This post is one of two that previews my presentation at the 2014 Urban History Association Conference in Philadelphia. The session is titled “Surviving the Seventies: Mulltiracialism, Place, and Activism in Chicago and Detroit” (Session 18, Friday October 10, 10:30 am).  My esteemed fellow panelists are fellow PhD candidates Andrew Baer (Northwestern University) and Kyle Mays (University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign). Dr. Carol McKibben (Stanford) will comment. Read Part One of the preview here.

 

In November 1973 young advertising copywriter Bob Rehak stepped off the El train at the Wilson stop in the heart of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. That Saturday was a characteristically cold and misty Chicago fall morning, adding a layer of atmospheric drama to Rehak’s mission. After months of passing through the economically depressed area on his way to work at Leo Burnett Agency in the Loop, Rehak had finally summoned enough courage to descend from the El platform and onto the street—Nikon F2 camera strapped to his shoulder and blank model release forms in hand. What would become a two year photographic obsession that produced over 5,000 images actually started simply enough, despite Rehak’s apprehensiveness. He approached the first person who caught his eye, a middle-age black man who “seemed a little unstable.” Rehak asked him, simply, “Can I take your picture?” The man immediately dropped a knee to the litter-strewn cracked sidewalk, brought his hands together in prayer, fixed his eyes just past the gaze of Rehak’s Nikon, and proclaimed, “I am Jehovah!” The shutter clicked, Jehovah signed the release form, and later that night Bob Rehak developed his first Uptown photograph in his apartment’s dark room. Only after the print dried did he notice that the man had made an imperfect, if not poetic, expression of prayer—he was missing parts of three fingers on both clasped hands. 1

"Praying.” The first photograph in Rehak’s Uptown portfolio. ©Robert Rehak.

“Praying.” The first photograph in Rehak’s Uptown portfolio. ©Robert Rehak.

Rehak’s Uptown sojourn began as a personal creative exercise, which he intended to sharpen his writing skills.  The people and places of Uptown, however, would not allow such a simple or self-interested endeavor. Instead, the neighborhood—in all its poverty, violence, diversity, hopelessness and hope, and even pride—essentially collaborated with Rehak , presenting a complicated self to the camera and infusing the images with profound stories of survival. After forty years in storage, the ‘discovery’ of Rehak’s Uptown portfolio created a viral sensation. Now, the work represents perhaps the most searing, comprehensive, and complex portrait of a struggling urban community in the mid-Seventies, defying any classification as simple as ‘gritty realism.’

Robert Rehak was born in Cleveland. He spent his early years there, with the exception of a short stay in Germany with his father, a member of the Army Air Corps, not long after the end of World War II. Rehak visited former sites of concentration camps, where the “smell of what had happened there” left an indelible memory that encouraged the development of empathy. When the elder Rehak’s military service ended, he accepted the executive editorship of a small town newspaper in southwestern Pennsylvania, were young Bob spent most of his childhood. The family relocated to St. Paul, Minnesota, where Rehak graduated from high school. As the son of a newspaperman, Rehak trained his sights on journalism school. He applied and was accepted into one of the nation’s finest, at Northwestern University. The Rehaks were far from well-off, and Mrs. Rehak’s medical problems only placed a greater strain on the funds available for college; Bob held down up to four jobs while working his way to both an undergraduate and graduate degree in just five years. His efforts paid off, as he was hired as a “cub advertising copywriter” by renowned advertising firm Leo Burnett. He rented a walk-up fourth-floor apartment in the Rogers Park neighborhood, just south of Evanston on Chicago’s Far North Side. His commute on the train took him through Uptown, so often in the news for arson, gang violence, and urban decay. Rehak recalled his thoughts about the area, before that fateful November morning: “Frankly it terrified me a little bit. It was a pretty scary place at the time.”

"Self-Portait" (1974). ©Robert Rehak.

“Self-Portait” (1974). ©Robert Rehak.

