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By Scott Jacobs

The Third Coast
When Chicago Built the American Dream
By Thomas Dyja
Penguin Press ($29.95, 544 pps.)

In the controversial New York Times book review trashing Neil Steinberg’s You Were Never in Chicago, Thomas Dyja’s The Third Coast is singled out, for comparison purposes, as the best of a bad lot of recent books about Chicago. This is hardly fair treatment for a fascinating history of the city that is every bit on a par with Robert Caro’s classic portrait of New York’s Robert Moses in The Powerbroker.

An Epic Saga

The Third Coast has no central character like Moses in The Powerbroker. It covers the period (from roughly 1938 to 1960) when the city’s factories, stockyards, and rail connections helped shape a 1950s’ version of the American Dream. But it tells that story through rich, interwoven portraits of the movers and shakers in art, music, politics, business and media in Chicago who stamped that dream with the image of a regular guy.

To capture the spirit of those times Dyja draws on an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and blues, reams of original research and extensive interviews that give The Third Coast the weight and drama of an epic saga deserving a prominent place on the top shelf of Chicago histories.

Dyja’s book paints sharp portraits of Robert Maynard Hutchins and the origins of the University of Chicago, traces the seminal influence of Mies Van Der Rohe on the architecture of the city and Moholy Nagy on the Institute of Design, unearths the control that the Chess Brothers––two Jews in search of profits––had on the careers of Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Bo Didley and Chuck Berry, reveals the racial clashes over public housing that divided the city, and finally, explores the character of the man who presided over this tumultuous period,  the quintessential Chicago regular guy, Mayor Richard J. Daley.

Modern Chicago in The Making

It’s all here: The story of the making of modern Chicago brought to life in the struggles of Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, Mahalia Jackson, Gwendolyn Brooks, Burr Tillstrom, Dave Garroway, Ray Kroc, Hugh Hefner, Walter Paepcke and Saul Alinsky (among others) to satisfy their dreams in a post-war America.

The Third Coast is the history of Chicago’s greatest––and final– period as the nation’s primary meeting place, market, workshop, and lab, but it is also the story of how America’s uniform culture came to be,” Dyja states––not immodestly––in the introduction. Then he goes on to prove it.

A Warm Night in October

The Mecca circa 1938

His story begins on a warm October night in 1938. While the city’s power elite gather at the Palmer House to welcome Mies Van der Rohe as the new Director of Architecture at the Armour Institute, a 21-year-old black women named Gwendolyn Brooks walks the corridors of The Mecca selling dream guides to desperate people who didn’t know any better.

“As she stepped out the door, a complex mixture of smells told the stories of the thousand or so people who lived in the Mecca’s 176 apartments: unattended children pissing through the railings, the shit and ammonia stink of boiling chitlins, simmering garbage, the cigarettes of those who wile away yet another day.”  Thirty years later, she would write a poem about it “to capsulize the gist of black humanity in general.”

The thread of two Chicagos––one black and one white––runs throughout the book, even up to the time in 1956 when the Mecca is torn down to make way for Van der Rohe’s IIT campus and replaced by Crown Hall, described by Eero Saarinen at its dedication as a “serene temple of the present.”

Divided but Equal

Dyja is equally respectful of both sides of this racial divide, often lyrical in his descriptions. Here is the opening of his first chapter on Daley:

Stately, plump Dick Daley grabbed hold of the brass rail and lifted the casket up and out through the doors of St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church. Death was clearing his path again. Fourteen years ago he’d won his first election when State Representative David Shanahan died just before voting day, leaving an open ballot line for him to jump onto. Now on January 6, 1950, as he slid the body of Cook County Clerk Michael J. Flynn into a hearse, Daley could consider the vacant office his. The funeral cortege began its long drive through a light flurry of snow to the cemetery in Evanston.

