A cultural history of Chicago at midcentury, with its incredible mix of architects, politicians, musicians, writers, entrepreneurs, and actors who helped shape modern America
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 people 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 comedy troupe 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 II. 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 up 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.
©2013 Kelmsott Ink, Inc. (P)2013 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
"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, New York Times best-selling author of Cronkite)
"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, New York Times best-selling author)
"Thomas Dyja has written a wonderful book about the cultural cauldron that seethed in twentieth-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, New York Times best-selling author of Triumph of the City)
Ardent Audible listener with a long commute!
I was just on vacation in Chicago, and I purchased a 3 day Chicago Trolley "Hop On Hop Off" package. The South Tour to Hyde Park was the most memorable, but not because we saw President Obama's Kenwood home. The Black tour driver had grown up and lived in Hyde Park and lived there his entire life, and pointed out where clubs had been that he'd seen legendary performers including Muddy Waters, Mahalia Jackson, Howlin' Wolf . . . He ran through a 'who's who' of jazz, the blues, and rock-and-roll in the 50's. Along with universal landmarks such as the location of the first nuclear reaction (The University of Chicago), he pointed out Black landmarks such as the office of The Defender, an influential Black newspaper founded in 1905. This book has them all.
The other tours included Chicago institutions landmarks, especially skyscrapers. I am still not sure just how many buildings I saw that Mies van der Rohe designed, or if I kept seeing the same stark buildings. I can appreciate the idea of 'less is more', but I'm not a fan of Bauhaus - Louis Sullivan's Beaux Arts skyscrapers, with their lush architectural detail, captured my imagination. The tour guides never mentioned Sullivan, and if I hadn't read this book, I wouldn't have known one architect was most influential for that school.
Thomas Dyja's "The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream" (2013) captures Black Chicago and White Chicago from the end of the depression to the early 1960's. Dyja highlights Black Chicago's astounding cultural contributions in music and art (Richard Wright's "Native Son" (1940), and Pulitzer prize winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917 -2000), and so on) during a time of often violently enforced segregation. "The Third Coast" compares the parallel but mostly separate achievements by Whites in the arts (the birth and rebirths of what eventually became "Second City", Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology and his New Vision, incorporating art and technology to make art accessible to all). Dyla also discusses what sociology writer Malcolm Gladwell calls 'connectors' ("The Tipping Point" 2000) that bridged the cultures, including actor/writer Studs Terkel (1912 - 2008), and surprisingly, the puppet show "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" (1947 - 1957).
"The Third Coast" is set against Chicago's endemic political corruption, especially the covert racial segregation tactics of 1955 - 1975 Mayor Richard J. Daley. To this day, Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the United States.
Even though the listen for this book is more than 17 hours, I wanted more. Writer Nelson Algren (1909 - 1981) had a long affair with Simone de Beauvoir (1908 - 1986), and he encouraged her to write "The Second Sex" (1949). How important was Nelson, compared to de Beauvoir's relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre? Dyla's look at Hugh Heffner's "Playboy" magazine and empire is combines Heffner's geeky adolescent longing with a pragmatic, too briefly described business plan. And can any writing really make you feel Sun Ra's music, or see William R. Dawson's art? There are so many more Black and White Chicagoans Dyla fascinated me with. That's the mark of a good scholarly work of non-fiction: it doesn't answer all questions, it gives you the framework to find what you want to know more about.
The Audible edition includes a downloadable .pdf with photos. Download that along with the book.
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I love to read. In high school I read a book a night; I was too exhausted to write the book reports!
If you want to know about more about Chicago, this book is very interesting. I learned a lot about the early political, art,Chicago writers, and architecture history, etc., up until the 1960's. The author did spend a lot of time on Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, and also spoke unfavorably about the University of Chicago, which I found rather disturbing.
What I really hated is the reader. Boring, boring, boring!
Not a movie, but maybe a TV drama.
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