Chicago’s Yearning Years: A Conversation with ‘The Third Coast’ Author Thomas Dyja

A conversation about Chicago’s many historical characters and how they reflect the changing nature of the American city.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the architect who features prominently in The Third Coast. Credit: Chicago History Museum

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Last month I reviewed The Third Coast, a book covering the 25 years in Chicago when much of what changed in the world originated in the Windy City. I recently got author Thomas Dyja on the phone to talk about the many historical characters featured in his book and how they reflect the changing nature of the American city.

Next City: A part of me was tempted to dismiss some of the characters of the book as not actually being from Chicago. But you write about that fact as if Chicago should be proud of it. Is there something about certain cities that makes them so good that not only do people want to live there but, once there, they blossom?

Thomas Dyja: That’s very much part of the story of the book. Chicago at that point is a nexus for the country. It’s a place that everyone has to go through. A lot of its importance comes from that. It’s a place where people could go and start over. Certainly, Chicago also has a great tradition of sending people out into the world. Every city I’ve gone to has a group of passionate Chicagoans. I don’t think we’re expatriates. We’re exports.

Very few people in the book are from Chicago, or born there. Not Studs Terkel. Not Muddy Waters. Not Nelson Algren. So many people who are really important look at Chicago as a place to try out new ideas. You went west and started afresh in Chicago. That pioneer spirit, that entrepreneurial edge, has always been built into Chicago.

NC: It always seemed to me like Chicago was rightly understood as a member of the triumvirate of American cities. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Kansas, but it always seemed that everyone knew Chicago was great. Why did you think that Chicago’s record needed to be defended or restored to its rightful place?

Dyja: If you’re from Kansas, you’re from the part of the country that sees Chicago as the big city. That Midwestern bias works in Chicago’s favor. Chicago is the idea of what a big city was. New York and L.A. may as well have been Paris. That sentiment isn’t shared everywhere. On the coasts — certainly as I’ve gone to other cities — it is breaking news that so many things came out of there. A lot of people have forgotten that or never knew it.

NC: I suppose the fact that I’m also a little involved in the comedy world explains it. Everyone in that world knows how important it is.

Dyja: That’s right. There are certain nodes of people who see Chicago that way. Also, architects. Lots of architects see Chicago as a living museum. Academics admire Chicago as well, so there are certain groups.

There is a book I was really influenced by called A Nervous Splendour. In it, Freud, Jung, Klimt, Brahms, the fathers of Modernism were all living in Vienna at the same time. All living together and drawing from each other. Drawn to this time and place. So then I saw that all these people who had a major impact on modern culture were in Chicago, in the same place at the same time.

Muddy Waters and Mahalia [Jackson] were linked together in Chicago by urban planning. Musicologists can point to the ways in which the roots of there music were tied together, but what was fun for me to see what how they were linked together as much by urban planning as they were by musical development. There was this huge demographic thing going on here that created the pressures and the realities for this kind of music to take off.

NC: [Architect Ludwig] Mies [van der Rohe] is the most prominent figure in the whole book, yet you also go to great lengths to sing the praises of Chicago’s populism. It feels like an elitist hero in a story that praises populism. Did you mean to create this tension between a small group of the elite and then also these man-of-people characters like [photographer] Henry Callahan and Saul Alinsky and others?

Dyja: One of the tensions of the book, a lot of it, is that in the same place you have this great emergence of what I think of as people-driven culture – whether we’re talking about Gwendolyn Brooks or musical styles or Nelson Algren writing about the back streets. On the other hand, you have this entrepreneurial culture, which is a part of this other great talent of Chicago. Mass marketing and corporatism. Chicago is the home of Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. The consumer culture and the mass market is growing in Chicago.

Mies is the exemplar of that, because he’s so tied in to big institutions. That side of Chicago overwhelms the cooperative, human side of Chicago. There are very few out and out bad guys in the book, and Mies is certainly not one of them. He makes absolutely inspiring buildings that can make your heart soar, but the cost to the city, not so much in money but in human terms, was often high. A lot was sacrificed in terms of what it took to give him the space to do what he wanted to do.

S.R. Crown Hall, a Chicago building designed by Mies. Credit: Flickr user moacirpdsp

NC: This book feels like less a book about the people of Chicago so much as it is about its great people. Why did you decide to organize it as a story of a series of prominent individuals rather than stories about the regular folks of the city?

Dyja: My background is writing fiction. I always intended this from the start to be a narrative history. I never saw it as an academic history. A lot of my work was looking at the academic work of great scholars, bringing it forward and animating it. To do that, you need to hang it on lives of stories and people. Chicago’s is not a city of theories and movements — it’s a story of people.

