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"When it came time for college, I had to decide between the University of Chicago and Columbia," he says. "It was the 1980s. Without question, I wouldn't be able to get into either one now. For Columbia, I represented diversity: I was a Polish kid from the northwest side. I came to New York. And I stayed. I wanted to work in publishing. There's a book community in Chicago, but the book industry is here. And then I married someone from New York, and suddenly I had a whole history in the city. But I still feel like I carry two passports."
OK, OK, so Dyja may seem to be protesting too much. However, he has just written a book about Chicago, The Third Coast, which argues that America as we know it actually formed in midcentury Chicago, between the end of World War II and the rise of the first Mayor Daley. During those years, Chicago gave the world modernist architecture, improvisational comedy, McDonald's, Great Books, and the blues. In short, "1948 rocked!"Towertown, the "good slum" on the near north side inhabited by intellectuals, art students, drug addicts, small-time criminals, and other creative eccentrics, had begun its transformation into the Gold Coast.
"I missed the party," Dyja says. "All that was left was half a drink and cigarette butts. It was a different place. I wanted to go back and see what was there."
Most of the characters and events Dyja writes about have been covered before, some—such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe or Robert Maynard Hutchins—exhaustively. But Dyja, who has previously written three novels, works hard to create a sense of narrative to build connections between seemingly disparate people and events. Mies's arrival in Chicago to build IIT, for instance, leads to a discussion of the Mecca, a Bronzeville apartment building that was torn down to make way for the university but which, in its time, served as both an emblem of the city's housing covenants that confined blacks to certain neighborhoods and the postwar housing crisis that forced people into smaller and smaller spaces. It also inspired Gwendolyn Brooks, who worked there as a young woman and later wrote a book-length poem called In the Mecca.
"When you do history," Dyja observes, "you learn that causality doesn't really exist, but I could see a lot of things snapping together. It was exciting to see."
Among Dyja's favorite characters are Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, an architect who founded the Institute of Design, whose philosophy of art and media was radically ahead of its time and would influence Marshall McLuhan ("the medium is the message") and Andy Warhol; the landscape architect Alfred Caldwell, who designed Promontory Point, the Lily Pool in Lincoln Park, and Riis Park near where Dyja grew up; and the photographer Harry Callahan, who set out every morning with his camera to take pictures around the city.
But the most remarkable discovery he made during his research happened late one night when he was scrolling through the online archives of the Tribune to find out what the weather was like the weekend in 1947 when Nelson Algren first met Simone de Beauvoir. Just a little further down the page, to his great surprise, he saw a picture of his own father. Ed Dyja was, at the time, a student at Weber High School (now defunct) starring in a play called Brother Orchid.
"I cried," Dyja admits. "It was like, howdy, out of 150 years of this newspaper and there's Ed Dyja looking at me. It's why I became so passionate. I was writing about the city he grew up in."
Many of the figures Dyja writes about died or left Chicago. But he believes their spirit still lingers in the city.
"Chicago represents something not seen in New York," he says. "Improvisation, experimentation, social justice: all these things form the spine of what comes out of Chicago. When Roger Ebert died, all the newspapers out here called him 'a critic for the common man.' He had high standards, but he wrote about films in a way everyone could understand because he loved movies. That's Chicago. Or the Steppenwolf production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which is about who the people in the play are, as opposed to all the theory you see in other productions. You see it in Chris Ware. It still exists."
Dyja will be reading and discussing The Third Coast on 4/18 at 1:30 PM at Lake Forest College (555 N. Sheridan, Lake Forest) and 6 PM at the Harold Washington Library Center (400 S. State), on 4/19 at noon at the University Club of Chicago (76 E. Monroe), and on 4/20 at 2 PM at Anderson's Bookshop (123 W. Jefferson, Naperville). He recommends that if you come to one reading, it be the one in Lake Forest because he'll be conversing with Franz Schulze, a former professor at Lake Forest, who was actually in Chicago for all the events in the book.