Sweet Home Chicago! ‘The Third Coast’ and What Makes the Windy City Great, Flaws and All

the third coastIn 2007, The New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl gave a talk at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in which he said that the hosting city was “a great place to be, if you have a particular reason.” He went on to call Chicago one of the “great receptor cities of the world” for all the artistic talent it sends to other places, maybe not realizing he had opened up old wounds inflicted by another New Yorker writer nearly 55 years earlier when the late A.J. Liebling proclaimed Chicago the “Second City,” behind Mr. Liebling’s hometown of New York. The most recent New York media potshot at Chicago was by Rachel Shteir, an ex-New Yorker and current Chicagoan, in a recent New York Times Book Review piece, “Chicago Manuals.” Ms. Shteir, who claimed not to be “some latter-day A.J. Liebling” in her attack on the city she has called home for the last 13 years, pointed out Chicago’s many faults, from rampant gun violence to the nation’s second-highest combined sales tax and the clear lines of segregation that zip through its neighborhoods. (Ms. Shteir’s review generated titanic reaction from the media in Chicago, all of it wounded, which pretty much proved her point; she wrote about the experience for the Observer.) I left Chicago over a decade ago, but I still recognize these problems in my beloved hometown. And yet I wondered what city doesn’t have a laundry list of specific failings. 

Thomas Dyja, a Chicago native, doesn’t set out to change the view of contemporary Chicago with his latest book, The Third Coast. Instead, the book charts “When Chicago Built the American Dream” through a detailed look at postwar Chicago and how the Second City changed the course of America for good.

Of all the characters you meet throughout The Third Coast (and there are so many of them it’s hard to keep track), the German-born architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe looms the largest, from the start of his ambitious career to the point at which he “resembled a medieval abbot … trying to think his way into heaven” in the early 1960s. In a city built on industry and defined by the Democratic political “machine” (every mayor since 1931 has been a Democrat), Mies’s Modernist architectural perfection, which he himself acknowledged was sometimes viewed as “cold and rigid,” fit perfectly into the city’s framework and transformed the way major cities around the world put up buildings. He was the last director of the Bauhaus and “had chosen Chicago for practical reasons,” especially the state’s lax laws for professional education compared with New York or Massachusetts. But he moved to a city with an already rich architectural legacy, taking a position as the director of the Armour Institute (later to be renamed the Illinois Institute of Technology) in 1938. Within two years, the school was “becoming a kind of architectural monastery, producing a brotherhood trained to spread [Mies’s] word.”

Mies pops up throughout The Third Coast, whether directly or as an influence as the city assembles its skyline. Along with him is a mob of people, connected only loosely by geography, that threatens to overstuff an already large book: the author and historian Studs Terkel, the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, the avant-garde jazz icon Sun Ra, the outsider artist Henry Darger, the Chess Brothers and Muddy Waters, a host of high-ranking political figures, low-level ward bosses, architects, magazine publishers and too many others to list here. But this unruly throng is the whole point: Chicago is whatever these people made of it—a city full of suckers to exploit, an easy place to make a buck, “that same old place,” as Robert Johnson would have it, a city of migrants blanketed by the façade of Midwestern permanence, a city of underdogs making good.

Mr. Dyja’s book gains heft from the city’s self-made men, like Mayor Richard J. Daley, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and Ebony publisher John H. Johnson. But its heart is the undercurrent of racial tension that you can feel dripping off nearly every other page. The term “hypersegregation” was created with Chicago in mind. The white population has historically been situated on the city’s north side, with the African-American population pushed to the south. Surprisingly, one of the book’s most endemic chapters takes place in Mississippi: the murder of 14-year-old Chicago resident Emmett Till while he was visiting relatives in Money, an unincorporated community in the Delta, which helped set off the civil rights movement when pictures of Till’s mutilated body were published by Chicago-based African-American newspapers and magazines with the headline “Black America reunited to witness Emmett Till’s body.”

Although Till’s murder took place nearly a thousand miles to the south of Chicago, his funeral was held in the city of his birth, and the story became an American dilemma. It is a perfect example of how a “prairie city with a waterfront,” as Saul Bellow called it, influenced the entire nation. Even the few paragraphs that Mr. Dyja devotes to the condensed version of how Ray Kroc turned one McDonald’s restaurant in suburban Chicago into “a global behemoth that represents to much of the world all that’s bad about America, and all they want,” demonstrates how the city is America in microcosm.

For Bellow, it was “that somber city,” but even he wasn’t “altogether clear” on what it stands for. And so the fact that the literary representative of Mr. Dyja’s Chicago is Nelson Algren, rather than the more famous Bellow, is appropriate. Algren’s life and work are chronicled through his professional disappointments and a doomed affair with Simone de Beauvoir. Although Algren was a brilliant writer and his book The Man With the Golden Arm won him the National Book Award in 1950, he was always coming in second to somebody else: Bellow was more acclaimed, de Beauvoir wouldn’t leave Jean-Paul Sartre for her American lover, and his contemporaries like John Fante and Charles Bukowski used similar formulas with much better results. Algren, like the great city that he grew up in, played second to many. And although Mr. Dyja makes that metaphor very clear throughout The Third Coast, you’re left to wonder why exactly these people are credited with building the American dream, save for the fact that they all called the same flawed and proud city home.

editorial@observer.com