The Middle of Everywhere: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

(Photo: Jeramey Jannene)

You know how there are people who get talked about a lot and then there are people who actually do a lot?

It strikes me that the same could be said of cities. And I’d put Chicago near the top of any list of cities that have done a lot. From an East Coast view, or West, it can appear that Chicago is the middle of nowhere. In this week’s podcast, we make the argument that Chicago is, in fact, the middle of everywhere. (You can subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript below; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

The episode features Thomas Dyja, the author of several books, most recently The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream. He talks about 10 things that Chicago gave the world, some of them surprising and some just forgotten. Dyja isn’t arguing that Chicago is still in its heyday — it is almost certainly not — but he make a persuasive case that it is underappreciated on many dimensions, and that the world would be a very different place if Chicago hadn’t been so busy being Chicago.

Some of the people you’ll encounter in Dyja’s narrated tour: Nelson AlgrenSimone de Beauvoir, Milton Friedman, Hugh Hefner, Ray Kroc, Richard Nickel, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Emmett Till, Muddy Waters, and Oprah Winfrey.

You’ll also hear Steve Levitt talking about what makes the University of Chicago economics department unlike any other such department, and why Levitt’s academic career — all that vice! — would have been so boring if he’d wound up at someplace like Princeton instead.

Special thanks to mixmaster David Herman and choreographer Suzie Lechtenberg for digging up archival audio that makes this episode truly sing.

Audio Transcript


[MUSIC: The Juice To Make It Happen “Horny Toad”]


Stephen DUBNER: When I say “Chicago,” you say…


MAN: Hot dog.

WOMAN: Jazz.

WOMAN: Deep dish.

MAN: Sausages.

MAN: Da Bears.

WOMAN: Slaughterhouses.

WOMAN: Windy City.

WOMAN: Stinky cabbage.

MAN: White Sox.


WOMAN: Oh, Second City, of course.

WOMAN: Cold weather.

WOMAN: The ‘L’.

WOMAN: BLT pizza.


DUBNER: Okay, I get it. Even though I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Chicago myself, and like it, for a lot of reasons, the fact is that we don’t talk about Chicago the way we talk about New York or Los Angeles – or, for that matter, Austin or Boston or even Vancouver.  Now, why is that? And, more important, why should we care?




ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.


[MUSIC: Euforquestra, “Obatala” (from Explorations in Afrobeat)]


DUBNER: On today’s show, I’d like you to meet a friend of mine…


Thomas DYJA: Hi, my name’s Thomas Dyja.


DUBNER: Tom Dyja is from Chicago.


DYJA: I was born there. I grew up on the northwest side. We still have the house that my father was born in, you know in 1929. So you know, I think we go pretty deep there. I feel I do too.



DUBNER: And Tom’s a writer, a good writer. He recently published a new book and he did what we writers do – went to the local Barnes and Noble, here in New York, to give a reading.


DYJA: I’m the author of a book called The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream which really covers the years of late ‘30s through the late ‘50s.


DUBNER: Now most bookstore readings, as you may know, aren’t very exciting. An author will get up behind this shaky podium and will nervously read a couple sections of his or her new book, and then takes a few questions – if, that is, anybody happened to show up for the reading. The writer is hoping that someone will ask about the deepest themes of this book he’s been slaving over for years. But usually here are two questions that every writer gets asked at every reading. One: Do you prefer writing on computer, or longhand? And two: you have particular times set aside every day to write, or do you write when the muse strikes you. So most bookstore readings are – how shall I put this? – low-impact events. But, when Tom Dyja did his bookstore reading of his new book about Chicago, it was nothing like that. It helped that it was packed. But what made it work is that Dyja didn’t just stand there and read random passages… he basically delivered a sermon, a detailed and fascinating and utterly compelling testament as to how Chicago, as he puts it, “built the American dream.” Why America as we know it today would be unrecognizable without Chicago’s many contributions. Now, there was just one problem with this amazing lecture, which is that I didn’t have a tape deck with me. But Tom Dyja did agree to sit down with me, in a proper radio studio, to talk about how Chicago changed America… beyond the hot dogs, the sausages and even the BLT pizza.