Though sixteen years younger than Mies, Daley was carved of the same stone: thinning hair combed back, fleshy ears and jowls, paunch buttoned into an expensive Duro suit. Neither one had command of the English language; Daley bumbled and botched words, dropped dem and dose like rocks onto flowerbeds. But like the architect, he too understood the value of bricks.

And here is his account of the year Mahalia Jackson became the first black homeowner in Chatham:

Mahalia Jackson slapped the pillows of her mustard Regency sofa. The gold swags on the windows need dusting. No one had wanted her to buy this red brick ranch house at 8353 S. Indiana: not her agent, not her manager, not her friends, and certainly not her new neighbors in a white area called Chatham––“You’d have thought the atomic bomb was coming instead of me.” But Mahalia did what she pleased, and it had pleased her in the spring of 1956 to take $40,000 out of her bra and hand it to the white doctor willing to break the now unspoken rules. . . .

The floor-length shades rippled as Mahalia vacuumed under them. “I hadn’t intended to start a one-man crusade,” she said about the house. “All I wanted was a quiet, pretty home.”

Forgotten History

The Third Coast vividly recounts the many instances when black Chicago and white Chicago clashed. As Chicago’s white titans of industry entertained visions of remaking the city in their own image, they turned to Mies and his disciples to create glass-sided, high rise office and apartment buildings.

Mies Van der Rohe with a model of the IIT Crown Center.

Most of these were in the Loop and around N. Michigan Ave. (rechristened by one developer as “The Magnificent Mile”). But a consortium of developers from the Illinois Institute of Technology, Michael Reese Hospital and New York Life Insurance had their eye on a huge tract of land just south of the Loop as a model for a new kind of city within a city.

Van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and University of Chicago sociologist Martin Myerson helped develop the plan for Lake Meadows, IIT and the Michael Reese extension; unfortunately, it overlaid a community called Bronzeville, then teeming with blacks who had come up from the South to partake in Chicago’s prosperity.

Gaining control of a land mass that large required government cooperation, and it came in the form of a South Side Planning Board (SSPB). The board was one of the first entities to refer to its work as urban renewal: an attempt to replace blighted slums with modern facilities. But too often blight meant black people; and although there were nominal plans to move the displaced residents into new CHA housing, politics soon derailed that part of the plan.

With other urban renewal efforts on the drawing board in Hyde Park, Lincoln Park and the near West Side, the need for new quarters to house the displaced poor grew. Elizabeth Wood, then the director of the Chicago Housing Authority, made a valiant effort to integrate a few black tenants into some of the new (and attractively designed) housing projects that had been built after the war for veterans. But thousands of angry whites in Park Manor, the Airport Homes around Midway and Trumbull Park greeted their new neighbors with rocks and firebombs. At one point, a third of the Chicago police department was on hand to control one of these outbursts.

The Seeds of an Urban Nightmare

The Third Coast is especially good at bringing out the long race-tinged history of Chicago public housing. It’s a history worth remembering as the city 50 years later tries to untangle the damage done by the racist decisions of the past.

In the decade after World War II, Wood’s attempts to build more public housing outside black communities were thwarted by the “Gray Wolves” in the City Council, and Wood herself was driven out of her position in 1953.  A newly elected Mayor Daley finally broke the impasse, not by breaking down the racial barriers, but acceding to a huge swath of high rise CHA towers running from 22nd to 55th street along the Dan Ryan expressway, itself a physical barrier that walled off his native Bridgeport on the other side.

The Robert Taylor Homes

The “projects” came with noble names like Stateway Gardens and the Robert Taylor Homes (named after Valerie Jarrett’s grandfather, the first black chairman of the CHA), but they were made of cheap materials and densely packed together. Add in a Green Homes extension to Cabrini (thus Cabrini-Green), Henry Horner Homes, ABLA, and Rockwell Gardens––all concentrated in ghetto areas––and Daley is credited with building some 30,000 cinderblock-encrusted “living units” in this period.

