In The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream, native son Thomas Dyja offers a panoramic look at how the Windy City influenced postwar American culture.

How did you come to write this book?

I made the jump from fiction to nonfiction and really wanted to do something in Chicago. Everyone had already taken these vertical [approaches] to this period [the 1930s–1950s], whether it was Nelson Algren or Second City, or the blues, but nobody had done a horizontal take and put these things in context.

Where in Chicago did you grow up?

On the Northwest side, in a very Polish, German, Irish working-class neighborhood called Belmont Cragin. I went to a large Catholic high school, kind of an inland penal colony with priests running around smacking kids, but it was actually a terrific school. Growing up in Chicago was important in understanding the city’s urban planning. None of the plans really addressed the role of the archdioceses, church, and parishes. I grew up when roughly two-thirds of the city was Catholic. You’d ask people where they were from, and they’d tell you what parish. A lot of the power struggles and racial conflict were played out on that map.

What do you mean when you say that the Culture Wars were fought in Chicago?

Before ’59, when you started having transcontinental flights between New York and Los Angeles, the heartland wasn’t discussed in a denigrating way. That really was the beginning of this kind of bifurcated vision of America. In postwar Chicago, there’s a battle between whether we’re going to follow the impulses of the people with a New Deal spirit, or whether we’re going to jump into a market-driven, corporate-driven world. Whether it’s McDonald’s or Mies van der Rohe and the face of corporate America, or people like Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren, or Mahalia Jackson who represent a more vernacular people-oriented take on America.

What could Chicago have done differently to put it on par with New York or Los Angeles?

A very different attitude toward race could have made a difference. The way a lot of white Chicago abandoned the city was tragic. I think all of Chicago, black and white, had some guilt about the fact that no one wanted integration, except in a few pockets.

What books inspired this project?

A Nervous Splendor by Frederick Morton, about fin de siècle Vienna. It’s Jung, Freud, Brahms and Bruckner, all these seminal figures in modernism in the 20th century, swirling around each other in 1893–94. That was a model for what I wanted to do, a novelistic narrative but also a solid popular history that gave a sense of a magical moment when a group of people feasts on a kind of culture growing in a certain place.