DYJA: Well I think there are 10 ways that Chicago has affected everyone’s life certainly in America. The first one is architecture. Mies van der Rohe in this period comes over to Chicago in 1938 chased out by the Nazis and goes to the Illinois Institute of Technology and rebuilds their new campus there on the near south side. And while he’s there he really brings forward that steel and glass style of architecture, very simple, very luxurious. But it’s his image of what America can be, something powerful, very rational, very luxurious, and that becomes really the template for the face of big business, the face of big government, and the face of the American skyline.


DUBNER: So when we travel around today and I go to Charlotte, North Carolina, or Los Angeles, I’m seeing second, third, fourth generation Mies, yes?


DYJA: Exactly. 


DUBNER: Very good, okay, number two. What do you have?


DYJA: Number two I have music. The first place one lands on is the Chess brothers, Leonard and Phil Chess, two brothers on the south side who retake this kind of little hobby label called Aristocrat and turn it into the home of the blues. The first big player they have in there is Muddy Waters who comes up from Mississippi in 1946. And he trades in his acoustic guitar for an electric guitar. And he really creates this new sound. Muddy really speaks I think for a lot of black Americans who come north. By the mid ‘50s though you have the first wave of rock and roll, the jangly rockabilly style of rock and roll, and the bluesmen are shunted a little bit to the side. They went from really hot to not being able to get a gig. And so almost out of desperation a number of them led by Muddy Waters go to England. And people line up to see them, people like Mick Jagger, and Paul McCartney, and Eric Clapton. And so the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, all of that British Invasion rock comes directly from the impact of Muddy Waters and the other Chicago bluesmen. So that is I think a deep musical tradition that comes out of Chicago just in these years.


DUBNER: Number three please.


DYJA: Number three is food. I think we all think of Chicago as being the hog butcher of the world, and the packing houses and all that. By the mid-50s all that is pretty much gone. But there’s another guy out in Des Plaines who has a major impact that we all live with today. His name is Ray Kroc. He grew up in Chicago, and is selling Mix Masters when he meets the McDonald brothers in San Bernadino, California. And they have this fabulous fast food restaurant which is doing crazy business. And something about it, the whole system attracts Ray so much he makes a deal to franchise it with them. And his dream, which I think he pulls through on, is he wants to offer kind of quirky entrepreneurs like him at a point when it’s all about corporatism, big companies, gray flannel suits, getting on the commuter train, he wants to offer people a way to have a small business but that still recognizes the economies of scale, the things you get out of big business. Ray was very much into quality. I mean, when you went to a fast food store, a restaurant at this point you might get a whole in the middle of  your hamburger. You might get something that was full of, you know, ground up offal, various organ meats instead of ground beef. I was a kind of, if there was a wild west time in fast food business this was it. And Ray said no, we’re going to give people good food, we’re going to give them something to do out in suburbia. They can put the kids in the car and go do this. He was all about creativity, independence, and ironically enough, I think small is beautiful. So which is not something we think of as McDonald’s now, which is kind of the great Satan to so many people around the world.


[MUSIC: Dorian Charnis, “Chicago Jazz”]


DUBNER: Number four please.


DYJA: Number four is kind of the University of Chicago, which produced so many great things. And you get everyone from Kurt Vonnegut, to Susan Sontag coming out of there. Nuclear fission, and the great books and the Encyclopedia Britannica. Saul Alinsky and Friedrich von Hayek and the Chicago School of Economics. All these things are bubbling out of there. So it’s incredibly influential in that way. But the thing that I think has had more impact that came out of the University of Chicago at this point was a theater company that was started by a guy named David Shepherd who left New York with a certain amount of money his pocket. And he meets Paul Sills and they start the Compass Theater down in Hyde Park, part of what was in there was what they call scenarios. They would come up with a kind of dramatic arc, and then it was left to the performers to just make it up.


DUBNER: So it’s improv.


DYJA: It was improv, this very basic part of Chicago creativity. And in ’55, with the Compass I think it really does come to flower.


