I began documenting Chicago’s Black and Latino neighborhoods in 1980. My intention was to survey decaying areas of the city as a whole, but certain subjects emerged that captured my interest: desolate cemeteries; semi-abandoned high-rise public housing projects, such as The Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini Green; storefront churches, their services, Bible studies, and choir practices; ordinary houses with their adapted and patched-up elements; murals and signage. These became chapters in Unexpected Chicagoland, a 2001 book I co-authored with cultural historian Tim Samuelson.
Chicago has been a sanctuary city since Mayor Harold Washington’s declaration in 1985. But on my most recent visit in October, I was not prepared to encounter Venezuelan refugees living in tents outside police stations and families with children camped out in the lobbies.
The sidewalks in front of the seven police districts I visited were lined with coolers, plastic chairs and tables, toys, suitcases, inflatable mattresses, and hundreds of unwanted bags of clothes—discarded after the refugees had selected what they needed. I decided to look into this unique situation. Only a third of the 10,000 refugees that had arrived in Chicago had been placed outside police stations; the rest were in hotels, shelters, and churches. As the cold weather approached, the city planned to house them in tent cities in large vacant lots. The city has signed a contract for $29 million to build military-grade tent cities for migrants.
I began photographing a group of young, healthy men outside the District 15 station, eating bowls of breakfast cereal, talking, and seeming to enjoy themselves. I then approached the rest of the refugees, as well as Chicagoans who drove up with food, clothes, and offers of small jobs. A 78-year-old former street vendor named Rufino, fleeing from comunismo and economic disaster, told me that with the help of God, he “was able to cross rivers and mountains.” At Police District 3, a barber from Caracas told me that they were “waiting patiently, not in a hurry.” I understood him to mean that they did not want to show impatience and thus jeopardize their chances for asylum and jobs.
Only those arriving before July 31, 2023, were eligible to stay and work for a year and half. Most of the migrants were apprehensive, not knowing where they were headed or how long they would be allowed to stay. They were afraid of the cold weather and fearful of being sent back home, yet they remained hopeful. A folding table and chairs on a Chicago sidewalk was now the place where these asylum seekers, with the help of desk officers, had to file forms to stay and to be allowed to work. The State Department announced on October 6 that it had begun repatriating Venezuelans that didn’t have a legal basis to remain in the U.S., reducing the flow of refugees by half.
Jesse and Rose, a local Black couple, came looking for workers who could help them clean their basement. Their presence attracted a group of men eager to make a few dollars. I tried to help by translating, listening to their stories, and giving a few singles to someone who wanted to get a roasted chicken from a fish-and-chicken franchise across the street.
I also saw men rushing toward a gray SUV, where a smiling woman, a member of the “Police Station Response Team,” was distributing clothes. The most popular items were sweatshirts with hoods, running shoes, quilted parkas, boots, socks, blankets, and winter hats. Even though most of the refugees had arrived only a few days before, they were already shedding their original clothes and dressing like Americans, preparing themselves for the Chicago cold. They wore jeans, sweatshirts, running shoes, and baseball caps, and carried backpacks. A girl about 4 years old was walking around wearing a camouflage-patterned, quilted coat with a hood that was too large for her. She approached me and smiled, showing off her new look.
A Latino man named Edson drove up in a rusted pickup with a box of diapers that was quickly taken by one of the asylum seekers. I asked him why he was doing this, and he replied: “Because I am doing better than them.” He told me that sometimes he brings breakfast for the kids.
From what I saw, it was mostly Blacks and Latinos from the neighborhood who were helping the homeless newcomers. The Samaritans I encountered were members of “Meals of Grace,” “Visionaries,” “Progressive Word Ministries,” and the “Police Station Response Team.” I saw no representatives of established Chicago charities, such as Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, or the Coalition for the Homeless.
At District 9 on S. Halsted St. a blond, middle-aged woman approached me, aggressively inquiring why I was taking pictures. I told her that I was photographing the city and that I had the right to do it. She turned around and screamed to the crowd in heavily accented Spanish: “Do not allow him to take pictures. He works with the newspapers that are eager to say bad things [cosas malas] about you.” Little did she know that in the fall of 1965, on my way to Notre Dame University, I had stopped at the Greyhound bus station and walked at dawn around the narrow streets, past old skyscrapers and billboards advertising cigarettes featuring camels. It was a dark, gray break of day, and I felt sad and lonely.
I left and went to the District 3 station, where I could calmly photograph, overhear conversations, talk to people, take notes, and act as a translator. Like them, I had crossed rivers and oceans and never returned to the snowy mountains and the fields embroidered with flowers I had left behind.
A small girl approached me and asked me, “¿Cómo te llamas?”
Featured image: Haircut, Third District Police Station, South Cottage Grove Ave., at E. 71st. St., Chicago, October 7, 2023.