Early in my career, I developed an interest in documentary photography. From 1973 to 1976, I lived on the far north side of Chicago, and took the elevated train to work downtown every day. Along the way, I passed through the Chicago Uptown neighborhood but it had such a terrible reputation that I never explored it.
In the 1920s, Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood had been a playground for the city’s elite. By the 1970s, the area had turned into a slum. Gangs ruled the streets. Mansions had been converted to halfway homes for the mentally ill and parolees. And graffiti covered the walls of decaying buildings.
The poor flooded into Uptown. The area became a melting pot. Members from almost every American Indian tribe lived here. So did poor African-Americans, Hispanics and Caucasians from the South and Appalachia. They migrated to Chicago for a chance to find work and gravitated to Uptown because of the cheap rents.
The world had largely forgotten these people. Most everyone tried to ignore them in the same way that you try to ignore street vendors who approach your car at stoplights. You look the other way, hoping they will go away.
I chose this place to photograph because I was afraid of it. I was extremely shy and introverted at the time. The Uptown project was a self-assignment designed to help me come out of my shell. As I looked out the window of the el train every day, a plan gradually took shape. I vowed that one day I would get off at Wilson Avenue and force myself to ask the first person I saw if I could take his or her picture.
Eventually, I gathered the courage and, much to my surprise, the first person didn’t beat me over the head or try to steal my camera. He started talking to me as if I were a long-lost friend. It was a life-changing experience. The same thing happened with the next person and the next and the next.
These people had been ignored by society for so long that they felt flattered by the attention I was giving them. Even the gang members saw me as someone who could make them “famous.” After the Chicago Tribune published many of my images, people on the streets began calling me “the guy with the eye,” a reference to the camera I constantly carried.
I learned many lessons during the four years I photographed in Uptown. The experience changed me immensely. I saw firsthand how poverty and violence perpetuated themselves from generation to generation.
There’s a story behind every one of these photos. When you click on an image, the image will enlarge and a brief story will appear next to it.