lives.
He’d come to Chicago in 1873, chased west by the year’s financial panic to a city whose purpose was to be in the middle. Before Marquette and Joliet came through in the late 1600s, centuries of Potawatomi Indians had portaged here between Lake Michigan and the Des Plaines River, paddling on to the Mississippi. French fur traders set up shop in the 1700s, and as the railroads pushed west in the next century, the frontier outpost named Fort Dearborn grew into Chicago, hub of the expanding nation. From every direction, people, resources, and products moved through its muddy plains, soon the site of the world’s biggest, wildest boomtown, and when the fire of 1871 scoured most of the city away, America willed it back into existence, this time even bigger and wilder. Between 1870 and 1890, the city’s population grew from just under 300,000 to more than a million souls densely packed and separate, every person there to do, to make, to somehow get theirs. Grain and livestock mattered as much as pig iron; labor confronted capital; new sciences were explored amid back- alley violence. “Having seen it, I urgently desire never to see it again,” said an uncharacteristically prim Rudyard Kipling after an 1890 visit. “It is inhabited by savages.” Historian William Cronon has called it “the grandest, most spectacular country fair the world has ever seen.” You could probably find fifty just like it now in China, but Chicago was the first of its kind, and Louis Sullivan had loved it at first sight. “Here . . . was power,” he wrote, “naked power, naked as the prairies, greater than the mountains.”
After a short stint at the École des Beaux- Arts in Paris, Sullivan teamed up with Dankmar Adler to design scores of buildings that expressed the extremes of the city that gave America its meat, steel, and the Wizard of Oz. Together Sullivan and Adler refined the idea of what a skyscraper should be. They pushed the limits of technology in buildings such as the Auditorium and the Schiller Theater, while Sullivan developed his distinctive ornamentation, an intricate, organic system that wound around the straight lines of modern industry, exploring the aesthetic possibilities of a grain of wheat the way Bach explored music. Sullivan’s florid yet rational ornament mediated between Chicagoans and their buildings. It captured the creative tension between rural and urban, past and present, the individual man and the democratic nation that fueled the city. Sullivan gave form to the idea of Chicago as a crossroads, where all of America’s impulses met to converse and trade, battle and build, each structure a message about how technology and man could thrive together. The Columbian Exposition of 1893 ended all that, though. Grand as Daniel Burnham’s fair was, it pushed the first generation of Chicago skyscraper builders out of fashion, and the city’s progress stumbled. Adler and Sullivan split, and as Sullivan took to the bottle, he warned— or cursed— that it would be fifty years before American architecture recovered. He was off by only five or so.
When Sullivan died that night in 1924, he died forgotten. Chicago was no longer his city, as much as it ever had been. In the 1920s virtually everyone went on the take— not just Al Capone but union bosses and corporate heads, aldermen and corner cops; even a few priests were mobsters under the Roman collar. Five years later the stock market crash would drag the city to the brink of collapse.
Out of those ashes, Chicago did rise again. It was a slow, often painful progress infused with creativity and greed, overshadowed by the two glamorous cities on the other coasts, but central in all ways to the massmarket America we know today. Beginning in the late 1930s and rolling on through the 1950s, Chicagoans produced much of what the world now calls “American”: the liberated, leering sexuality of Playboy; glass and steel modern architecture; rock and roll and the urban blues; McDonald’s and the spread of the fast- food nation; the improvisational sketch comedy that’s trained everyone from Joan Rivers and John Belushi to Steve Carell and Tina Fey; Ebony magazine and Emmett Till, whose murder catalyzed the civil rights movement; geodesic domes; avant-garde jazz and gospel music; the Nation of Islam; modern photography; the atom bomb and the Great Books; Kukla, Fran and Ollie; and the last great political machine.
The Third Coast is the history of Chicago’s greatest— and final— period as the nation’s primary meeting place, market, workshop, and lab, but it is also the story of how America’s uniform culture came to be. As New York positioned itself on the global stage and Hollywood polished the nation’s fantasies, the most profound aspects of American modernity grew up out of the flat, prairie land next to Lake Michigan. The real struggle for America’s future— whether it would be directed by its people or its institutions— took place in postwar Chicago.
"[A] robust cultural history… Dyja zooms in on the qualities Chicagoans value and does it better than anyone else I've read."
—New York Times Book Review (cover)
"A rollicking cultural history… What's a given now was often given by Chicago: high-rises, gospel and the blues, TV talk shows, Playboy, McDonalds, sketch comedy…Was it all dazzling coincidence or, as Dyja suggests, something in the water?"