DUBNER: And does this all feed into the creation of Second City TV then eventually?


DYJA: Yes.


DUBNER: Name for us some of the alumni of Second City then.


DYJA: The old kind, kind of first round the Alan Arkin, Alan Alda, Joan Rivers. I think the great, the Saturday Night Live period, Bill Murray, John Belushi, Aykroyd, Gilda Radner. Today it’s people like Tina Fey, and Steve Carell, and Stephen Colbert.


DUBNER: Number five on Dyja’s list is television itself. TV took root in New York and L.A., but it found a different voice in Chicago. Producers there created smaller, more personal shows – shows to fit the American living room. “The Today Show” and “The Tonight Show” came out of Chicago – and later, of course “Oprah.” All right, let’s get back to Thomas Dyja! Number six on Dyja’s list: the modern civil-rights movement.


DYJA: Emmett Till grows up in the early ‘50s at 63rd and Condich Grove in Woodlawn. His mom is from the south, the family is from there. So one weekend in early August 1955 he goes to visit family in Mississippi, and he is lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman at a grocery store. Up to this point, usually you would expect the body to be sent north, the mother to bury the body in shame. But Mamie Till does something, which I think is remarkable and remarkably important. Instead she, when the body’s open she gets photographers there, people there from Jet and she shows the photographs. They end up being in national magazines all over. It’s horrifying. And it becomes a catalyzing, very emotionally catalyzing moment for black America. This really explained to everyone, not matter who you were, if you were black this is what white America thinks of you right now. Later that year, that December is when Rosa Parks does not get up out of her seat on the bus in Montgomery. And she tells Mamie later on that all the time she was doing that she was thinking of Emmett Till. So in many ways, Emmett Till lights the fuse of what I think we can call the modern Civil Rights movement in America.


DUBNER: Number 7 on Tom Dyja’s list of ten things that Chicago gave America: the Institute of Design, founded by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy – it was originally called the New Bauhaus, and it went on to produce a generation of hugely influential arts educators, photographers, and designers. A lot of our corporate American imagery - the logos for NBC, Mobil, Chase, and PBS, for instance – were all designed by onetime students of the Institute of Design.


[MUSIC: The Blue News, “Love’s So Strong” (from The Signs EP)]


DUBNER: When we come back, Numbers 8 through 10.  You may not be so familiar with Numbers 8 and 9 – but No. 10, believe me, you’re familiar with No. 10:


DYJA: It’s going to be a guide to how to deal with consumer culture that’s just exploded in America in the ‘50s, And it’s going to have pictures of naked women.




ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.


[MUSIC: Fooling April, “Too Late” (from Three)]


DUBNER: We’re talking today about the ways in which the city of Chicago is underappreciated, the things that Chicago has given the rest of us, often without our necessarily knowing it. Thomas Dyja is the author of The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream. Number 8 on his list of 10 key Chicago contributions: urban preservation.


DYJA: Yes, a man named Richard Nickel, a photographer from the Institute of Design who really finds meaning in his life, he becomes obsessed with Louis Sullivan, the great architect in Chicago.


DUBNER: Who had died in, well not in disrepute necessarily but underappreciated.


DYJA: Underappreciated, alcoholic, and really kind of swept under the rug a bit. What Nickel does is he does a project. There are all these Sullivan buildings that are coming down around Chicago as it’s rebuilding. He takes photos of Sullivan’s buildings. And in 1960 the Garrick Theater, also known as the Schiller theater is slated to come down and be turned into a parking lot. And what Nickel does is begin the first great I would say grassroots landmarking campaign. The building does eventually fall down, come down. It was torn down. But Nickel becomes the spokesman for the kind of preservation. And so, through his photography, later on Nickel actually dies, you can say he’s a martyr to the cause when Louis Sullivan’s great stock exchange building was being torn down. He’s going in there every day to take photos and preserve what he can from what’s in it, and a part of the building collapses and he dies. He disappears and is found months later, his body, in there. So it is a very tragic story, but he has a great amount of importance I think for landmark preservation.


