Photographer Captures Uptown's 'Invisible' People in New Book
UPTOWN — Bob Rehak's heart was pounding as he stepped off the "L" at the Wilson Red Line station one cold, misty Saturday in November 1973.
Rehak, a shutterbug who lived north of Uptown in Rogers Park and worked then as a copywriter for advertising agency Leo Burnett Downtown, passed Uptown on his weekday commute but never stepped foot there.
"There were lots of burned-out cars, vacant lots, crumbling buildings, you could see winos on the street, gang graffiti was everywhere, you saw burned down apartment buildings," said Rehak, now 66. "But I knew that if I was ever going to develop my photographic skills, I needed to overcome my fear and get off the 'L' and start photographing people."
At the corner of Wilson and Broadway he found his first subject, a man pacing back and forth nervously and muttering to himself. When Rehak asked for his picture, the man surprised Rehak: He didn't club him over the head or take his Nikon F2.
He dropped to his knees and struck this pose for Rehak's camera like he was praying and, according to Rehak, he declared, "'My name is Jehovah!'"
The man's picture graces the front cover of "Uptown: Portrait of a Chicago Neighborhood in the Mid-1970s," which will be released on Wednesday and available for order on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites.
The Uptown photographed by the Northwestern University journalism grad was far removed from its heyday as a booming entertainment district, and had been in decline since the Great Depression.
The 272-page book features photos Rehak said he took between 1973 and 1977, when economic recession exacerbated poverty in the neighborhood, the deinstitutionalization of mental health patients caused a large influx in the mentally ill population, and gentrification in Old Town and Lincoln Park brought even more poor families north.
In Uptown, Rehak said he was looking to capture the essence of the diverse but troubled neighborhood by photographing the people who lived there.
"What I felt talking to these people was that they felt invisible," said Rehak, who had a father in the Air Force and lived in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Germany growing up. "It was almost as if through me they were able to express something about their lives that needed to be said."
Uptown's melting pot included large populations of Native Americans, Hispanics, blacks, migrant workers from the Appalachian region and various immigrants who could only afford to live in a neighborhood like Uptown, where the housing stock was deteriorated — but affordable.
Rehak, despite his initial fear of Uptown's seedier elements, said he discovered that "Uptown had some of the most welcoming, open people I've ever seen in my life," and found "a lot of hardworking people trying to make it work."
He photographed a Hungarian family who lived in a three-room apartment — nine people from three generations of the clan, including four boys from ages 3-17 — who he said "symbolized for me the plight of a lot of people that lived in Uptown at the time."
"They were working hard to make ends meet and keep their kids on the straight and narrow but it was tough," he said.
Rehak's last picture in Uptown was of a former Latin King who hung out on Winthrop and Ainslie, and the man's baby daughter.
"On this occasion, I saw him with a baby on the front seat of his car, right next to him, and I said: 'What's that about?' He didn't look like the fathering type to me," Rehak said. "He told me he had had this baby with his girlfriend, and he was trying to leave the gang and go straight."
Referring to the baby, Rehak observes in the caption for the photo: "All of us change the world in some way for better or worse, and some of us just do it sooner than others."
The Chicago Tribune ran a feature on some of Rehak's photos. After that Rehak said he "put the photos in a drawer," and got on with his life.
Following stints as creative director at major advertising firms in Chicago, Dallas and Houston, Rehak founded his own advertising and marketing company in Houston in 1994. In July, he published some of the Uptown pictures online, and was surprised when "Within a week, they went viral," he said. A publisher approached him with a proposition and they struck a deal.
Rehak will be at the Uptown Branch Library, 929 W. Buena Ave., on Thursday to unveil the book of Uptown photos and answer questions about his experiences.
"That will be my first trip back to Uptown in close to 40 years," said Rehak, who has heard Uptown has improved since the '70s but is eager to see it with his own eyes. "I'm planning on bringing a camera. That's for sure."
For more information about Bob Rehak's book, and for more of his Uptown pictures, click here.