UPTOWN — Every time somebody publishes another article about Bob Rehak's book of photos of Uptown in the 1970s, the 66-year-old advertising executive said "it seems to expose another audience" to the photo blog that landed him a book deal in the first place.
Last week, "suddenly I started getting emails from people who had been gang members," said Rehak, whose book "Uptown: Portrait of a Chicago Neighborhood in the Mid-1970s," has been on sale since November. The Houston resident was living in Rogers Park when he took the pictures between 1973 and 1977.
Rehak said one of the most fascinating aspects of his experiences photographing Uptown was the opportunity to use his camera to peer into the lives of the gang members — particularly Uptown's Latin Kings.
"I was surprised at how many of those folks met untimely ends," he said, speaking about the emails he has gotten from former gang members who visited his blog.
"One guy had died in prison, one guy was driving under the influence and got in a car wreck and was decapitated. There was a lady who had married one of those guys and [was] pushed out of a fourth-floor window and died," he said.
He said the "long stream of depressing emails" came on top of an update he had gotten in November about a Latin King, who went by the name of "Pinhead." The gang member married his girlfriend but their story did not end happily despite their smiling portrait, according to their orphaned daughter, Rehak said.
"She told me that [Pinhead] had been murdered when she was 3, and she never really knew him — and that her mother had committed suicide a few months later because she was so heartbroken over the loss of her husband. And wow. That just ripped my heart out," he said.
But when it comes to Uptown, Rehak is reminded that there are happy endings.
He got a more upbeat message last week from "the guy who is on the last page of the book," a leader of the Latin Kings in Uptown who was pictured with his daughter and "trying to go straight."
"It took him a little longer than expected, but he's been drug-, prison- and alcohol-free for going on 10 years now. And he's living at an undisclosed location outside of Illinois, far from the gang," Rehak said, noting that the man's daughter is "alive and healthy and has children of her own now."
In late November, Rehak returned to Uptown for the first time in about 40 years.
John K. Wilson, one of the organizers of Uptown's Chicago Book Expo, wanted Rehak to speak at the expo on Nov. 24. When that didn't work for the photographer's schedule, he arranged for Rehak to give a presentation on the book at the Uptown Branch Library a few days before the expo.
About 100 people showed up, many of them people who had been in Rehak's pictures.
"It felt more like a family reunion than a presentation about a book," Rehak remembers. "Oh my God — it was so much fun to see these people after 40 years."
He was reunited with a lady who ran the former Guatemala Cafe at 1022 W. Wilson Ave. She's 89 years old now, but Rehak recognized her the moment she walked in.
"She was so kind and gracious to me back in those days. Every time I stopped in the restaurant, she would force feed me empanadas," he said.
Among other blasts from the past, he met an old firefighter he'd photographed, and a group of women he calls "the popsicle girls," who were just cute kids posing for a picture when he saw them years ago.
"There was just a lot of positive energy in the room," Rehak said.
Rehak said the Uptown he photographed was "an exceptionally diverse and densely populated neighborhood" where one could "just walk down the street and see all kinds of characters" from various backgrounds, including white Appalachian migrant workers, Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanics and immigrants from all over the globe.
It was also rife with poverty and crime.
"I was shocked at how much it had improved as I was driving around," Rehak said Tuesday.
Rehak said he saw condo apartments being sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars — inside whole buildings that were selling for $20,000 back in the '70s.
The Chicago Book Expo's Wilson said Rehak has produced "a really fascinating portrait of Uptown, and of the '70s."
"There's not that many people who studied Uptown with such depth so long ago who are now looking at it with fresh eyes and seeing how it's changed," Wilson said. "I think he's a powerful witness to that change."