Thomas Dyja grew up on the Northwest side of Chicago in a Polish, German, Irish working-class neighborhood at a time when almost two-thirds of the city was Catholic.
“You’d ask people where they were from,” says Dyja, “and they’d tell you their parish.”
It was also a time – between the 1930s to the end of the 50s, when Chicago shaped America’s culture and the Midwest became a flyover area of the country – just a large space of land between the east and west coasts.
“Before 1959, when transcontinental flights started between New York and Los Angeles,” he says, “the heartland wasn’t talked about in a disparaging way.”
Dyja explores this Chicago in his first work on non-fiction, Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream (Penguin Press 2013; $29.95).
“Singer Mahalia Jackson, architect Mies van der Rohe’s glass and steel skyscrapers, Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry, Hugh Hefner and Playboy, the Chess Brothers’ recording studio, novelist Nelson Algren ,” says Dyja mentioning just a few of the people who made a huge impact of the rest of the country.
Soap operas, that mass culture art form, began in Chicago. Ray Kroc changed the way we eat by franchising a hamburger joint called McDonald’s. Pulitzer Prize winner Studs Terkel lived in and wrote about the city. Chicago’s famed improvisational theater, Second City, spawned the long running Saturday Night Live and a long list of successful comedians who entered the mainstream – think John Belushi and Tina Fey.
“There were so many books on each one of these,” says Dyja. “But no one was putting it all together. I wanted to connect the dots. Chicago never became the city it could have been, the city it should have been.”