Author of The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream
Photo credit: Bill Guerreiro
About Thomas Dyja
Much of American culture was made in Chicago, and to understand the country you have to understand its “third coast.” So argues Chicago-born-and-raised writer Thomas Dyja. His illuminating The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream argues that after the Second World War the Windy City functioned as the center of the nation—not just geographically, but also in terms of culture, politics and business. Chicago’s extraordinary mix of architects, politicians, musicians, writers, entrepreneurs, and actors shaped America’s culture, and national identity.
While in the east coast New York was an industrial powerhouse, and on the west coast Hollywood sold fantasies, between 1946 and 1960, Chicago produced much of what defined modern, consumer America: Mies van der Rohe’s glass and steel architecture and massive urban planning schemes, Hefner’s Playboy and mass-market sex, Chuck Berry’s Rock and Roll; McDonald’s and the Fast Food Nation. Far from Hollywood and Broadway, Chicago also cultivated its own humanist aesthetic, rooted deep in the prairie, focused on people, intimacy, and improvisation. Second City and Improv comedy, the urban Blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and the golden age of Gospel with Mahalia Jackson, the outlaw writings of Nelson Algren and the seeds of Studs Terkel’s oral histories, the Chicago School of Television and the Monster Roster painters—all these emerged just as corporatism swept the coasts. Chicago was the only place in the United States with the unique intermingling of race, class, and politics that could usher this wave of unparalleled creativity and innovation. It became our “third coast.”
But as Dyja explains, Chicago’s golden era didn’t last long. The election of Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1955 launched a frenzy of new building that came at the expense of Chicago’s wealth of creativity and diversity. The racial divisions that informed virtually every aspect of life in the city came to a head during this construction boom, as whites either fled to the suburbs or violently opposed the integration of their neighborhoods. Urban planners tried to design away “blight” (policymakers’ code for poor, mostly Black neighborhoods) with housing projects that essentially isolated and trapped residents—a model that marred communities in Chicago, and later in other American cities. With the arrival of transcontinental flights the city turned inward, alienating itself from the outside world—a shift that decimated its creative class, and drastically diminished Chicago’s crucial role in American life.
“America,” says Dyja, “is a better place when Chicago holds it together.” With The Third Coast Dyja restores Chicago to the central place it once held in the national ethos in a captivating and dazzling alternate history of the American Century.
Dyja is the author of three novels and two works of nonfiction. A native of Chicago’s Northwest Side, he was called “a real Chicago boy” by Studs Terkel.
10 Ways Chicago Changed Your LifeCategories: Culture + Arts Speakers, History Speakers
Books by Thomas Dyja
Media About Thomas Dyja
Robust cultural history… Dyja zooms in on the qualities Chicagoans value and does it better than anyone else.
Elegant, unflinching, non-nostalgic… a new touchstone in Chicago literature… an ambitious history lesson no one had written.
A deeper perspective, detailing Chicago’s mid-century contributions to literature, music, theater, photography, television and architecture… The book is an extraordinarily good read, with writing that sparkles.
[A] robust, outspoken, zestfully knowledgeable, and seductively told synthesis of biography, culture, politics, and history…[written] with velocity, wry wit, and tough lyricism.
A magisterial narrative of mid-20th century Chicago… a luminous, empathetic, and engrossing portrait of a city.
A valuable contribution to the history of Chicago, worthy of a place alongside William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis.
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- Thomas Dyja travels from New York, NY