While recovering from major eye surgery and ordered to do nothing — great irony here, I had much more time to read for the past five months. It brought back a flood of memories of my childhood home.
Thomas Dyja, The Third Coast, When Chicago Built the American Dream, ISBN 978-1-59420- 452-6. Photographs, Notes, Bibliography, Index, Pp. xxxiv, 412, The Penguin Press, New York, 2013
For the life of me, I cannot find my copy of Nelson Algren’s Chicago: City of the Make. I read that book over and over again as a teen-ager, riding the Red Line Englewood El from my home on the far Southwest side, where the Irish went to breed – in Mike Royko’s words, to my high school half a city away.
It was more engrossing than my Latin and Greek “ponies” and more intelligible than geometry and trigonometry in the late 1950s. It seemed real. I certainly didn’t know it was originally to be a travel piece.
Of course, I’d glance out the El window at the cityscape – the three- and four-story walk-ups, from Englewood northward. Then they morphed into the high-rise Robert Taylor homes, DeLaSalle Institute – Bridgeport’s thumb in Bronzeville’s eye, the Illinois Institute of Technology – an architectural and racial battleground to the right and Comiskey Park, the home of the Go-Go Sox, to the left. The still being built Southside Expressway, another barrier separating whites to the west and blacks to the east, was cutting through the prairie with 14 lanes of concrete. The Red Line train rattled past China Town before plunging into the abyss of the South Loop.
By the time the train turned from its east-west run to the north, I also was checking passengers, not afraid [I had been riding the El alone since I was 10 on occasional downtown trips], just teen-aged curious as more and more black men and women and fewer and fewer whites boarded.
“In Park Manor and Englewood [where I transferred from the CTA bus to the train], the regular whites believed essentially the same thing, but in reverse – faceless government power and meddling institutions were cooperating to help black get their land.”
Changing neighborhoods. Bulldozers ripping through a black community in the name of of “urban renewal;” and real estate agents’ furtive phone calls and handbills on front doors “blockbusting” in a white one. Their land, their homes.
And that sense of theirs extended to the parks, even the beaches. Black parks and water; white parks and water.
I loved that Algren book, reading it again when I went off to school in Champaign-Urbana and carrying it with me when I got out of the Air Force in 1972. I know I had it after moves to western Pennsylvania, Tidewater Virginia and Northern Virginia. I miss it.
Algren’s prose was – still is — intoxicating.
I found Algren again in Thomas Dyja’s The Third Coast, now two years old. Of course, Studs Terkel was there too. Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Mahalia Jackson, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Sun Ra, Kukla, Fran and Ollie [Burr Tilstrom] and Dave Garroway. Bishop Bernard Sheil – Catholic Youth Organization and Hugh Hefner — Playboy. Back of the Yards and Saul Alinsky.Mies van de Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan. Not to mention the American Pharaoh and his entourage, Richard J. William Dawson and the loyal black wards. Hundreds more.
Oh yes, never forget the confluence of race, power and money on the shores of Lake Michigan. Dyja doesn’t.
“Changing neighborhoods” – the four years it takes a neighborhood to shift from all-white to all-black in the most segregated city in the nation [third most now].
The list goes on and on. Dyja’s narrative is a tapestry that captures Chicago at a critical juncture in its history. He puts all those personalities together in this beautifully written history of the city covering the tumultuous years from the end of World War II to 1960.
“Chicago never became the city it could have been, the city it should have been. In the years since 1955, Chicago proper lost nearly one million residents as New York grew, and Los Angeles shot past to become the Second City of the twenty-first century,” Dyja writes.
Do not blame jet travel bypassing the city or even the shift in the manufacturing economy for its decline is his warning.
“The city crippled itself with its cure, trading a functional democracy for the appearance of order, taxing its citizens to benefit its business elites, bleeding away its strength by turning ‘regular’ into racism” is his sad conclusion.