A readable, richly detailed history of America’s second city—which, laments novelist/historian and Chicagoan Dyja (Walter White: The Dilemma of Black Identity in America, 2008, etc.), has become a third city, perhaps even less.
One reason: Until the very end of the 1950s, most people traveling from coast to coast did so by way of Chicago, where they changed trains and often spent a little layover time. On January 25, 1959, all that changed when transcontinental air service was inaugurated between New York and Los Angeles, making Chicago and the rest of the land “flyover country”; as Dyja laments, “the newly minted ‘jet set’ would never need to change trains in Chicago again.” Nevertheless, Chicago remained an innovator on several cultural and commercial fronts, the home of Playboy magazine and Chess Records, even as it settled into the strange boss politics of Richard Daley, whose rise to power Dyja carefully records. Daley wielded that power in ways that a modern tyrant might envy, using what came to be known as “The Machine” to capture the minority vote that had become important by the 1950s after the explosive growth of the nonwhite population as a result of immigration and internal migration. However, writes Dyja, it was just one node of power, the other two central ones being the Catholic Church and organized crime, all working against each other as they “protected their power above the needs of the people they served.” In the end, Los Angeles and other cities stole much of Chicago’s thunder, and Chicago “never became the city it could have been, the city it should have been.”
A valuable contribution to the history of Chicago, worthy of a place alongside William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis (1991).