Book Review: The Third Coast by Thomas Dyja

AuthorThomas Dyja
TitleThe Third Coast
Narrator:  David Drummond
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, 2013

Watching television and the movies, one could be fooled into thinking that everyone in the U.S.A. lives in either Southern California or a very large apartment in Manhattan.  When I was a kid, some of the more “ordinary” people I saw in tv and movies were instead from Chicago, ranging from the working class family on Good Times, to the professional couple on The Bob Newhart Show, to the suburban teenagers of John Hughes movies.

In this sprawling work of cultural history, Thomas Dyja explores how mid-century Chicago became the template for a lot of what was considered the typical American experience for “regular” people.  Freed from the restraints of New York and Los Angeles to be extraordinary, Chicagoans could excel at being ordinary in architecture, books, music, arts, and television.  At the same time, though, racist white communities rose up in violence against the increasing number of Black families moving into the city (or they fled the city entirely) and the Richard Daley political machine rose up by exploiting the city’s divisions.

  • Nelson Algren becomes Chicago’s leading writer through his gritty novels and also has an on-again/off-again affair with  Simone de Beauvoir.
  • Gwendolyn Brooks wins the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry informed by the experience of growing up on the South Side.
  • Chess Records unleashes electric blues music and early Rock & Roll with artists like Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, and Chuck Berry.
  • Hugh Hefner commodifies sexual liberation (for men).
  • Mahalia Jackson sings songs of praise and fights for civil rights.
  • Ray Kroc introduces order and consistency to dining through the McDonald’s franchise.
  • “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” “Stud’s Place,” and other innovative and influential early television programs of the “Chicago School of Television” before New York and Los Angeles completely took over television production.
  • Ludwig Mies van der Rohe heads the architecture school at Illinois Institute of Technology and inspires the adoption of the International Style of architecture in Chicago and then throughout the U.S.
  • Elaine May and Mike Nichols improvise a new form of comic theater.
  • Sun Ra creates jazz for the space age.

For a book that is all over the place in the topic it covers, Dyja is good at focusing in on the details of the characters’ stories and connecting them to the theme of the mid-century Chicago aesthetic.  He also has a lively writing style that incorporates quotations in their unvarnished vulgarity.  This is an interesting book for understanding a city at certain time, and an entertaining read.

Favorite Passages:

“Daley’s retail politics was to democratic government what McDonald’s was to food and Playboy to sex: a processed and mass-marketed simulation.”

“Before they were even completed, the Near South Side projects – which had started the city toward its Daley-era regeneration, and whose strategies, laws, and designs had created the template for much of the nation’s urban renewal – were quietly deemed not worth repeating. In the end, the planners had loved their theories more than they loved Chicago.”

Recommended books:

Rating: ****