"The Third Coast… has an elegant, unflinching, non-nostalgic clarity… a new touchstone in Chicago literature… an ambitious history lesson no one had written."
"My God, how I enjoyed this book… The Third Coast offers a deeper perspective, detailing Chicago’s midcentury contributions to literature, music, theater, photography, television and architecture… The book is an extraordinarily good read, with writing that sparkles."
"[A] robust, outspoken, zestfully knowledgeable, and seductively told synthesis of biography, culture, politics, and history…[written] with velocity, wry wit, and tough lyricism… Dyja focuses on the years between the Great Depression and 1960... As vibrant and clarifying as his overarching vision is, what makes this such a thrilling read are Dyja’s fresh and dynamic portraits not only of the first Mayor Daley and his machine but also of key artists and innovators who embodied or amplified Chicago’s earthiness, grit, audacity, and beauty… from the city’s epic political corruption, vicious racism, and ethnic enclaves to the ferment that gave rise to world-changing architecture, urban blues and gospel, McDonald’s, improv comedy, and the 'birth of television.' Here is the frenetic simultaneity of an evolving city torn between its tragic crimes and failings and tensile strength and creativity."
—Booklist (starred review)
"A magisterial narrative of mid-20th century Chicago... a luminous, empathetic, and engrossing portrait of a city."
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"A readable, richly detailed history of America's second city-which, laments novelist/historian and Chicagoan Dyja has become a third city, perhaps even less. A valuable contribution to the history of Chicago, worthy of a place alongside William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis."
"I am an American, not Chicago-born, but at age nine Chicago was the first big city I visited, and it was love at first sight. I've come to know it deeply, however, only through its writers: Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, Mike Royko—and now Thomas Dyja. The Third Coast is a vivid, fascinating, surprising, altogether masterful chronicle of this quintessentially American city's mid-century cultural heyday."
—Kurt Andersen, author of True Believers
"This is a book as startling as the place it celebrates: Chicago, the town where a gay puppeteer transformed children's television and thereby, their imagination; the burg where post-war comedy, cuisine, urban politics, and pre-marital sex were all changed, changed utterly. Dyja gives unforgettable voice to dozens of out-sized personalities, from Sun Ra to Studs Terkel, from Gwendolyn Brooks to Nelson Algren, from Mahalia Jackson to Muddy Waters, from Richard Daley to Adlai Stevenson, a cast worthy of a Tolstoy or Dickens. In his wonderful book, Chicago stands revealed as both America's most corrupt city and its one, true homeland of the soul."
—Anthony Heilbut, author of Exiled in Paradise and The Fan Who Knew Too Much
"Thomas Dyja has written a wonderful book about the cultural cauldron that seethed in 20th century Chicago. The Third Coast reminds us that New York and Los Angeles hold no monopoly on American artistic genius. From Louis Sullivan to Richard Wright, from Mahalia Jackson to Nelson Algren, Chicago attracted and inspired talent. Dyja's well-crafted exploration of Chicago creativity helps us understand why cities are the wellsprings of culture. American society was molded by its cities, and Chicago has played an outsized role in molding music and literature and architecture. Dyja's engaging writing not only provides an insightful investigation of Chicago's cultural heroes, but also delivers a broader view of how cities shape the sea of civilization."
—Edward Glaeser, author of Triumph of the City
"Thomas Dyja's The Third Coast is a wonderful, beautifully-written, eye-opener and genuine page-turner about Chicago, as sweeping and astonishing as the city itself. It does nothing less than help rewrite postwar American history and culture and cure our bi-coastal myopia. It links half-a-century's worth of economic and social changes with cultural revolution, racial strife with sexual upheaval, architecture with politics, literature with gospel music, Hugh Hefner with Tina Fey, Mies van der Rohe with Mayor Daley, Ray Kroc with Katherine Kuh—it's the whole grand, messy American story, lived through bigger-than-life characters in a bigger-than-life city."
—Michael Kimmelman, author of The Accidental Masterpiece
"In The Third Coast, Thomas Dyja chronicles Chicago's estimable contributions to American culture with the colorful prose of Nelson Algren and the humanistic wisdom of Studs Terkel. He puts you at street level with the men and women whose talent and entrepreneurial chutzpah combined to give Chicago, and the nation, its postwar swagger."
—Bob Marovich, Host of "Gospel Memories," WLUW Chicago
"Thomas Dyja's The Third Coast unravels the wondrous history of Chicago with cunning and aplomb. Every aspect of the Windy City is revealed anew from Mies van der Rohe's skyscrapers to Chuck Berry's rock n' roll. A truly gripping narrative. Highly recommended!"
—Douglas Brinkley, author of Cronkite
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