To talk about people like Mahalia in theoretical terms is losing the juice of the whole thing. The intellectual reason for that is because a lot of what happens is exactly the opposite of what happens in New York, which is more about theory and ideas. In Chicago, it’s people with great ideas who develop circles of others around them and their ideas. That’s Chicago’s story.

Frankly, it was a lot more fun to write this way. Bring the people forward. That is the Chicago way. Put the lives of the people you are talking about front and Center and let them talk. Let your characters do the work. It’s also how Nelson Algren made his novels work. The fact that these are real lives meant that I had to be incredibly conscientious, but let them speak, let them be the focus of the action.

NC: You write that [artist] László Moholy-Nagy describes Chicago, when he first visits it, as a city that yearns. You seem to suggest at the end of the book that it’s not a city that yearns anymore. Do you think that’s a natural cycle for great cities?

Dyja: That is part of the cycle. You are coming out the double dip of the Depression. It was really in a city in a terrible trough. Moholy understood that the city had the energy for more. This whole book is about how that is fulfilled — the individuals and their spirit but also the corporatism that is arising in the postwar era. The deal that everyone makes with [Mayor Richard J.] Daley, at the end of it, is one in which that yearning kind of goes away for a while. The city becomes very insular. It is segregated in a way that people in the other cities find amazing. That’s the Chicago I grew up in, and there were streets in the South Side that were black on one side and white on the other, and police maintaining those lines, making sure people didn’t cross them. That is not the sign of a healthy place.

That’s not to say that’s the way it is now. I think cities that have ebbs and flows. Chicago is a city that has rebuilt itself at least three times, so I have great faith in its ability to continue yearn once more.

NC: Couldn’t you say that every city was in a pretty rough place at the end of the Depression, though? What is different about Chicago at the end of the Depression?

Dyja: Chicago was very hard hit by the Depression. The money was younger in Chicago than it was out East. There was no silver hidden in the back yard. Chicago came out of the Depression in much worse shape than other places. What’s happening in Chicago is not, of course, radically different than the rest of the country. It’s an expression of it, it’s a mirror, but it’s also a cause of what’s happening throughout these 25 years in American history.

NC: That’s also the part of the book where you write about this crazy little non-bar called the Dil Pickle Club, where people would come and hold debates and performances and give speeches all night. I had never heard of anything like it, and it doesn’t seem possible for a place like that to exist now.

Dyja: If a place like that existed now, it would become so twee in like two or three weeks. I agree that it couldn’t exist now. Maybe we find that most online, where we have these communities where people are thrown together with a sort of anarchy, which is not always joyful or productive. What was nice about the Dil Pickle was you had to look each other in the eye. I think that really helped. There was a real tongue-in-cheek knowingness about the place. When you see the artwork that they made to advertise the place, they were woodcuts with ribald puns.

Entrance to the Dil Pickle Club in Chicago. Credit: Encyclopedia of Chicago

On the other hand, history works in a funny way, it takes things — and I’m guilty of it in this book — that may not have been so important or visible at the time, and puts light on them. So we look back and say, “here was this amazing thing going on.” Chances are, if you were there, a lot of people didn’t know about the Dil Pickle. Chances are, there are places in Wicker Park or Williamsburg that are in many ways like this: If you aren’t in that node of humanity you won’t know about it, but they are the proving ground of what will become the important arts of our culture.

NC: In the book, a lot of goods get made uniform and democratized. The Great Books do it with knowledge. Playboy does it with sex. McDonalds does it with food. No question, a lot of that standardizing and mass-producing work has made America rich, but is it really the sort of thing that’s made the country great? Is that really a legacy Chicago wants to brag about?

Dyja: No, of course not, but what was interesting to me was to look at these things in terms of how they were born. Ray Kroc wanted to be rich, but he also was interested in things we are interested in today. He wanted to give people quality, good food. He believed small was beautiful. He wanted to do ethical business, so he made a lot of people very rich because he was willing to give people he thought deserved it great opportunities.

I spoke with Hugh Hefner to write this book. There’s something winning and smart about what he did. He saw a niche. He saw an audience to be served. He threw a lot of quality materials to them. He didn’t want to corrupt society. He wanted to give people an hour or two of distraction. And sure, he threw a few nudie photos in there, but he was also showing young men how to find nice things and distract them for an hour. That’s all. Many of these things came from reasonable, interesting impulses. Then what happens when things become big and swell, they change.

“Proud” is a little too binary of a word. Of course most of these companies aren’t “great.” It’s not Beethoven. Nor were these companies started to hurt people. But they also weren’t started out of greed. A lot of these now big companies were started as ways to give people in America new, good things. We tend to look at McDonald’s as a big bad company, but really its roots were very different. What companies end up as is not really where they started from. I would love for people to put the book down and make judgments and decisions with a little bit more of that in mind.