Bob Rehak developed a passion for photography at an early age. He admired the unflinching style of Depression-era documentary photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, who captured people in what Rehak saw as “impossible circumstances.” Other photographers caught his eye, specifically Diane Arbus, and the chronicler of unvarnished New York City crime scenes known as Weegee. He bought sophisticated equipment and learned to combine photographic and darkroom techniques, playing with the infinite amount of variables based on shutter speed, light, lens, film, and print paper. At Northwestern, Rehak had become interested in the creative advertising aspect of print journalism, and came to view his photography and writing as essential in honing his skills as an ad copywriter. But Rehak worried that his reticent personality was holding him back. And so he came to force himself off the train and into ‘terrifying’ Uptown that fateful fall morning, hoping to induce a shock of unfamiliarity that might open up new depths to his creativity.

The backstory of Rehak’s partner in his photographic mission—the Uptown neighborhood, itself—set the course for the images that were to follow. Uptown, as most perceived it at the time, covered about one square mile about six miles north of the Loop, bounded by Irving Park Road on the south, Bryn Mawr Avenue on the north, Clark Street on the west, and Lake Michigan on the east. Speculators developed Uptown in the early twentieth century, envisioning a commercial and residential area on par with New York City’s Time Square. Uptown roared in the 1920s, with an eponymous “movie palace,” several opulent smaller theaters, jazz lounges, and apartments and residential hotels catering to young middle-class singles. The Depression hit the area hard, and the existing kernel of housing for low-income and working-class transient people mushroomed. By 1960, Uptown was still among the densest square miles in the country. The center of the neighborhood, bifurcated by the Elevated tracks, became poorer as middle-class and elite boosters in the perimeter perpetually devised partially-realized urban renewal and redevelopment schemes.

Uptown always had a reputation for diversity. Through the 1950s, commercialized leisure spaces like tiki bars, chop suey restaurants, and tropical-themed resort hotels gave the neighborhood an ‘exotic’ feel despite it being 95 percent white. In another twist for heterogeneous urban culture, poor and working-class whites from the South and Appalachia nearly filled Uptown in the 1950s and 1960s, as they fled severe unemployment. After 1965, the small black population climbed steadily, and thousands of Puerto Ricans came to Uptown after being displaced by urban renewal in other parts of the city. Uptown also became the preferred ‘port of entry’ for American Indians seeking better prospects than on the reservations. They joined a small but well-established Asian American community in Uptown. When Bob Rehak met Jehovah in 1973, Central Uptown was in the throes of severe unemployment, crime, and infrastructural decay. The federal War and Poverty center had come and gone, as had the wave of SDS-affiliated community organizers who once thought Uptown to be the vanguard for an ‘interracial movement of the poor.’ The year before Rehak began photographing there, hundreds of people with disabilities were “de-institutionalized” into halfway house in Uptown. 2 The neighborhood, experiencing the cutting edge of the ‘urban crisis’ while also host to a heterogeneous population that defied Chicago’s rigid segregation, was both a microcosm and exception to major social, economic, and cultural forces.

Rehak expected crumbling buildings, menacing gang members, homeless people with behavioral conditions, and down-and-out whites with southern drawls. He found some of those things—and much more. Rehak’s photographs are artifacts of the neighborhood’s process of teaching him about its self. He was no simple street photographer standing apart from his subjects, surreptitiously snapping photos on the run. Rehak makes this distinction often today. He contrasts his method with that of his onetime Rogers Park neighbor Vivian Maier, the nanny-photographer whose work was recently discovered in a storage unit and became a multi-million-dollar collection with exhibits around the globe, as well as the the subject of two documentaries (and at least one pitched estate lawsuit).

Rehak engaged Uptowners in conversation before even touching his camera, and used people’s stories about themselves to approach his visual quest. On most forays into Uptown, he also lugged an audio recorder, capturing oral histories of his subjects in hope of someday writing a book 3 As such, he fostered important relationships across racial and class boundaries, and quickly became embraced in the community as a chronicler of families, gangs, lovers, and everyday dramas. Rehak distributed prints in exchange for consent (or, if subjects preferred, $1.00), thus creating for Uptowners material for photo albums and hallway frames. His online portfolio, with over 500 images representing about 10 percent of his Uptown work, is best understood through four conceptual categories that correspond to the rich human component of people surviving the Seventies in Uptown.

Part II: The Five Categories in Rehak’s Uptown Portfolio

"Happy Kids Eating Popsicles." ©Robert Rehak.

“Happy Kids Eating Popsicles.” ©Robert Rehak.

 

 

 

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