Before the bulldozers: The near West Side, circa 1971

February 9, 2011

Lou Fourcher walked the streets of the Near West Side in 1971, armed with a big Pentax 35mm camera.

The 28-year-old wasn't a professional photographer by trade. He was a University of Chicago grad student  from New Bedford, MA, pursuing a doctorate in psychology while working at the Valley Project clinic which served residents near the Roosevelt and Racine area.

"He was a fish out of water in this neighborhood," Fourcher's son, Mike, told me in an email exchange yesterday. "He told me many times that he got most of the pictures because he managed to talk a local gang leader into walking him around."

And it's a good thing, too. The places and spaces Fourcher captured 40 years ago no longer exist today. Not long after these images were taken, the area was demolished as part of broad Near West Side urban renewal efforts in and around the Illinois Medical District campus--a sprawling complex of medical and research buildings that now sits on as much acreage as the Loop--and the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Mike Fourcher discovered his father's images and recently put 150 of them on Flickr. There are decaying buildings and aged street corners of an area whose appointment with the bulldozer was clearly at hand. But the elder Fourcher found signs of life and humanity. He captured children smiling, elderly women keeping watch from front porches, and--in the case of the photo above--fashionable young folk in Afros and mini-skirts (the brother on the left looks straight out the Eleganza catalog).

In the photo below: I can't place where this block would have been. The old church is the background is striking:

Was everything in vivid color in the early 1970s--even the ramshackle houses?



 

Young girls posing for the camera. These ladies would be in their mid-50s today. And there's that church again, looming in the background:

This is a great piece of street photography. Dig the tilt of the hat, the sunglasses, the glimpse of the old car in the background and the gang graffiti--"Decon Run It" ('Deacon' is misspelled)--on the building behind him:

And we end with this poetic shot of two young men sitting outside a shuttered corner store:

Lou Fourcher--that young grad student with the Pentax--is 67. He has Alzheimer's and cannot recollect the stories behind the fascinating images he has taken, according to Mike, who does report his father is still physically very healthy. Meanwhile, if the people and places in these images are familiar to you, shoot me an email at lbey@wbez.org and let's see if we can reconstruct a bit of the past shown here.

Fourcher is in a nursing home and a few of the image he took are framed and hanging on the wall of his room. The Pentax is still around. It's in storage.

"My dad loves the pictures and still lights up when looking at them," Mike says.