NC: Chaos and control are an ongoing theme in your book. Chaos has agents in Muddy and Nagy and Algren. Control has its agents in the Chess brothers and Daley and Mies. You illustrate a lot of really inspired moments or artist breakthroughs when they cut loose from figures who rein them in, yet the towering figure is Mies — who is all about discipline and control. And the book ends with Mayor Daley, neatening the city all up.

Dyja: Chaos and control is another way of talking about people and institutions. If you put a bunch of people together, chaos is what’s going to result. Daley and Mies are towering people whose impact on the city is visible everywhere. It is their work in the book that ends up in ascendance. As all these other folks, like Callahan, leave Chicago and go on to other things, by 1960 it is Mies and Daley who are at the top. Basically, you’re left with Studs — a voice in the wilderness — who is constantly there in Chicago.

That tension between chaos and control is an important one. You can look at it as good and bad, but I’m not sure that’s helpful. That tension is exactly how vernacular culture enters the mainstream. Rock and roll wasn’t just kids playing who got famous. It is a product. Talented people were brought into a commercial, technological environment. That’s what made “Maybellene.”

The term “selling out” is one I really had to think about as I wrote this book. I couldn’t criticize Mahalia for taking a deal with Columbia Records. She wanted security, but it did drain something from her work. Yet without it, she wouldn’t have become a towering figure. She would have still been singing at a few little churches. Algren struggles with this tension, too. I removed some of my preconditions and judgments that I had for that idea of selling out. It made me ask if there are better ways of selling out.

NC: The only category of characters that doesn’t seem to have a Moholy or a Terkel — a great populist — is politicians. Your only great politician in here is Mayor Daley. Why wasn’t there a great populist Chicago politician?

Former Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley with Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Dyja: If we tried to go too deeply into politics in Chicago we would need a whole separate interview. Populism in Chicago is a long and complicated issue. The Democratic Party and the Machine is really seen, at its beginning, as a social service mechanism. The machine was about getting you a turkey for Christmas because you didn’t have one, or getting your nephew a job. It did the things government couldn’t do, so in return you voted for them.

In many ways, the Democratic Machine was the only way for certain groups of people to rise up. It was a way for average regular guys to get some power out there. It did have a populist aspect to it, even though it was dominated by crook-y, savvy pols. You certainly weren’t going to rise up in business or become a priest, but through the machine a regular guy could get a little power.

Then what happens with Daley is the demographics around the machine changed. It’s not so much about raising up the poor and giving them a turkey anymore. What Chicagoans are worried about in the Daley era is their homes — keeping their stuff. It’s about security.

Daley is a big man. He runs the show. He grabs hold of reins of power that were once a little more diffuse. The machine was a little more answerable to people before him. But he takes control and promises people that if they support him, they can hold onto what’s theirs. His voting block is interesting. It’s the ethnic whites and the black community. The people who keep in power are the two groups that hate each other. As much as Daley controls the machine, at least for the white ethnic community, there is a populism to it. He’s giving them what they want in terms of maintaining racial boundaries, and in return they will keep him office.

If there is a populist voice in Chicago politics that I write about, I guess it’s Saul Alinsky. Though he’s probably more important before the book begins, doing his Back of the Yards organizing. Later, during the period I’m writing about, his organization is doing more work elsewhere in the country.

But I was glad to get to write what I wrote about Alinsky, and that idea of radicalism. That Alinsky’s radicalism was expecting more of the guy next to you, that he can be your brother, that you could count on him and that you could both do a great deal for each other. Now we tend to be more likely to fear the person next to us. We could use more Alinsky in the world. That ultimate faith in what we can be to ourselves and to each other is crucial.

NC: You quote [Simone] de Beauvoir as making an interesting observation about Chicago. She says that there, you can see the world of profit and the world of work nearer each other than she has ever seen it anywhere else. It seems like cities these days are all about the world of profit — there’s lots of that — but the world of work is a lot less visible. Is that something for those of us who care about cities to think about?

Dyja: The loss of manufacturing, and the loss of people who get up every day and make something, is a real loss. As much as we think of manufacturing as big factories, it was something else, too. At the start of the time I wrote about, brand names weren’t the thing you bought. A brand name, like Schwinn Bicycle, was where you worked. People were proud to say where they worked. Then later in this period, brand names become how you identify yourself as a consumer, not as a maker. That is dangerous.

The creative impulse is a thing that Moholy got right. We really do want to make things. It’s more fun than something in the service industry. I’ve done both kinds of work, but I had more fun making a book. We as a country — and, I think, cities — work better when there’s a body of work about making stuff. We really need to find those ways of making. That’s what will restore any city. Cities that make are important and livable places.

Find Brady Dale on Twitter.

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Brady Dale is a writer and comedian based in Brooklyn. His reporting on technology appears regularly on Fortune and Brooklyn.

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