Review: ‘The Third Coast’ by Thomas Dyja

The Third Coast coverWhen I moved to Chicago in August 2014, I knew very little of its history. Sure, I had watched “The Untouchables” and just a couple months prior to moving, I read “Devil in the White City.” There were the vague tidbits about the city’s history that I remembered from AP U.S. History. Other than that, I moved into the city nearly blind to the history.

So I added my name to the waitlist for Thomas Dyja’s “The Third Coast,” the Chicago Public Library’s One Book One Chicago for 2015-2016. Dyja’s book covers the cultural history of Chicago at midcentury — late 1930s to the close of the 1950s — centering the narrative on those who helped shape the city and modern America: actors, architects, entrepreneurs, musicians, politicians and writers.

I’m not even sure where to begin. There was a wealth of information presented in this book. Dyja weaved narratives together, showing just how everyone was connected in the city. He wrote about the tensions between the Illinois Institute of Technology’s tensions with Bronzeville, the black neighborhood surrounding the campus. Chicago led the creation of mass-market culture with Mies van der Rohe’s architecture, Ray Kroc’s McDonald’s, Hugh Hefner’s Playboy and the Chess brothers’ rock and roll with Chuck Berry. Dyja wrote about how Chicago’s artists pushed back against this culture: Nelson Algren writing about the ‘regular’ man, Gwendolyn Brooks’ poems giving a voice to Chicago’s black population, Mahalia Jackson’’s gospel and Muddy Waters’ urban blues. Chicago led the way in television, with “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” the Chicago School of Television and eventual creation of The Second City. Then, of course, there are the politics. Between 1932 and 1960, 9 out of 16 political conventions were held in Chicago. The Machine ran the government, first with Ed Kelly and ending with the beginning of Richard J. Daley’s tenure as mayor.

Understanding America requires understanding Chicago. … An America without McDonald’s, naked centerfolds, and cold skyscrapers would also be an America without rock and roll, Frank Lloyd Wright, regional theater, and a labor movement. All these things are uniquely American precisely because they came out of the city that most genuinely expresses America as a whole. —preface

But most of all, there were the racial tensions in the city. Dyja writes in the preface: “Race informed virtually every aspect of life in Chicago, as much if not more than it did in Birmingham or in Selma.” What set the racial divisions of this period was set into motion by the second migration north of African Americans during World War Two. With blacks moving in great numbers into the city, whites either fled to the suburbs or violently opposed integration. There were instances of more than 200 police officers being called to calm the white rioters when one black family tried to move into their apartment. Urban planners referred to this as “blight,” and were constantly trying to design it away.

This book was a very insightful read into midcentury Chicago, and how everything that happened shaped not only the city I’m living in today but also America as a whole. There were so many things I read about that I had no idea started in Chicago, namely the impact Chicago had on television. Before reading this book, I had never heard of Studs Terkel. Multiple times in each chapter, I would open up Google to search for people to see what they looked like, or I’d go to Google maps to see just where some of the addresses were in Chicago. Nelson Algren lived in Stanislawowo, Chicago’s “Polish Downtown” on the northwest side and the area of Chicago where I live.

The more I read, I kept doing the math in my head. All of this happened between 55 and 85 years ago. It’s strange to think about how much Chicago has changed since then — and how much some of it hasn’t. This was a good start in learning more about Chicago’s history. So much to take in from this book, and I might have to read certain sections again to refresh my memory. The only thing I disliked were the occasional sentences where I couldn’t tell if it was Dyja’s opinion or the opinion of the person he was writing about. I would’ve preferred those sentences to be left out — present the facts and narratives, and let the reader form their own opinion of what happened.

All in all, go pick up a copy (or put your name on the waitlist) of “The Third Coast.”


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