Thomas Dyja looked at me with abject horror, then humor, then, as his face crumbled in defeat, resignation. A face that said, "See? This is why I wrote a 412-page cultural history of Chicago at midcentury that — as much as it pulls together decades of artists and institutions, Richard J. Daley and Mahalia Jackson, Mies van der Rohe and Gwendolyn Brooks, as much as it says 'Understanding America requires understanding Chicago' — ultimately feels like a tragedy."
If a face can say all that, his did.
I had just finished telling him about the Bank of America ads that were plastered briefly on the side of the Wabash Avenue Bridge in 2011, part of an abandoned bid by the city to raise a fast $25 million by selling ad space on the sides of its iconic structures and (tellingly enough) trash cans. Dyja said it reminded him of the way the landmark State Street Marshall Field's brusquely became a Macy's. Which reminded me of the way the Sears Tower, for no other reason than the financial prerogative of its owners, became Willis Tower.
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Which led to him saying, "And then that becomes part of a city's cultural heritage. As does the way a city thinks of itself, and one of the problems Chicago has had forever is how it lets itself be torn down, delegated, played with. For instance, outside of Chicago, Chicago's always been known for architecture — so why tear down all those Louis Sullivan buildings, some of which were blocks from here? Lose things like that and you wonder if there's an innate cultural disconnect here, why a city cannot hold on to what makes it stand out?"
Dyja flew in from New York. He's lived there for 30 years but grew up near Riis Park on the Northwest Side. His mother still lives here, and his sister works here at Kraft Foods. We were standing before the impressive, boxy expanse of van der Rohe's Crown Hall, on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus, a building with a history that figures heavily in his new book.
And oh, his book …
"The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream," which comes out this week from Penguin Press, has a gentle title and a sanguine black-and-white cover image of the rotating beacon on the roof of the old Palmolive Building throwing light over Lake Michigan. It also has an elegant, unflinching, non-nostalgic clarity about Chicago that you rarely see in books about Chicago. It gave me a dizzying rush, the impression that I had come across a new touchstone in Chicago literature, an ambitious history lesson no one had written: The story of how, from 1945 to 1960, Chicago created the culture that shaped American culture, delivering, in that brief window, Studs Terkel, McDonald's, Hugh Hefner, the atom bomb, modernist architecture, Chess Records, The Second City, the Chicago School of Television and "Kukla, Fran and Ollie."
That's the short list.
"The simple answer why I wrote this," Dyja said, "is because all these groundbreaking people and interesting, important movements, forces and scenes were happening at the same time, sometimes intersecting with each other, sometimes feeding off each other. The blues and gospel alone are coming into their own blocks from each other. Meanwhile a few streets away, discussions are going on about tearing down those blocks!"
Here's the catch: This is not a happy tale.
It's more, a necessary slap of good sense from a native son to the city he is ambivalent about. Indeed, without announcing itself as such, it reads like an explainer of the Chicago Way, the Second City mentality, the pragmatism that laid groundwork for both Chicago's cultural rise and its stifling self-consciousness and short-sightedness. If you've ever wondered why Chicago, with a cultural history as encompassing as Oprah, Richard Wright, Nelson Algren and Kanye West, has trouble holding on to artists, or why the city's culture can feel so, you know, corporate, you should read this book.
"I understand people might want to fling 'Third Coast' at my head, but I didn't intend to say mean things, only honest things," Dyja said. "I didn't set out to comment on the way Chicago is now, and I don't directly do that, but over the years, watching from New York, you do wonder why Chicago, which has so much going on, explodes then peters out. Even as a kid I wondered why we couldn't just say we had a great symphony, we always had to have the greatest, largest symphony — this kind of Soviet insistence on our importance."
He doesn't prescribe solutions — this is a history book, ultimately — but he does offer a glimpse at the roots of our troubles. In fact, as I read "Third Coast," I felt it laying bare those sources of malaise (immense geography, ingrained passivity, lousy government, suburban money), suggesting a more interesting, concrete and time-tested cultural plan for Chicago than the city's recent Chicago Cultural Plan offered.
For instance, about that Palmolive Building, Dyja writes of artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (who later founded what became IIT's Institute of Design) passing the building upon his arrival. "Everything in Chicago, even the names of the buildings, seemed to involve selling, and yet the Palmolive was the best new building Mohoy had seen here, lean and strong. Everything here wanted to be something great, even if it didn't know what, or how, or why …"
Standing in front of Crown Hall, I told Dyja that I often hear Chicagoans asking what makes a "world-class city." He said, "If you have to ask ...
"See, you just create and hope it happens. You don't decide to be that."
I told him an exhibit on famous Chicagoans in Willis Tower was recently discovered to have misspelled Terkel's name — an exhibit that's been up for 14 years. He said, "Now you're just breaking my heart."
Me: I found this book incredibly melancholy in its implications.
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.
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."
Me: Do you think not living in Chicago helped you write this book?
Me: That was a fast answer.
Dyja: You need a healthy distance from a place to see it clearly.
Me: You know, Chicago compares itself so reflexively to New York, but maybe, geographically and diversity-wise, maybe Los Angeles to some extent is the more relevant cultural comparison.
Dyja: Yes, but LA has movies and TV as its cultural identifier.
Me: New York has its literary air.
Dyja: And Chicago should be best of all. But frankly, I have spent my life listening to those comparisons, and I didn't want to write a book about that. There are certainly people in Queens who could not care less what's happening at the Met. Though New York City, as whole, has a better idea of itself than Chicago ever has.
I pointed out the obvious: You left Chicago, I told Dyja. Everyone leaves, and you left too.
He was 18, he said, he left for college (Columbia University), he wanted to work in the book industry and there was none here. Plus, the city's defensiveness and racial segregation had grown wearying. I asked, if he was 18 and in Chicago now, would he leave? He said: "Oh, without a doubt it's a better place. I didn't grow up with the Chris Wares and Rick Baylesses of the world to excite me, and I think part of why I wrote this book is to remind Chicago of what it has, to help it develop a hard sense of what it could be." He said he probably wouldn't move to Manhattan now — it lacks of the edge of the early '80s.
We stood in Riis Park, before a pond designed by famed landscaper Alfred Caldwell (who also designed Lily Pool in Lincoln Park). Dyja said he came here often as a child. It was larger than he remembered, though filthier. The pond was green, stagnant and full of trash.
Dyja looked stricken. So, for a moment, in silence, we watched the ducks. Two swam our way, then, eyeing the stagnation ahead, paused, turned and, probably thinking better of it, swam off.
Thomas Dyja appears Thursday at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St., 312-747-4300.