Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Uptown, the book

Bob Rehak was a young man in the 1970s who took the Purple line in from Evanston into the city to his job downtown in advertising. His passion though was photography, and what he saw from his train window as he passed Argyle, Lawrence, and Wilson L train stops intrigued him. There was a variety of life out on the streets below the tracks. Messy, disturbing life. I’ve noticed that many creative people are somehow energized by chaos, and Bob Rehak was somehow curious enough to bat away his fears, get off the train, and walk the dirty, trash-filled sidewalks with his camera and take photographs.
Though I don’t know if he would classify it as “taking” as he describes people in Uptown in the mid-1970s though mostly poor were generous; they gladly gave Bob permission to photograph them.
Uptown was a port of entry for immigrants because of the relative low-cost housing in the neighborhoods. There was a large population of migrants from Appalachia, social activists, the down-and-out, and skid row bums. And kids. The schools were teeming with kids as opposed to today when 2 elementary schools in Uptown closed because of low numbers. This was before working-class families began to be squeezed out of Uptown in favor of the trendy hipster—many single or couples without kids. Before the developers moved in.
This book took me back to when I first came to Uptown in 1982. Believe me it was no picnic. Every night the cops had to be called to break up fights. Fire trucks screamed down the streets—especially in the 4500 bl0ck of Magnolia and Malden—it seemed every night a building burned. Bob Rehak quotes a firefighter saying his was the busiest unit, with as many as 400 fires a year.
I’ve been loaning out my copy left and right and many of my friends are ordering their own. It probably took me 5 nights to go through the coffee-table size book because after about a half hour I would be exhausted remembering. Each photograph takes me back. I remember that submerged stoop leading down to an abandoned basement apartment stuffed with litter. I remember hunchbacked old ladies coming back from the grocery carrying the few items they could carry. I remember the guy on crutches missing a leg asking for money out front of the Wooden Nickel on Wilson Avenue. By the time we moved into the old Chelsea Hotel it was a dive, long neglected by a landlord that let it crumble and pipes freeze and break.
There’s still time to order your copy for Christmas.
With his book Uptown, Bob Rehak shows us who we once were and where we’ve come from. It is a visual archive and a real gem.

And just for fun--here's one I found at Uptown Update, Wilson and Broadway from 1955, a Christmas street scene

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