“The Third Coast” – South Side Weekly

The Third Coast, Thomas Dyja’s 2013 history of mid-20th-century Chicago focuses on the city’s influence on the arts and culture of the United States. Aptly subtitled “When Chicago Built the American Dream,” touches on the important role the city played in shaping America today. The title refers both to the insecurity Chicago brings compared to its coastal counterparts and the pride it takes in its role as nation builder.

Dyja shows that in Chicago things are done for both form and function. A work of art, whether a building or a poem, has a structure that must adhere to the rules of its craft, but above all it must also bring something to the table of culture that moves people forward. Dyja argues that it is this unwavering respect for the empowerment and reverence of ordinary people that gives Chicago a special place in America’s relatively recent history.

Architecture as the epitome of the meeting of form and function is a fitting guide for this piece. Dyja’s narrative begins with the arrival in Chicago in 1938 of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a renowned modernist master who would become the head of the school of architecture that is now the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). The campus would be expanded and new buildings designed and built by Mies, but first the school would need to appropriate land and property from the surrounding and mostly black neighborhood.

One of the buildings on the school’s wish list was The Mecca, a residence where a young Gwendolyn Brooks envisioned what would become powerful spiritual poetry, inspired by the people she met. And so, over the course of a few pages, Dyja sets the scene, bringing to life mythical Chicago figures of the past in all their pre-celebrity and uncertain glory, weaving them not just in terms of place and time, but also in terms of their relevance. He writes them as characters in a story rather than the great people of the story, and in doing so gives us a glimpse into their lives that feels intimate and raw, while leaving the reader feeling like they’ve lived through those moments in time. As much as you want A Folk History of Chicagothat’s the next best thing.

With an approach more novelistic than historical, Dyja skillfully links Brooks to Chicago’s Black Renaissance, which is less famous than the Harlem Renaissance because it was “unknown to most whites…its ties to Communism…would make it easier, even necessary, to forget.” .” Charles White, a marvelous visual artist of this movement, referred to color as his weapon and embodied the dominant ideology among his contemporaries.

That was no coincidence. Chicago artists sought to differentiate themselves from Harlem artists, and an uncompromising social awareness was one of the ways they did so. It is impossible to tell the history of the United States, let alone that of one of its greatest cities, without touching on the struggle for racial equality. This struggle extends through the three decades (mid-1930s to 1960s) covered in the book to our own time.

From Brooks and the IIT campus, Dyja introduces a young Richard J. Daley, who is also a prominent figure everywhere, having been instrumental in shaping modern day Chicago. Daley takes the stage as a state senator, helping draft legislation that allows organizations like the IIT to force black residents out of their homes, and ends up as one of America’s most powerful mayors. Dyja makes the book a page turner, fusing history with politics through beautifully individual characters, brought to life with great research and attention to detail.

The Third Coast is also full of artists and cultural figures almost lost to history. There are too many to list, but what is certain is that the book will give you new favorites to delve into – a new photographer, musician, writer or activist. Wayne F. Miller’s photography of black South Side Chicagoans was a particularly gratifying discovery. Another was Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, a Bauhaus exile from Mies. Primarily a visual artist, he tried his hand at almost every artistic form and taught everyone something new. More than the beauty of his paintings, however, I am drawn to his art philosophy, which is a great summary of the Chicago ethic: “Everyone is talented.”

The author injects a little lightness into an otherwise heavy and complex work of social history. A delightful example is his opening of a chapter with the words “handsome, plump Dick Daley,” a nod to Joyce Ulysses. Dyja’s literary passions are evident and endearing, especially in these Easter eggs of fiction.

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