Culture clash: New history of Chicago taps into our malaise

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Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (April 12, 2013)

Dyja: Because it's tragic.

Me: But, OK, one reason: You see the arrival of the first Daley administration as a cultural pivot.

Dyja: The first Daley period, as much as it rebuilds the city, does become a devil's deal. In the late '40s, all these artists are doing all kinds of inventive, interesting things, but the feeling can't be sustained, and with Daley, you have the beginning of a cultural hierarchy that tended toward downtown, toward institutional art. He knew it was good to support arts but not this everyone's-an-artist thing, which, touchy-feely as it sounds, does lead to art scenes, helps a community develop a voice. The Art Institute, it's an inspiration, but it's not like (the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York), where people live. It's a place you go once a year. And it's always been this way — you go for greatest hits, Hopper, Monet. It gives Chicago this checklist sense of itself — even in the book, Queen Elizabeth II comes to visit (in 1959), they take her to lunch, to see baby chicks at the Museum of Science and Industry, an El Greco at the Art Institute. Just, check, check, check."


Incidentally, since by this point, you're either delighted or furious with Dyja, I should tell you who he is: He has two children and is married to a book agent at William Morris Endeavor Entertainment and lives in New York's Upper West Side and says "transgressive" just like Woody Allen does. He is not famous. He is 50 and has written three well-received, relatively unknown novels and a smart biography of African-American leader Walter White. Before settling on "Third Coast" and its broad canvas, he briefly shopped around the idea for a history of Chicago focused on 1955, the year Emmett Till was murdered and Daley was first elected mayor.

For "Third Coast" he read, came to Chicago, walked around, interviewed dozens (including Hefner, Ed Asner, Art Shay and, before she died in 2010, artist Margaret Burroughs) — in all, he spent roughly five years assembling it. And frankly, it's remarkable that no one else got there first: New York has scores of such books (Ann Douglas' "Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s" being one of the greatest); Los Angeles has numerous cultural histories from urban theorist Mike Davis alone ("City of Quartz" being the classic); and there are too many books like this about London and Paris and Berlin, et al., to even count.

Chicago journalist Alex Kotlowitz wrote something vaguely similar a decade ago (and in 160 pages), "Never a City So Real," and told me that when the idea for his book was pitched to him, "I rolled my eyes because I didn't know how you could capture a city in a small book, yet writing that, I fell back in love with the place."

Which — Henry Binford, an associate professor of history at Northwestern University who teaches a course on Chicago — said is often the problem with Chicago history narratives (though not Kotlowitz's): "They grow boosterish, tend to tell the same triumphant story, of a city that rises out of the mud. And not that that didn't happen! But these books, like Chicagoans themselves, get unconsciously unbalanced about the city."

That said, stories of the city's intractability and decline — of which "Third Coast" nicely fits, I told Binford (before he'd read the book) — are not that new either, he said.

"That goes back to the 19th century, to complaints of Chicago being dirty, vulgar, this place where everyone spits and talks about money — often complaints from East Coast people."

What Dyja offers is context.

His wonderful mini-history of broadcaster Dave Garroway nicely explains how the stars of early Chicago television brought a radical everyday immediacy to the medium — "television not as a mutated version of theater or the movies, but on its own terms" — that continues today with, say, the rangy David Letterman. Dyja shows how the white Algren was considered the city's best writer in a city too segregated to respond, at first, to the black Gwendolyn Brooks. He gives Henry Darger, the outsider artist from Lincoln Park, his due, not as an oddball who toiled in anonymity — a story that has been told often — but, simply, a great Chicagoan.

He writes of how Chicago's sprawl doesn't always lend itself to the familiar density that has defined famous cultural scenes. "You may have pockets of light, but that light can't seep into every corner," he said.

And about Crown Hall.

His book argues that van der Rohe's IIT campus, severe, aesthetically progressive and ahead of its time, somewhat embodies cultural Chicago. He writes: "Through Mies, Modernism no longer belonged to socialist bohemians. Modernism belonged to big business, big government and big institutions. Corporatism has been born, and its cradle was being designed and built in Chicago." Indeed, IIT, Dyja explained as we stood in front of Crown Hall, was built on the site of the Mecca Flats, a legendary Bronzeville apartment complex that served as a cultural hub for the neighborhood, "until IIT pulled one of those eminent domain things, ran the place into the ground then said, 'Oh, a slum. We have to build (over it) now.'"

In "Third Coast," corporatism finds a soul mate in Daley's institutional conservatism. The Leo Burnett advertising firm pioneers consumerism as "a shorthand for living," Dyja writes, and at the Art Institute, attempts to diversify the museum's collections are met with skepticism, and smart, forward-thinking curators leave.

Sounds familiar.

When I spoke to Franz Schulze, van der Rohe biographer and Lake Forest College professor — who read an early draft of Dyja's book — he found a column that he wrote in the Chicago Daily News in the early 1970s that railed against the city as "pagan, materialistic, bourgeois" and said Chicago had so little patience for quirks it "could never have created or suffered long a Matisse or Andy Warhol." Dyja told me: "Chicago has never been terribly comfortable with intellectuals. From day one, it's always valued money more than art for art's sake and has seen (art) as a way to prove the city's existence on the big stage."

Part of his argument, he said, "is that the best Chicago has produced has usually — not always, but usually — emerged in spite of that attitude, between the cracks, like those dandelions Gwendolyn Brooks loved."


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