This post is two of three 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. 

Bob Rehak’s 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.

I. Environment: The Land That Urban Renewal Forgot, or the ‘Golden Ghetto?’

“No Pity.” ©Robert Rehak.

“No Pity.” ©Robert Rehak.

 Rehak was initially drawn to Uptown for its “visually rich environment.” Uptown was an island of poverty in what was otherwise the cleared-and-“renewed” or gentrifying sea that was the North Side of Chicago.1 The area presented a bracing array of social behavior that appeared exotic and arresting to the young, white, newcomer to the creative class. Rehak carefully documented the built environment that was both formed by, and formative for, low-income Uptowners. The extent of infrastructural decay stunned Rehak, even after having preconceived notions of what the ‘slum’ would look like. He documented upturned abandoned cars, half-finished demolitions, gangways choked with litter, and even a literally a “bombed out” apartment building. A mundane but elemental commercial landscape crowds the backgrounds of most of his portraits. A typical block along Wilson Avenue or Broadway consisted of a pawn shop, tavern, resale shop, bodega, and an abandoned storefront—with several other taverns interspersed. Today, Rehak’s portfolio presents an invaluable visual record of a community perpetually on the verge of ‘improving.’2

"Wilson, West of the L," 1974.

“Wilson, West of the L,” 1974. The mural in the background–painted in response to the displacement of thousands of low-income residents in favor of a community college–is slated for imminent demolition.

In its decay, however, the Uptown landscapes of Rehak’s photographs can assume a romanticized and noble character when juxtaposed with the strength in the faces of the people in the foreground. A group of young boys pose with their arms up in celebration on a porch seemingly held together only by friction, with a graffiti-covered base. A mother, standing barefoot in a barren yard in front of a partially rebuilt apartment stoop, wraps her arm around her young son—who wears a Peanuts sweatshirt and a gap-toothed grin.Here, the dialogue between Rehak’s aesthetic instinct and the determination of the people of Uptown opens the possibility for criticism of the portfolio. Many images could be viewed as romantic depictions of the “Golden Ghetto,” where economic suffering and infrastructural neglect builds character. While there is no denying that Rehak’s creative eye gravitated towards such scenes, there is also no denying the expressions of Uptown’s marginalized people.

II. Gangs and Drinkers

King Kids

“Rites of Passage.” Young Latin Kings ‘signifying.’ ©Robert Rehak.

 

      Some in Uptown embraced strategies for surviving the Seventies through associations and activities that fell well outside the normative behavior or middle-class whites in Bob Rehak’s position. Rehak, however, quickly learned that membership in a gang, for example, was not a simple manner of deviant criminal behavior. He recalled his first contact with the strongest gang presence, the Latin Kings.

I remember meeting them for the first time and thinking, ‘Oh my god these guys are going to beat me over the head and steal my camera.’ But they didn’t. They were looking for recognition like everyone else. I just introduced myself, I was courteous. And I asked, “Can I take your picture?” And they asked, “What for?” , and I said, “Well, I hope to publish them some day.” And they were pretty much into publicity—they wanted it. Somehow that made them look bigger in the eyes of their neighborhood and their rivals.

Rehak came to be something of an official photographer for the Kings and the Harrison Gents, another established Uptown gang. Appreciative gang leaders ensured Rehak’s safety throughout the neighborhood—indeed, Rehak was never threatened in over two years. 3That the Kings and Gents were experiencing something of a truce facilitated Rehak’s access. As with the depictions of pride against backdrops of urban distress, one could view Rehak’s gang images as romantic. Yet, unsettling violence seethes just below the surface of most photographs. Gang members proudly display weapons, sometimes to shocking effect—as with the King performing a mock execution of a colleague playing the part of a rival Latin Eagle. Boys barely in their teens emulate the poses of older gang members, and brandish knives and guns of their own.

