Culture clash: New history of Chicago taps into our malaise

A new history of the city taps the root of our Second City-style discontent

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (April 12, 2013)

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.

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.

CHICAGO

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