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.
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.
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.
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.
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.