Once Upon a Time Down Clark Street

Twenty-four years after the release of Down Clark Street, a documentary uncovering the now bygone Clark Street of the 1960s and 70s, legendary filmmaker Tom Palazzolo has released a new book of photographs revealing yet another remarkable and candid glimpse at a street integral to Chicago’s history. Simply titled Clark Street, the book contains dozens of photographs taken by Palazzolo himself in addition to essays by artists who have known both Palazzolo and Chicago for decades.

In 1962, Palazzolo moved into an apartment on Hubbard Street while studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, opening life to him along Clark Street’s downtown corridor. As Palazzolo recalls in Down Clark Street, “To me, Chicago seemed like the ideal mix of the old and new, though it was mostly the old that interested me.” Compelled by the many enigmatic characters, motley human behaviors, and vibrant pastiche of cultures he witnessed during that era, Palazzolo set out to capture an unfiltered, extemporaneous look at the changing lives and predicaments of everyday Chicagoans in an afflicted neighborhood. Like Palazzolo’s documentary (found here on our website), Clark Street captures with unvarnished realism the vestige spirit of one of Chicago’s infamous streets before it became the commercial hub and upper-class haven it is today. We highly recommend Rick Kogan’s review of Clark Street in the Chicago Tribune, which features a quote from our very own Tom Weinberg. It can be read here.

Clark Street is currently available at The Book Table in Oak Park (1045 Lake Street) and is expected to become more widely available soon.

“On Clark street,” Kogan writes, “[Palazzolo] discovered places and people that grabbed his artist’s eye and intensity, and with his cameras, a Rollei twin lens reflex camera and a 35mm Pentax, he captured much of what he saw and many who he met over the next decade.”

Clark Street’s ten-block stretch from Chicago Avenue to the Chicago River was host to any number of eccentric juxtapositions of the strange, the beautiful, and the haunting. It was a place where greasy spoon diners were plunked nearby hotels for travelling performers; where burlesque theaters stooped beside family-owned stores and a stream of dive bars, taverns, and saloons brimmed over its boundaries, channeled into a place marked “Your last stop before the expressway,” where people did their best to scrape by and despite all odds made some kind of meaning from reality and made connection with others by chance of life in proximity to each other. These surroundings provided Palazzolo an opportunity that other filmmakers have shied away from; stories that gave light to the subterranean strata of society, illuminating figures hushed at its fringes, telling the secrets of off-beaten dwellings, eclectic characters, those raw human elements that form the elusive spirit of a restless city and cut to the core of human experience.

The video shown here recasts some of Palazzolo’s photographs from Down Clark Street as Palazzolo tells the story and personages who inhabit them and the neighborhood’s transformation over two decades later. Among those featured is the endearing portrait of Clara Miller, a woman known affectionately as “The Pigeon Lady” around the neighborhood. At once an intimately personal account of the filmmaker’s own artistic development, the figures captured in Palazzolo’s photographs represent a diverse cross-section of humanity who themselves bore the precarious fluctuations of Chicago’s downtrodden and the paradox and disparity of rapid social and economic transformation ever since. Arguably, their spirit of unsettled precarity not only helped to defined Palazzolo’s own artistic vision and aesthetic form, but their spontaneous, unsentimental, and gritty depiction in retrospect almost appear to jump out from Palazzolo’s frame into life, intact with their vigor and raw substance. Palazzolo’s use of montage-style edits and jump cuts help elucidate the tenuous connections between the past and present, conjuring up the sensation of retrospection, the transitory passing of time, and the spark of memory that flares upon revisiting old photos, doorframes, buildings, and conversations with people who remember such a time and place.

With Palazzolo’s new book, it is noteworthy to remember a filmmaker who has preserved this history. Down Clark Street captures a time and history that and would profoundly shape Palazzolo’s own eccentric and devotedly human portrayal of Chicago’s people and culture. It is one that still seems to chase this residue of spirit dropped somewhere like those patrons who once imbibed along Clark Street’s ambling ten-block stretch, caked in the petrified detritus lodged like mortar in its curbsides and gutters, lingering in the annals of oral history—of figures who would otherwise vanish forever in obscurity, whose revival in memory nonetheless beckon a critical look at our own present reality.

Read Rick Kogan’s review of Clark Street, Palazzolo’s new book of photographs:

View the full documentary Down Clark Street at Media Burn Archives:



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