Thomas Dyja’s homage to the prime years of our second city, “The Third Coast: When Chicago Built The American Dream,” was tabbed as the “One Book One Chicago” selection for 2015-16 by the Chicago Public Library. The now-New York City resident spoke with us about the book’s origin, his Chicago roots, our city vs. New York City, and more.
Chicagoly: Your family has roots in Chicago, and you grew up here. Did you have an appreciation for the city back then?
Thomas Dyja: Yea, a different appreciation, but I certainly was deep in it as a young person. My mother recently died, so I’m going through all of the family papers and things dating back to the nineteenth century. It seems like my grandparents all arrived right before World War I and worked in factories and built houses. My grandfather built a house way out on the southwest side in Evergreen Park in the middle of nowhere. So we were as a family very much a part of the city in many different ways. And as I was growing up I fell in love with Carl Sandburg, Studs Terkel, and Mike Royko and the whole romance of the city. And I remember as a kid cutting school and going downtown and just spending the day taking it all in. I always felt profoundly connected to the city as a young person. And I think that’s one of the things that drilled me to write the book, to try to see the city that in a way I missed growing up in the sixties and seventies. It kind of felt like you missed this really terrific party. … That whole wave—that’s really what the story of the book is—is over.
What was the research process like for this book, and how often did you visit the city?
At that point my mom was still alive, and I would dash in and out. I’d come in on a seven a.m. flight and stay overnight at some cheap hotel and fly out the next evening. I’d try to get two days in at a time. It was probably about two years of research before the proposal and once I started working on it. There were things in New York, a lot of things in New York, that were valuable. Papers of various people. I went up to Harvard; Gropius’ papers are there. So it wasn’t just a Chicago project that way. I flew to San Francisco to interview people, just to talk to people who at this point are around the country and not just all in Chicago. So it was a big project in that way, sort of going around America and finding people. But the major resources were certainly [in Illinois].
Can you talk the significance of “third coast” and Chicago?
I think that at this point we kind of have that bi-coastal mentality of the East Coast and the West Coast. And there are other parts of the country that claim the name “the third coast,” like the Upper Peninsula in Michigan and the Gulf, as I discovered after I named the book and people from these other places sent me nasty emails. But I still think it’s most applicable to Chicago as a place that has been central to America’s development, to its imagination, to its creative force, its industrial force, its financial force. It needs to be still discussed as America not having these two coasts, but three coasts. And Chicago really does still represent that third coast.
Your book covers a span when Chicago was propelled into a great city on par with New York. Is that still true?
It’s a great city, but it’s not on par with New York. New York has eight-and-a-half million people and keeps growing, and Chicago is the size of Brooklyn. It’s not a comparison worth making, and it’s not a healthy one to make because it’s not realistic. While Chicago worries about trying to keep up with New York, Houston is going to overtake it.
In the sense of the pure volume of money and people and size that is New York, it’s in a different place. New York adapted to, participated in, and drove the global economy in a way that Chicago did not. Chicago had a role in it, but New York really had drivers in it that made it a part of the global economy in a way that Chicago has not. [Chicago’s] value to America, being in the middle of America, makes it difficult in a global economy where you have L.A. on one coast which is open to the west and New York which is more Europe centered. … So I think that has hurt the city in many ways, not of its own making, and then there are many ways Chicago has hurt itself. That’s another conversation.
Are you surprised at the praise the book has received?
(Laughing) That’s a funny question to ask a writer. It’s certainly what I had hoped for. It’s what any writer is dreaming of. I am incredibly humbled, but incredibly happy. When you’re a writer and when you talk about your hometown, to have that kind of return has been soul-settling for me in certain ways. And that’s been a great pleasure. The fact that my mother was alive to see that and be a part of that was incredibly meaningful, and I’m grateful for all the praise it’s gotten. I could say I’m surprised—I was, certainly—but also I think any writer would be lying if it wasn’t something they’d been thinking about and hoping for and crossing their fingers real hard for.