Book Review: ‘The Third Coast’

Thomas Dyja details how the city of Chicago made its mark on American arts and culture

The Third Coast, Thomas Dyja’s 2013 history of Chicago’s mid-twentieth century,  focuses on the city’s impact on the art and culture of the United States. The apt subtitle, “When Chicago Built the American Dream,” touches on the important role that the city has played in shaping the U.S. as it is today. The title refers to both the insecurity that Chicago carries relative to its coastal counterparts, as well as the pride it carries in its role as builder of the nation. 

Dyja shows that in Chicago things are done for both form and function. A work of art, whether a building or a poem, has a structure to it that must abide by the rules of its craft but also, crucially, bring something to the table of culture that moves people forward. Dyja argues that it is this unflinching regard for the empowerment and reverence of the ordinary people that gives Chicago a special place in the relatively recent history of America.

Architecture, being the epitome of the meeting of form and function, is a proper through-line for this piece. Dyja’s narrative begins with the 1938 arrival of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in Chicago, a renowned modernist master set to become head of the architecture school that is today the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). The campus would be expanded and new buildings designed and built by Mies, but first the school would need to appropriate land and property from the surrounding and predominantly Black neighborhood. 

One of the buildings on the school’s desired list was The Mecca, an apartment building where a young Gwendolyn Brooks dreamed up what would become 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 fleshy life mythic Chicago figures of the past in all of their pre-celebrity and insecure glory, and weaves them together in not only place and time, but in relevance. He writes them as characters in a story more than as great people of history, and in this method gives us an entry into their lives that feels intimate and raw while allowing the reader to feel as if they experienced these moments in time. As much as one would want A People’s History of Chicago, this is the next best thing. 

With a more novelist-than-historian approach, Dyja skillfully connects Brooks to Chicago’s Black Renaissance, less famous than the Harlem Renaissance, as it “went unknown to most whites…its connections to Communism…would make it easier, even necessary, to forget.” Charles White, a wonderful visual artist of this movement, referred to paint as his weapon and embodied the ideology prevalent among his contemporaries. 

This was not by accident. The Chicago artists sought to differentiate themselves from the Harlem artists, and an unapologetic social consciousness was one of the ways they did so. It is impossible to tell the story of the U.S., much less that of one of its greatest cities, without touching on the struggle for racial equality. That struggle carries through the three decades (mid 1930s-1960s) covered in the book and into our own time. 

 From Brooks and the IIT campus, Dyja introduces a young Richard J. Daley, who is also a prominent figure throughout, as he was instrumental in the shaping of modern Chicago. Daley enters the stage as a state senator helping craft legislation that allows entities like IIT to force Black residents out of their homes, and ends as one of the most powerful mayors in America. Dyja makes the book a page turner by connecting history with politics through wonderfully individuated characters brought to life with a significant amount of research and attention to detail. 

The Third Coast is also full of artists and culturally significant figures that have been nearly lost to history. There are too many to enumerate, but what is assured is that the book will give you new favorites to dig into—a new photographer, musician, writer, or activist. Wayne F. Miller’s photography of Black Chicagoans from the South Side was a particularly pleasant discovery. Another was Mies’ fellow Bauhaus exile, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy. Primarily a visual artist, he dabbled in nearly every artistic form and brought something new to each one. More than the beauty of his paintings though, his philosophy of art resonates with me and is a great summation of the Chicago ethic: “everyone is talented.” 

The author inserts a bit of levity in an otherwise heavy and complex work of social history. One delightful example is his opening of a chapter with the words, “stately, plump Dick Daley,” a nod to Joyce’s Ulysses. Dyja’s literary passions are obvious and endearing with these Easter eggs of fiction in particular. 

Elsewhere,  he writes of the relationship between Chicago author Nelson Algren and French writer-philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. He does so with a novelist’s flair, imagining himself as a fly on the wall, writing “She tilted an eyebrow” in response to Algren’s suggestion he show her the rough side of Chicago. 

One of the most powerful moments of the book comes when he contrasts the trajectory of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner with that of the photographer Harry Callahan, another relatively unknown artist. Callahan loved to artistically photograph both bare trees and his beloved wife bare from the waist up. Hefner, on the other hand, paid $500 for a set of photos of a woman who took $50 for the work in order to pay a bill. That woman was Marilyn Monroe and that first issue of Playboy featuring her body created the career and legacy of a man who wanted to live in loungewear and trade in his girlfriends once they left their twenties. Callahan’s marriage was one of “shared power and intimacy,” something that the Playboy owner could never grasp. Hefner’s name is honored on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, while Callahan is mostly forgotten. Ours is a complicated history.

Ultimately, the power of the book comes through in its portrayal of Chicago as the city that showed the U.S. a version of itself that it was not comfortable with. From the trivial example of Hefner launching a successful magazine—and what its popularity said about the country, especially its acceptance of blatant misogyny—to the tragic: the open casket image of Emmett Till forcing the world to acknowledge the horrific violence of racism. Dyja argues that whereas the prevailing ideology of a New York or Los Angeles can be summed up as “look at me,” Chicago’s is instead, good or bad, “look at this.”

Thomas Dyja, The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream. $17.99 (paperback). Penguin Books, 2013. 676 pages.

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Sado Marinovic is a writer from Chicago. This is their first piece for the Weekly.

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