Like gang members, Uptown’s alcoholics went about their days transgressing standard behavior. With a bar open at 7 a.m. seemingly on every block, Uptown’s drinking environment catered to those with addictions with no better place to be and even just a few dollars. The romanticization of this theme is less likely than those above, even if some images depict genuine friendship and apparent comfort with a bottle at arm’s length. The effects of heavy drinking and alcoholism dominate many images. Several men and women show the camera still-wet wounds from bar fights, while others must have been barely conscious to sign release forms. In one instance that must have disturbed Rehak’s scruples, a women with a bloodied lip accepted Rehak’s compensatory dollar and retreated directly back into the bar for more drinks with her abusive husband. Her young daughter, left alone on the sidewalk after having her photo taken, stood outside the tavern with her nose pressed to the window.

III. Kids, Families, and Lovers

"Mr. Uptown"

“Mr. Uptown” ©Robert Rehak.

Photographs of gangs and heavy drinkers suggest an unstable community of people with few long term options. However, Uptown’s low-income core had more than enough room for strong families and the type of hope that children seem to best show the camera. Many images reflect a domestic stability that stands in sharp contrast to public uncertainty. Rehak became close to a family that ran a respected Guatemalan restaurant, documenting things like intergenerational empanada making. In one shot, the matron poses while still wearing her apron, with her dimpled daughter at her side. In other such images, two kids stand in an alley, dressed in their finest church clothes of crushed velvet and faux-fur trim. Rehak was drawn to children, and they to him. Children, like their parents and even like many marginalized people, considered it an honor to have their portrait taken. Another frequent group who loved to pose for the camera consisted of several pre-teen African American siblings. After he left Uptown, Rehak long remembered these “Popsicle Girls,” with their beaming smiles and zest for life.

Many people happily presented expressions of love to Rehak’s lens. Like family and children in general, romantic love in particular counterbalanced any notion that all was lost in low-income Uptown. The aesthetics of lovers in embrace against a backdrop of urban distress only enhances both elements of that juxtaposition. Latin Kings take a break from scowling to hug their girlfriends, and day drinking lovers give Rehak boozy smiles. The proud love shown to children by parents contributed to some of the most powerful images in the portfolio. One of the final photographs taken by Rehak in Uptown depicts a Latin King leader with his baby daughter nestled in the car seat next to him, as he smiled into the camera. The gang leader had recently pledged to ‘go straight’ after her birth.

IV “The cosmic collision of cultures”: Multiracialism and Interracialism

Nothing prepared Bob Rehak for the diversity and interracial togetherness of the Uptown streets and low-income homes, which he described as a “cosmic collision of cultures.” In this regard, the neighborhood was like nothing he had experienced. He recently explained that it was the diversity—not the infrastructural decay, nor the unattended children, nor the wandering alcoholics—that most surprised him when he entered Uptown.

The show in Uptown was happening on the street. It was incredible. You could walk down the street in Uptown in that era, and it was like walking around the world. You just meet people from every walk of life, every corner of the US, every ethnic group. And they all had stories to tell. And, somehow, they all got along. I don’t recall a lot of racial strife, it wasn’t like the ‘neighborhood was changing [racially] and we gotta fight this thing.’ They all got along together. They were thrown into these adverse circumstances, and they were just trying to make the best of it. It was kind of refreshing to see, in that regard.

"Uptown Family and Friends"

“Uptown Family and Friends”

The Uptown portfolio looks, at times, like the product of an anthropological mission to capture as many types of people on film as possible. American Indians, African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Hungarians, “Gyspies,” Japanese-Americans, West Virginians—no racial, ethnic, or cultural background seemed to escape notice. Furthermore, diversity extended beyond the simple co-existence of groups in an urban space. Rehak recorded numerous interracial scenes that might surprise some even today. While romantic relationships that crossed boundaries relationships show a progressiveness not seen in many other communities, it was the interracial make up of gangs that most complicated understandings of the mid-Seventies city. While the Latin Kings, Latin Eagles, and Gaylords each consisted of almost a single race in other parts of heavily-segregated Chicago, the gangs assumed an interracial makeup in Uptown out of necessity.

Next in Part III: Life Is Never So Simple, and the ‘Discovery’ of the Uptown Portfolio

 

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