From 1973 to 1977, I spent most of my free time photographing Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. Uptown had a reputation within Chicago as “Hillbilly Heaven.” Uptown was far from Heaven during this era. Whoever dubbed it that was certainly being cynical.
The poor from Appalachia who migrated to Chicago in search of work found gangs, crime, drugs, tenements, alcohol and overcrowding. Yet tens of thousands came in wave after wave. Seeing how they lived in Uptown, I began to wonder about where they came from. How bad could conditions possibly be to make someone trade friends and family for an urban jungle like Uptown?
So during this period, I packed up my car with cameras and set out to explore the hills and hollows of Appalachia. In fairness to the great States of Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina and the wonderful people who live there, let me state upfront that these photographs are NOT typical of the living conditions found there at that time. I deliberately sought out impoverished areas like those the Uptown migrants came from, in order to better understand the answers to the questions above.
Many of the people in these images lived off the land. A few had electricity. Many did not. Some still lived in log cabins with dirt floors. Some did not have running water or indoor plumbing. Some still plowed their land by hand with the help of cattle. They put up preserves from their gardens, kept bees to make honey, kept bats to control insects, made their own whiskey, churned their own butter, and chopped wood to cook and heat their homes. The cash crop for most was tobacco. Many had lived on their land for generations.
Their way of life is gone now. But in the 1970s, pockets of people still lived like pioneers in the secluded hills and hollows of Appalachia. Like those who originally settled the land, they were self-reliant, strong, determined, hard-working and clever. They had mastered their environment and learned to live in harmony with it.