Sunday, April 20, 2014

Dyja - The Third Coast

Chicago has an amazing history, one justifying the term used by Thomas Dyja for the title of his book The Third Coast. Chicago is equally important to any of the other big and notable cities of America’s east or west coasts. Among its many distinctions are its architecture, cultural neighborhoods, arts institutions, music (blues, soul, and classical), and institutions created by iconic personalities (Kroc, Oprah, Hefner, Alinsky, Disney).

The more I read the more I see relationships among the things I read and other experiences I’ve had in life. In the case of The Third Coast, I was amazed to find references to the significant role John Dewey played when he and Robert Maynard Hutchins were battling over educational purposes/philosophy at the University of Chicago. Dewey’s early academic career was spent as the founder of its philosophy department, although he moved on to Columbia University for his more formative years. With his focus on pragmatism and direct experience, Dewey’s views quickly took hold in Chicago and influenced other disciplines, including architecture. However, it was Hutchins’ vision for the University, one advocated by the industrial era giant John D. Rockefeller, which had probably the greatest immediate impact. The University of Chicago, with its imposing Gothic architecture, was classically disconnected from its surrounding community from its early days. This “standing apart” would come to exemplify the Ivory Tower metaphor so often used in relation to broader higher education.

I was further amazed by reference to Walter Gropius who, along with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, so heavily influenced Chicago architecture in mid-20th century. Gropius was a German architect and head of the Harvard University architecture program and credited with founding modern architecture, a style unique at the time for its simplicity, integration of multiple artistic perspectives, and reliance on studio team work. Many of the buildings in Chicago reflect the sensibility of modernism that now distinguishes its skyline. One missed opportunity was Walter Gropius’ 1922 proposed design for the Chicago Tribune building. Had this design been accepted rather than the neo-Gothic design proposed by Raymond Hood (designer of Rockefeller Center in NYC), Chicago might have looked quite different. Hood’s design was subsequently heavily criticized for its departure from the emerging Chicago-School that characterizes much of Chicago’s current skyline. A fascinating sidebar about Gropius was that he married Alma Mahler after Gustav Mahler’s death in 1911.

One of Chicago’s greatest contributions resulted from its being a haven for Blacks fleeing the oppression of racism in the South. Chicago had its own Black Renaissance (mirroring Harlem of NYC) of literary and musical figures. The music of Tommy Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, and Muddy Waters profoundly influenced popular music in mid-20th century. Unfortunate that Chicago didn’t protect “Bronzeville,” home of the Mecca apartments that were replaced during the urban regeneration advocated by the city’s elites.

Of course Richard J. Daley is referenced throughout many sections of The Third Coast; credited with both building Chicago during critical years of growth as well as for the machine politics that would serve special interests, and result in Chicago’s other popular name - the “Windy City.” Other personalities had an impact on media through the Chicago TV method, shows like Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, the Dave Garroway Show, Studs Terkel, and Ebony Magazine.

I’m only beginning to know Chicago and The Third Coast is perhaps not the most positive way to get acquainted. However, the book provides incredible thick history that will help me be a more informed citizen. Dyja’s pride in his work and Chicago as a city is reflected in the closing pages.  "The city survived, and in many ways it thrives - today it stands as one of the world's most powerful markets, competing with London, Paris, and Hong Kong, and its theater and architecture are the nation's finest, its tech business growing, its chefs renowned.  Neighborhoods have been reclaimed and gentrified by the grandchildren of those who abandoned them."

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