DUBNER: Number nine: not literature per se but a romance between two writers that paved the way for just how a stormy romance should play out…


DYJA: I think the greatest writer Chicago produces during these years is Nelson Algren. His love story during this time with Simone de Beauvoir, a woman who the New Yorker at the time called, quote, “the prettiest existentialist.”


DUBNER: Was it a long list? I don’t know.


DYJA: I don’t know. Yeah, Camus was good looking. I don’t know what the other options were there.


DUBNER: Algren wrote The Man with the Golden Arm, a great novel about a heroin addict named Frankie Machine – Frank Sinatra played him in the film. And Algren encouraged his one time lover, Simone de Beauvoir, to write The Second Sex, which became one of the bibles of the feminist movement.


[MUSIC: Aubergine 3 “Spank Le Disco” (from In All Things Modulation)]


DUBNER: Chicago, like a lot of great cities, has a way of producing opposites. The modernist Mies van der Rohe – and the preservationist Richard Nickel. The rigorous University of Chicago and the completely unbridled Compass Theater and Second City. So maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that a city that helped midwife The Second Sex also produced the man who is No. 10 on Tom Dyja’s list:


DYJA: He grew up in my neighborhood, Hugh Hefner, who was a very, very withdrawn boy. He goes off, kind of finds himself in high school, finds himself a big man on campus, goes off, serves in the war as a typist, comes back, University of Illinois, G.I. Bill, gets married, does all the right things. But it’s 1952 and he’s very unhappy. He is obsessed with sex, and his wife is simply not. And two, he had enormous dreams for himself. He could look downtown and had always dreamt of swanky women, and jazz music, and mink stoles and all that kind of stuff, and he’s not having any of it. He lives in a little apartment on south side, in Hyde Park actually. He works at a magazine job that he hates. And so he decides in 1952 to just throw it in. He’s going to start this dream magazine that he’s always wanted to do. And it’s going to be a men’s magazine for people like him who don’t hunt and fish. It’s going to be a guide to how to deal with consumer culture that’s just exploded in America in the ‘50s. And it’s going to have pictures of naked women, which is wonderful thing, but they’re going to be classy. And I think what makes Hef successful and Playboy successful is something that’s very Chicago based. New York is I think it's fair to say your value is based on what you can do that other people cannot, the doors that you can open, or that open to you that don’t open for other people. And in Chicago there is that urge of a city that loves to host conventions, that loves to show people around. And it’s about inviting everybody in. And Hef does that. He invites you in, he wants you to read the magazine. And you should be able to get a hi-fi, you should be able to get a cool bachelor pad. The Playboy Clubs were about going and if you paid your money every year you could go to this place that was kind of like the mansion and hang out and be a part of that world. And so it seemed sort of, it was a calculated and very smart business strategy, but it was about inclusion, not about making it so exclusive. It was about come on in.


DUBNER: And that’s really a metaphor in many ways for Chicago on many levels, yes?


DYJA: Yeah, I think the city has this very people-oriented aesthetic.


DUBNER: As opposed to institutional, yes?


DYJA: Institutional, yeah. You don't go to Chicago to get the awards. You don’t go there to kind of join an academy. That’s a kind of East Coast thing. You go there to work your ideas out.


[MUSIC: Tobias Gebb and Unit 7, “Free At Last” (from Free At Last)]


DUBNER: But let’s be realistic: Chicago is no longer that place where as many people are working out as many ideas:


DYJA: And the fact is, Chicago’s peak population is in 1950, 3.5 or 3.6 million people. Today it’s 2.7. You know, New York has not lost those people in that period. Other cities have gained those people. It is not going to ever be Detroit. It is not going to implode in any way. It is still a wonderful, healthy, thriving city, but it’s not the city that it could have been.


DUBNER: And that, says Tom Dyja, is a shame. Because America, at the moment, needs the kind of balance that Chicago has always provided:


DYJA: What it came out of was the middle. If there’s anything we’re missing now it’s the middle. You know, what is the middle of America? People in other…We either sniff at it or hold it up too high. Chicago had a kind of cynical, sensible understanding of what regular was, you know, you’re going to mind your own business. You’re going to have your house and your kids and sort of take care of yourself. You’re not going to bug other people and they’re not going to bug you and you’re going to kind of get on with it. And that idea of a place in the middle where we all meet and we look at each other and we try to figure things out, Chicago had that. Those political conventions were just meant for Chicago where everyone came and exchanged. It’s where new people came like Mies and Mahalia, from wherever, other countries, other states, and brought new ideas. And without feeling that they had to immediately win and I think that coastal mindset leaves the middle without. We need more middle in America.


[MUSIC: The Mackrosoft, “Life Is Too Short” (from S.E.M.E.)]


DUBNER: To be fair, Chicago has also been known for political corruption and cronyism. For endemic racism. And for quite a bit of crime, of just about every sort you can name. But there’s at least one upside to all that trouble. It’s given a different friend of mine something to write about all these years. Steve Levitt teaches economics at the University of Chicago.


Steve LEVITT: Right, I love the University of Chicago. Couldn’t be, couldn’t be a better place.


DUBNER: How would you describe the ethos, or worldview or philosophy, if there is one, of the Chicago econ department?


LEVITT: I would say that historically there was a real unifying theme in the Chicago econ department which is that it was a group of iconoclasts who thought differently about the world and who were challenging the conventional wisdom at every turn. And I think that’s less true today. I think we are more representative of the profession although we certainly have our renegades.


DUBNER: What is the layperson’s view of Chicago econ department? Let’s say someone who you know reads the newspapers and knows a little bit about, follows a little bit, about the markets. How does the layperson typically view the Chicago department of economics?


LEVITT: The most common question I have gotten when I have said I work at the University of Chicago department of economics over the last fifteen years is, is Milton Friedman still there? To which I say, actually Milton Friedman left in 1978 when I was eleven years old. He’s been gone now for 35 years. Indeed, he has died. But it is amazing. Milton Friedman was an incredible communicator of economics. And he really, in some ways, we are kind of like the ugly stepsisters of Milton Friedman, because he was an economist who managed to get his message out in the public in a way that really changed people’s thinking. And we’re economists, at least, I am, and you are a quasi economist, who have managed to get our ideas out in the public but not actually change anyone’s thinking.


DUBNER: Now there are people who hate the University of Chicago economics department, in theory, and either in their imagination or in reality, and they think that its ideology underlies all that’s wrong with modern capitalism. What do you say when you run into that argument?


LEVITT: You know people don’t really say that to my face, and I think that maybe because they realize that I’m not really part of, you know, the group that went to Chile and worked with Pinochet to try and, you know, put in capitalism even if it’s at the cost of dictatorship. And, I mean, that’s where I think a lot of the politicized hatred towards University of Chicago comes from, and people know I was a toddler at the time. But I think really what the University of Chicago economics stands for, in my mind, is the idea that you have this framework, which we talk about all the time, that’s wrapped around incentives, that’s wrapped around formally modelling things, wrapped around data, and cause and effect. And you basically take that framework and you follow it as far as it will take you into every realm into society. So what maybe symbolizes Chicago economics compared to other departments is our willingness to apply our tools not just to markets and not just to financial things, but to everything -- the family, slavery, discrimination, sumo wrestling, names, I mean, whatever it is it’s been the view that economics is not just game playing. It’s important. It’s a way of understanding the world. And we take it to everything.


DUBNER: A lot of your research about Chicago is not exactly an advertisement for the city. You’ve written about the crack dealers, and pimps, and prostitutes, and school teachers who cheat. So is that the way you see the city, as a kind of fantastic laboratory for vice, and avarice, and cheating?


LEVITT: Yeah, more or less.


DUBNER: Do you think you would have had as much success chronicling that kind of stuff if you were in St. Louis, or Minneapolis, or Boston?


LEVITT: If I had gone to Princeton, I think I would have had to find a different research agenda. I wouldn’t have had nearly as much fun if I had gone to Princeton instead of the University of Chicago.




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  1. Tessa says:

    Interesting and awesome show as always! It made me want to visit Chicago.

    However, when you’re discussing Playboy being all about inclusion, I have to point out that it was all about inclusion for men, the other gender, not so much.

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    • Kevin Irmiter says:

      I think it was inclusive of women as well, in the early days at least. You have to understand that Playboy in the 1950s was a COMPLETELY different publication than Playboy today. It was all about liberating men AND women from repression and letting people live and think more freely. The nude pictures of women was a major part, but it didn’t dominate the magazine like it does now, and in the context of the 1950s, when women still thought of their bodies as something shameful that should be hidden, you could argue that it was in fact liberating for women. Also, editorially, the magazine was very pro-feminist and a very strong supporter of issues like legalizing abortion.

      As time went by, though, they decided there was more money in playing up the sexual titillation. Once they started opening the Playboy clubs and making the Playboy Bunnies central to their image, the politics became much less important, and they have turned into an institution that has definitely hurt the feminist movement more than they ever helped it.

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  2. Dan Boschult says:

    The middle?

    In this century I think you’re looking for Omaha, NE.

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  3. Sam says:

    Very good podcast. But I am puzzled that you have included Hugh Hefner and Playboy as one of the top 10 things Chicago gave to the world. From a female perspective, it seems like this person has damaged female sexuality more than helped. Not a good contribution unless you guys were also including people who also set back social progress. In that sense Hugh Hefner should be there. (as you can see evidence in the way women are still being treated around the world and in the U.S.) So this was definitely male bias about great things Chicago contributed and not very justifiable in the sense of the repercussions of sexism that women still endure today. But this is my opinion anyways.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 20 Thumb down 23
    • skh.pcola says:

      Unlike those sexually-liberated females proudly strutting their half-naked (or mostly-naked, topless) bodies around while proudly proclaiming themselves to be “sluts”? That’s breaking free of the patriarchy, all right. Contrary to the protestations of facile feminists, it is the feminist “movement” that has done the most damage to women, because who can take seriously anybody that acts like a truculent 6-year-old without a cookie?

      Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 10 Thumb down 13
      • Sam says:

        We get both end of the spectrum as women. Crazy feminists or crazy conservative. No one can dismiss the double standards women still endure though, compare to their male counterparts. I would like to walk around in my birthday suit (especially in this heat) but in this patriarchal society, that’s open invitation for unwanted sexual advances from men (not all men, most men I think would appreciate it). Which is strange because naked is such a natural thing! And it’s quite humorous that a man has made exploiting a natural thing a profit! Sexually active or just flaunting their body, women can be sexually free if they’re not going to be harassed for trying to be free, with such words as mentioned, “sluts” (which seems like such a word a closed minded person will call themselves). Sex should be enjoyed by the person and with others, and not profited, but that’s a whole other issue. So until people can be less degrading about a women’s body and not make it such a object of fantasy. I think I can enjoy my nakedness a little more (harassment free).

        Thank you for your opinion by the way. I enjoy hearing from other perspectives.

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  4. kapalua234 says:

    Your guest forgot one other important Chicago event, the first sustained nuclear reaction that happened under the stands of Stagg Field.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1
  5. Errol Dunlap says:

    Thanks for this episode. I was born and raised in Chicago ( moved to Brooklyn last year ).

    Seeing the vast differences–yet appreciating the lessons learned from the “proving grounds” of Chicago, really makes this episode pop for me.

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  6. Kerr Lockhart says:

    What about packaged-goods advertising, by companies such as Leo Burnett? Because of their influence, radio advertising production was centered in Chicago, even long after the demise of big-time network radio. Burnett, for its client Kellogg, made an art out of recombining grains and sugar into dozens of different boxed cereals each with their own characters and their own stories.

    Not to mention the effect of Sears, Roebuck & Co!

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0
  7. Eric M. Jones says:

    Q: Did you hear about the million people in Chicago who just got injured?
    A: The wind quit blowing. They fell down.

    Bah-dum. I’ll be here all week. Be sure to tip your waitress.

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  8. sid 2.0 says:

    Great podcast, as always. Just wondering – could the Chicago referencing style be added as No. 11?

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