A collective defensiveness surrounded the Chicago I grew up in during the ’60s and ‘70s. Out on the Northwest Side just as much as on Lake Shore Drive, it was generally felt that somehow the city had been wronged; the judges had admired its size and power and brawler rep, praised the gorgeous lakefront and skyscrapers, but ultimately the prizes had gone to New York and Los Angeles. Admittedly some of that was just thin skin—there’s a big chip on Chicago’s Big Shoulders—but the fact is, when intercontinental jet flights began in 1959, the purpose and in many cases primacy of Chicago in the nation’s history and consciousness receded. Much of what was accomplished there, much of what the city meant to America, was lost.

And so, in The Third Coast, I went looking for it, and what I found was an alternate history of postwar America. Beginning in the late Thirties and rolling on through the Fifties, Chicagoans produced much of what the world now calls “American”: The liberated, leering sexuality of Playboy; glass and steel Modern architecture; Rock and Roll and the Urban Blues; McDonald’s and the spread of the Fast Food Nation; the improvisational sketch comedy that’s trained everyone from Joan Rivers and John Belushi to Steve Carrell and Tina Fey; Ebony magazine and Emmett Till, whose murder catalyzed the Civil Rights movement; geodesic domes; avant-garde jazz and Gospel music; the Nation of Islam; modern photography; the Atom Bomb and the Great Books; Kukla, Fran and Ollie and the last great political Machine. The Third Coast is the history of Chicago’s greatest—and final—period as the nation’s primary meeting place, market, workshop and lab, but it is also the story of how America’s uniform culture came to be. As New York positioned itself on the global stage and Hollywood polished the nation’s fantasies, the most profound aspects of American Modernity grew up out of the flat, prairie land next to Lake Michigan. The real struggle for America’s future—whether it would be directed by its People or its Institutions—took place in postwar Chicago.