“Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”
― Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make
The title of this review is stolen from Alex Kotlowitz’s 2004 book which is a set of portraits of “regular Chicagoans.”
In Chicago Literature, a course that I’ve taught periodically, I’ve put on the reading list selections from Nelson Algren’s Chicago City on the Make, Studs Terkel’s Division Street America, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, and Alex Kotlowicz’s There Are No Children Here. So it was a particular sense of excitement that I turned to The Third Coast: When Chicago Build the American Dream, Thomas Dyja’s ambitious and Heartland Prize-winning cultural history of post-World War II Chicago, a 14 year span which ended with the triumph of my Chicago White Sox in 1959 (they won the pennant but lost the World Series) and the landslide re-election of fellow fan Mayor Richard J. Daley earlier in the same year.
Dyja writes an account of the various strains of Chicago cultural (the forging of a distinctive blues and gospel music; the ascendancy of Democratic Machine; the new developments in European-influenced architecture and design; the unexpected popularity of native son Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine; and the urban realism of novelist Nelson Algren and poet Gwendolyn Brooks). And his curiousity is always seeking parallels between these different worlds. Dyja’s synthetic mind is suggested by notions such as this: Mayor Richard J. Daley’s retail politics was to democracy what Ray Kroc’s hamburger was to food and Hefner’s Playboy was to sex.
In Dyja’s analysis, Chicago lost something important when corporate and government institutions became more powerful, when food was standardized, and when sex became another accessory in the organization man’s briefcase. What he discovers is that the late 1940s and the 1950s were an especially fertile and promising period for American culture and that Chicago was a laboratory where experiments in various forms of democratic practice were being conducted. This re-reading of American and Chicago history challenges the common portraits of the tranquil 50s when an American public, fatigued by war and marginally aware of the Cold War, retreated into careerism and consumerism.
Dyja is interested in the forces percolating underneath the surface. There is a pronounced tone of nostalgia and regret coursing through the work – regret for a “dream deferred” if not dissolved. Dyja is quite mindful of Chicago’s troubled racial history and the fact that black-white conflict heated up rather than subsided during the 50s as thousands of African-Americans rode the Illinois Central and dispersed through the south side from the 63rd street station and the interstate highway system abetted white flight. Some of Dyja’s most powerful writing is devoted to the various tragedies of segregation: the death and funeral of Emmitt Till; the machinations of “black boss” Congressman William Dawson; the erection of high-rise public housing along the State Street Corridor, a policy decision designed to keep African-Americans quarantined from downtown, the affluent Gold Coast, and the white ethnic neighborhoods that fanned out along avenues like Milwaukee and and Archer; celebrated architect Mies van der Rohe’s indifference to the displacement of African-Americans as he designed the Illinois Institute of Technology southside campus..
Dyja’s book celebrates Chicagoans who celebrated the “the regular guy” before this “regular guy” became a rock throwing racist, of the kind that made life difficult for real counterparts to dramatist Lorraine Hansberry’s Younger family who tried to move into white neighborhoods. At the center of “The Golden Age of Chicago Television” stood puppeteer Burr Tillstrom who with Fran Allison and Kukla and Ollie (the last two his puppets) conducted free-wheeling conversations on a host of topics. The informality and democratic sympathies of Tillstrom were mirrored in “Stud’s Place,” the forerunner of “Cheers,” and starring Studs Terkel whose public career in radio and oral history would last for another 50 years and whose promotion of and friendship with Mahalia Jackson, a Dyja heroine, was legendary. Another hero is the volatile Polish-Jewish immigrant Leonard Chess, who, with his brother Phil, founded Chess Records which gave a label and an income to Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf. From Dyja’s perspective, the arrival of Chuck Berry, who popularized race music for white audiences, signaled not a final triumph but the end of authenticity. The greed of the Chess brothers compromised their devotion to raw roots music from the Mississippi Delta.
Even the young Hugh Hefner is admirable. Dyja has a wonderful image of the teenager standing on a hill in Riis Park on the northwest side, dreaming of conquering downtown five miles to the east. It’s Gatsby looking at Daisy’s dock. Dyja’s image of our young liberator from Puritan restrictions is quite at odds with the image well-established at the end of the decade: the corporate yet pajama-clad Hef roaming the Mansion at 4AM, advising on the airbrushing a Playmate’s centerfold. From a different neighborhood (Bridgeport rather than Galewood) stepped family man and daily communicant Mayor Richard J. Daley, who tried to control this and other “black sheep” Chicago sons and, from Dyja’s perspective, only succeeded in suppressing the edginess that made the Chicago art scene real.
Running through the book are accounts of the writer Nelson Algren (Man with the Golden Arm) and his tempestuous relationship with French feminist Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex). He’s both the promise and the frustration of Chicago culture. Sure he associated with prostitutes, barflys, and dope addicts, but in fictionalizing their lives in lyrical prose, he gave them recognition and dignity. Dyja, as well as any of Chicago’s historians, captures Algren’s ambivalence about the the city, the woman with the broken nose. It’s an ambivalence that is very much his own. The Third Coast helps us to put aside the dismissive Second City label.