In awarding the 2013 Heartland Prize for Nonfiction to "The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream" by Thomas Dyja, the Tribune celebrates an important cultural history of mid-20th century Chicago.
This stylishly written and deeply researched book argues that so much of what we regard as authentically American was conceived here, in the nation's heart. McDonald's and its golden arches, the Playboy empire, improvisation on live television shows, the bomb, gospel and the blues, and high-rise public housing have their origins in this most American of American cities. At the center of the great migrations — from Midwestern farms, Europe and the South — Chicago between the Depression and 1960 was a laboratory for innovation and mass production. "The American way of life in the post-war world was a product of Chicago," Dyja argues, "from the steel in its new Miesian skyscrapers to its sacks of golden crispy McDonald's French fries."
This saga of mid-century Chicago is more than a collection of cameo appearances and character portraits. It is a work of great imagination and intellect, a book full of ah-ha moments. In the swirl of history, disparate characters such as poet Gwendolyn Brooks and architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe collide: The Bronzeville apartment building torn down to make way for the architect's creations at Illinois Institute of Technology inspired Brooks to write the beautiful book-length poem "In the Mecca."
Dyja is attentive to the paradoxical relationship between innovation and segregation. While this was a time of creative flowering — Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry, Lorraine Hansberry and Richard Wright — it was also a time in which the city was becoming increasingly segregated, with poor African-Americans isolated in high-rise housing projects.
In Dyja's view, mid-century Chicago was a dynamic place, one in which the energy of architects and musicians, artists and businessmen metabolized in creative ways. The vivid character portraits crackle with details — Mahalia Jackson's recipe for catfish stew, Hugh Hefner's loss of virginity — but it's the city itself that provides the centrifugal force leading to this flourishing of individual creativity and corporate conformity.
Dyja grew up near Riis Park and attended Gordon Tech. He writes with a clear love of the city that resists boosterism. Ultimately, there's a wistful quality to Dyja's narrative as he writes that "Chicago never became the city it could have been, the city it should have been."
Elizabeth Taylor is the Tribune's literary editor.
"The Third Coast"
By Thomas Dyja, Penguin, 508 pages, $29.95Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun