Tag Archive for: Uptown

A Flood of Memories: The Uptown Story

Holidays have a way of bringing back memories. Almost ten years ago, I published a book of photographs based on a four-year project I started 50 years ago between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was called Uptown: Portrait of a Chicago Neighborhood in the Mid-1970s.

The book sold well initially. But Hurricane Harvey destroyed almost all of the remaining inventory and the book is now officially out of print. So as not to lose the history, I’m making it available as a free PDF for anyone to download from my photography site BobRehak.com.

A History of the History

Fifty years ago, I was still in graduate school and trying to teach myself documentary photography when I wasn’t studying, or working as a busboy, janitor, night watchman or cub copywriter.

Because I couldn’t afford a car, I took the elevated train from sedate Evanston, Illinois, to work in downtown Chicago every day. About halfway, I passed through a neighborhood called Uptown. It both fascinated and terrified me.

The neighborhood had a glorious past. It was a center of America’s film industry before Hollywood. But by the early 1970s, it had hit rock bottom.

Crime was rampant. Gangs ruled the streets. Old mansions had turned into halfway houses. Bums slept in doorways. Flophouses cost 75 cents a night. And you could drink your sorrows away in bars that lined every block.

I sensed I could capture powerful images in Uptown. But I feared that someone would beat me over the head and steal my Nikon. I also feared that the poverty-stricken people of Uptown might feel offended when I asked to take their pictures.

Overcoming Fears

It took me months to work up the courage to get off the El in Uptown. The turning point was a book I read by a famous New York street photographer named Arthur Fellig, aka Weegee. In it, he explained his theory of success, “F8 and be there.”

A photographer would recognize “F8” as code for “nothing special.” It’s a middle-of-the-road aperture on every lens ever made. That put the emphasis on “be there.” Weegee was saying, “Don’t worry about the equipment. Just be there to get the shot.”

After reading that, I promised myself that I would get off the El the next Saturday in Uptown, walk up to the first person I saw and photograph him/her. As luck would have it, the first person I saw was a Black man wearing a fedora and chomping on a cigar while gesturing wildly to no one in particular and shouting at passers by.

I said to myself, “Why did he have to be the first one?” But a promise is a promise. So I asked if I could photograph him. He paused. Then smiled. And said with a big grin, “Sure.” As I focused my camera, he dropped to his knees, clasped his hands together in prayer, and bellowed, “My name is Jehovah.”

Thus started a four-year love affair with photographing the people of Uptown. That first shot graces the cover of my book.

Cover of Uptown book

A Glimpse into Another World: Living on the Edge of Existence

As I was posting the PDF today, memories of the project came flooding back. I remember the circumstances of each shot.

The homeless man huddled next to a fire he started in a wastebasket to stay warm. A wino passed out on the hood of a Malibu. Young kids jumping out of second story windows, shouting “Kung Fu.” A five-year-old girl, without a coat, freezing alone on the street. A drug dealer with a City of Chicago peddler’s license. A lone tear falling from an old woman’s eye. A barefoot boy fishing through trash to find discarded soda bottles so he could collect the nickel deposit to buy a candy bar. And hundreds more.

Two spreads from book

Together, these images give you a glimpse into another world of people living on the edge of existence. I met parents forced to chose between shoes and food for their children. I saw kids who had nothing … inventing games that required nothing. Uptown was a collision of cultures and a human parade. Every day, a new show began.

The book begins with a brief written introduction to the neighborhood and its history. This puts the images in perspective. I won’t go into all of that now. Except to tell one last story.

At Christmas one year, I saw a homeless man who hadn’t eaten in several days. I watched as he dropped $10 into a Salvation Army kettle – an enormous sum in those days for someone so poor. I asked him why he did it. He said they offered him help when he needed it. Profound! We can all learn from that.

I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did creating it. Happy holidays.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/27/22

1916 Days since Hurricane Harvey destroyed the last copies of my Uptown Book

With thanks to those who helped me create it, especially Stephen McFarland, Mike Meyers, Chris Daigle, Jennifer Gleason, Kathy Czubik, and Janice Costa.

Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium Releases Report on Affordable Multifamily Housing

The Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium has released its second report. This one addresses the City’s dwindling supply of affordable, multi-family housing, 26 percent of which lie within a currently mapped floodplain and are vulnerable to future flood events. 

Like the group’s first report which addressed the causes of flooding watershed by watershed throughout Houston, this is a true work of scholarship. Major contributors to the report include the University of Houston’s Community Design Resource Center, Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation Houston. The Cullen Foundation generously funded the report. Other major sponsors of the Consortium include the Houston Endowment,  Kinder Foundation, and  The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.

Major Findings about Multi-family Housing

The report found:

  • 165,000 multi-family units are vulnerable to flooding
  • More than 475,000 people who live in these units often face multiple vulnerabilities.
  • 45% of all households in Harris County are renters
  • 57% of all households in the City of Houston rent
  • Half of the renter households in Harris County spend more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing 
  • The rising prices of rental units, coupled with the low incomes of many renting households, makes the search for safe and affordable housing a major challenge for many of Houston’s most vulnerable residents
  • Between 1990 and 2017, 1,850 multi-family units were lost each year through demolition 
  • Demolitions, renovations, and redevelopment of older apartment buildings are replacing lower-priced units with higher-priced ones 
  • Updated floodplain maps will likely bring tens of thousands more of the region’s residents into areas of elevated risk
  • The bulk of the new multi-family construction in the city and county is being built with higher-income renters in mind 
  • Half of all affordable multi-family units are at risk of losing their affordability through the expiration of existing subsidies, demotion or upgrades.

Organized to Give Insight into Strategies

The combined risks of flooding and the accelerating loss of affordable multi-family housing across the City of Houston and Harris County point to the need to understand and consider strategies to address this crisis. The authors break it down into four major sections:

  • Introduction and overview
  • Risks and opportunities
  • An overview of the study areas and case studies highlighting solutions that have helped in other parts of the country
  • Policy and action considerations

Partial List of Policy Recommendations

In the policy and action considerations section, the report makes many recommendations to protect and support vulnerable families. Below, a partial list:

  • Establish a housing trust fund for housing recovery
  • Inventory available developable land outside of the floodway
  • Establish a privately-funded strike fund to assist affordable housing developers and preserve existing affordable housing
  • Establish a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program to limit floodplain development
  • Leverage Local housing Authority’s tax-exempt status to initiate projects
  • Encourage limited equity cooperatives as an alternative for multi-family residences in need of repair or under bad ownership
  • Encourage transit oriented development
  • Create Opportunity Zones outside of floodplains.
  • Encourage a community land trust model
  • Bolster incentives to encourage development outside the floodplain
  • Creating an eviction protection program.
  • Expanding the number of housing choice vouchers and preventing discrimination against users. 
  • Alerting residents of flood risk. 
  • Implementing a more streamlined system of inspection and permitting that prioritizes rehabilitation of multi-family units. 

For More Information

The 108-page report is richly illustrated with maps and charts that give both policy makers and concerned residents hard information with which to build sound policy. It contains so much meat, it’s hard to summarize.

This is not light reading, but it will help illustrate the problems that half the people in the City and County face.

To download and read the full text, click here. Warning: 50 meg PDF.

One Wish…Rely Less on Statistics

My one wish after reading this? The authors should have used more photography to illustrate the problems; they over-rely on statistics in my opinion. Having done a fair amount of documentary photography myself, I understand how difficult this is. But until people have actually seen the living conditions many are forced to endure, they won’t truly understand the problem.

Years ago, I studied poverty in a Chicago neighborhood called Uptown from 1973-1977 – between the two OPEC oil embargoes. I was trying to understand the effect they had on people. Forty years later, I can’t remember a single statistic from those days. But I can’t forget the image below. This young, shoeless boy was fishing through trash cans looking for soda bottles to redeem so that he could get money to eat. To encourage recycling, soda bottles had a nickel deposit in those days. Behind him: the affordable multi-family housing where he lived.

“Bottle Boy” from Uptown: Portrait of a Chicago Neighborhood in the Mid-1970s . Copyright ©2013 by Bob Rehak.
For more Chicago Uptown images see the BobRehak.com.

Posted by Bob Rehak on March 31, 2019

579 Days since Hurricane Harvey