Third CoastAnd the Thomas Deja’s 2013 mid-20th century history of Chicago focuses on the city’s influence on United States art and culture. The appropriate subtitle “When Chicago Built the American Dream” touches on the important role the city played in shaping the United States as it is today. The title refers both to the insecurity that Chicago holds in relation to its coastal peers, as well as the pride it holds for its role in nation-building.
Dyja explains that things in Chicago are done in terms of form and function. A work of art, whether it is a building or a poem, has a structure that must adhere to the rules of its craft, but also, crucially, bring something to the culture table that moves people forward. Degas argues that it is this unwavering respect for the piety and reverence of ordinary people that gives Chicago a special place in the relatively recent history of America.
Architecture, being the epitome of the confluence of form and function, is a fitting line for this piece. Dyja’s narrative begins with the 1938 arrival in Chicago of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a famous modernist teacher destined to become president of the school of architecture today known as the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). The campus will be expanded and new buildings designed and built by Mays, but the school will first need to allocate land and property from the surrounding predominantly black neighborhood.
One of the buildings on the school’s coveted list was The Mecca, an apartment building where young Gwendolyn Brooks dreamed of what would become a powerful spiritual poetry inspired by the people she met. And so in the course of a few pages, Dyja sets the scene and brings to meaty life legendary Chicago characters from the past in all their pre-celebrity and insecure glory, weaving them together not just in space and time, but in relevance. He writes them more as characters in a story than as great people in history, and in this way he gives us an entry into their lives in which we feel intimate and ruthless while allowing the reader to feel as if they have experienced these moments in time. As much as one wants People’s History of ChicagoThis is the second best thing.
With a more novelist than historian approach, Degas subtly connects Brooks to the Black Renaissance in Chicago, less well-known than the Harlem Renaissance, as he “became unknown to most whites… his connections to communism… would make it easier, and even necessary, to forget.” . .” Charles White, a brilliant plastic artist of this movement, referred to painting as his weapon and the embodiment of the dominant ideology among his contemporaries.
This was not by chance. Chicago artists sought to distinguish themselves from Harlem artists, and unapologetic social awareness was one way they did so. It is impossible to tell the story of the United States, let alone the story of one of its greatest cities, without touching on the struggle for racial equality. This struggle continued through the three decades (mid-thirties – sixties) covered by the book and up to our time.
From Brooks and the IIT campus, Dyja introduces young Richard J. Daley, also an all-time leading figure, who has been instrumental in shaping modern Chicago. Daly enters the stage as a senator helping with the literal legislation that allows entities like the IIT to force black residents out of their homes, ending up as one of the most powerful mayors in America. Dyja makes the book turn the pages by connecting history and politics through fascinating individual characters who have been brought to life with a great deal of research and attention to detail.
Third Coast Also filled with artists and culturally significant figures that have been nearly lost to history. There is a lot to enumerate, but what is certain is that the book will give you new favorites to dig into – a new photographer, musician, writer or activist. Wayne F. Miller’s depiction of black Chicagoans from the South Side was a particularly interesting discovery. Another was Mies’ classmate at the exiled Bauhaus, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Primarily a visual artist, he dabbled in almost every art form and brought something new to each one. More than the beauty of his paintings, however, his philosophy of art resonates with me and is a wonderful summation of the Chicago ethic: “Everyone is gifted.”
The author inserts a bit of provocation into a heavy and complex work of social history. One delightful example is his opening of a chapter with the words, “Luxurious, plump Dick Daly,” a reference to Joyce Ulysses. Dyja’s literary sentiments are palpable and lovable with fantasy Easter eggs in particular.
Elsewhere, he wrote about the relationship between Chicago author Nelson Algren and French writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. He did so with novelistic flair, imagining himself as a fly on the wall, writing “She tilted an eyebrow” in response to Algren’s suggestion that he show her the tough side of Chicago.
One of the book’s strongest moments comes when he compares the path play boy Founder Hugh Hefner with photographer Harry Callahan, another relatively unknown artist. Callahan loved the artistic depiction of bare trees and his beloved wife naked from the waist up. On the other hand, Hefner paid $500 for a set of photos of a woman who took $50 for work in order to pay a bill. That woman was Marilyn Monroe and this is the first issue of play boy Showing her body created the career and legacy of a man who wanted to live in pajamas and trade his girlfriends once they left their twenties. Callahan’s marriage was one of “common strength and intimacy”, something that was play boy The owner could not understand it. Hefner’s name is honored on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, while Callahan is often forgotten. Our history is complicated.
In the end, the book’s strength is shown in its depiction of Chicago as the city that showed the United States a version of itself it was uncomfortable with. From the frivolous example of Hefner’s launch of a successful magazine—and what her popularity had to say about the country, especially her acceptance of blatant misogyny—to the tragic: Emmett Till’s open casket portrait that forces the world to acknowledge the horrific violence of racism. Dyja argues that while the dominant ideology of New York or Los Angeles can be summed up as “look at me,” Chicago is instead, for good or bad, “look at this.”
Thomas Deja, Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream. $17.99 (paperback). Penguin Books, 2013. 676 pages.
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Sado Marinovic is a Chicago writer. This is their first piece in weekly.