Thomas Dyja on The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream

Thomas Dyja grew up in Chicago. He thought that it was under-appreciated in American history, so he wrote a book about it’s impact. Chicago was the first city invented by America. There was no charter from England. Chicago was a hub of trade, culture, and industrialization. Firstly, it’s geographical position was ideal. It was right in the middle of the country. To go across the country, you would have to stop in Chicago, and there was plenty of subsequent cultural growth.

Chicago was a fun town. There was shopping and gangsters and strip clubs. It was exciting, both culturally and politically. Chicagoans loved commercial photography, which was great for art students who needed an income while they were in school. Students and veterans were taught photography so they could make a living. Along with more traditional art, improvisation was popular in Chicago. During their breaks, workers would stand on a soapbox in front of the Newberry Library and just talk to their audience. This led to improv shows, live television, and modern poetry slams. Television was much more diverse in the 40s and 50s before the “white picket fence” ideal  became apparent in entertainment.

Along with these cultural advances, Chicago also saw some of the disadvantages of having a mass market. For example, the market had the ability to define “regular.” Chicago, being one of the most profitable cities to the market, largely shaped this idea of regularity. One example of this mirror of market and consumer is McDonalds. McDonalds started out as a wonderful idea. A couple of small business entrepreneurs used good ingredients to make affordable food for workers who were gradually moving into offices downtown, hugely changing family life, work life, and food consumption. The men of the household now had to take a commute to get to work, and work and home were far enough away that lunch was eaten separately from their families. This led to an influx of men who wanted to grab a quick bite by themselves and get back to work, which fueled the McDonalds company nicely. As McDonalds spread out, opening more and more locations, it lost that culture and human interaction. It couldn’t react individually to consumer demand, and each location had to have the same food. It made it much more difficult to develop the product. In the same sense, over the span of a decade or so, cars and televisions went from being rare luxuries to basic staples, everyday objects. This led to the spread of the city because people had the ability to move farther more easily. The suburbs were developed. This spread, like the spread of the McDonalds company, led to less interaction and less culture development. The thing I’ve always loved most about Chicago is that everyone is so packed together that it’s impossible not to force some kind of cultural development. I can’t imagine how chaotic and crowded and beautiful it must have been before it spread out.

In the 1950s, Richard J. Daley separated the races in Chicago with public housing on the South Side. This cost a lot and led to more violence in Chicago. Dyja thought this led to lost potential for Chicago. Regardless, Chicago helped shape America as we know it.

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