Culture clash: New history of Chicago taps into our malaise

Me: Do you think not living in Chicago helped you write this book?

Dyja: Yes.

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.

Twitter @borrelli


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