But the wrongheaded design and shoddy construction soon became apparent. For the next 40 years, three generations of residents were condemned to a life of broken elevators, concrete playgrounds, urine-stained lobbies and 15th floor apartments where the only time they would see Lake Michigan was through the chain link fencing on the gallery––if the next high rise over didn’t block the view.

An Artistic Powerhouse

If the regular guys were ascendant, it was nowhere more apparent that in the art, music, television, advertising, books and theater of the times where Chicago set the tone. Dyja waxes long and lyrically on Chicago’s early television pioneers, the vibrant nightclub scene in Bronzeville, and the permutations Second City went through in finding its improvisational lodestone.

In Dyja’s definition of the arts, Huge Hefner gets special treatment for creating a lifestyle magazine that succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. But for every Hefner, there was a Nelson Algren, the talented and troubled author who never felt quite appreciated in his own city.

Howlin Wolf at Silvios

Aficionados of jazz, blues and gospel will find in The Third Coast a book within a book about the dozens of musicians who gave the Chicago scene its vibrancy: everyone from Mahalia and Muddy to the mysterious Sun Ra, whose intergalactic theories (and music) helped John Coltraine kick his addictions. “Sun Ra was another kind of being,” his partner Pat Patrick said. “He was a black self-help organization run on a shoestring.”

If you were active in the cultural scene in those years, whether as a patron or an artist, Dyja deftly explains your role in the narrative. That goes for people like Walter Paepcke, the head of Container Corporation of American, who funded the Institute of Design (and Aspen Institute), but also Henry Darger and Vivian Meier, who lived their lives in obscurity producing volumes of drawings and photos that only now are being recognized as world class.

No Shortage of Politics

There is no scrimping on politics in this book. Whether it’s Big Bill Dawson spinning around his South Side office on one leg or Jake Arvey engineering Adlai Stevenson’s rise to the Democratic nomination, there’s never been a shortage of colorful politicians in Chicago, and none is more colorful, or more admired, than the late Mayor Richard J. Daley.

Dyja strikes a balance between Mike Royko’s Boss and Elizabeth Taylor’s American Pharaoh in depicting Daley. He’s a regular guy who took advantage of all the opportunities politics afforded him. He was the last mayor in Chicago to harness the power of the old Democratic machine, and he used it, for better and worse, to lay the foundation for a new Chicago. But as Dyja shows in his account of Queen Elizabeth’s 1959 visit commemorating the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, Daley was also prone to winging it––just like the rest of us.

Was 1960 Really the End?

Dyja ends his saga in January 1961. Mayor Daley is sitting in the presidential box at the Kennedy inauguration. Mahalia Jackson is singing on the podium. Hugh Hefner is attending a Washington gala hosted by Frank Sinatra. (And somewhere in America, or so he claims, a young boy named Barack Obama is about to be born.)

He chooses 1960 as the end of the era for a variety of reasons: it is the moment when corporatism and big media, notably TV networks, are defining mass audiences in a new way, and so Chicago’s regular guys find their power to create an American dream waning; a time when airplanes are replacing trains as the principal means of transportation; when refrigerator cars have made the Chicago stockyards obsolete; and when the growth of suburbs has reduced Chicago from a city on the make to merely a large regional epicenter. The city of big shoulders has become just a dot of gleaming Lakeshore high rises in the Loop connected to bedroom communities in the suburbs for white people who speed along expressways through black ghettos filled with people they will never know.

There are reasons aplenty to end The Third Coast in 1960, but I hope there is a sequel, or even two. The first would capture what happened next in the 60’s and 70’s before Daley died in 1976. The second should explore the era of “reform” brought on by the election of Jane Byrne in 1979, Harold Washington in 1983 and Daley’s own son Richard M. Daley in 1989.

History doesn’t end on the last page of a book. The story of Chicago continues as a fascinating mix of art, culture, politics and technology, always worthy of further exploration, especially in the hands of an author like Thomas Dyja with a gift for elucidating what it all means.


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