The picture below probably doesn’t mean much to you. It doesn’t mean all that much to me either, but wait fifty years or so, and this photo may take on a completely different meaning all together. Perhaps the buildings won’t be there in 2061 or the people may not be dressed the same as they are in the picture, or the cars may be considered “vintage”. In 2061, you may long for the time things were the way they were in this photo, or you may be glad things have changed.
An Indiana salesman named Charles Cushman took photographs all over the world, including Chicago in the 1940’s. The most striking photos were of the south loop and the Bronzeville neighborhood where I live. My apartment development arose from an urban renewal project in the 1950’s. Acres of homes and old institutions dating back to the late 1800’s were demolished for highrise apartment buildings in a park-like setting intended to keep the middle class, and mostly whites from fleeing to the suburbs. Most of the population that was uprooted, however, moved a few blocks and south to newly build public housing developments.
What I found were amazing color photographs of my neighborhood before development forever changed it. Large, aging grey-stone homes and buildings populated the area. The color photography brought out just how much soot covered everything in the city; it made these already old buildings look even older. This neighborhood was home to African-American familieswith limited resources hemmed into the area by segregation in housing in the city. As a result the neighborhood was largely in disrepair, but still a vibrant community. Cushman took several photos of African American children peering from windows and sitting on their stoops, all enjoying having their picture taken by this travelling stranger.
These photos sparked a great deal of nostalgia within me, and I have no idea why. I wasn’t alive in 1941! I have no memories of these people or places, but still it was breathtaking, and I seem to be fascinated by this anyhow. Perhaps it is because my mother is older than most mothers of a 33 year old. I have always spent a lot of time with her and my grandmother; they often spoke of people and places long gone. I suppose I picked up on this somehow and adopted their feelings as well.
My Cushman’s photos are part of a digital collection on Indiana University’s website. I encourage you to look at his photographs and see how they make you feel.
I have decided that I will begin to document my world as Mr. Cushman did. Perhaps a young adult like myself will spend hours sifting through photos of a 2011 Chicago fifty years from now.