WICKER PARK — When Roberto Lopez moved to Chicago in the 1970s, he was drawn to Wicker Park because it looked just like the city he had imagined as a kid.
“Growing up in Mexico City, I used to go to see the movies, and I used to read books and magazines about Chicago. And when I came to Chicago, I came to this corner, Milwaukee, North and Damen. And I found this big old building, and then I said, ‘This is Chicago,'” Lopez said in an interview recorded in 2000.
It was Wicker Park and the surrounding area where Lopez spent most of the rest of his life. He had stints as an activist, a gallery owner, a building manager at the Flat Iron Building and, for decades, a fixture along Milwaukee Avenue who would often drop in on local business owners to chat.
And when artists began to flock en masse to Wicker Park in the 1980s, Lopez became one, eventually taking thousands of photos around the Northwest Side neighborhood.
Lopez’s subjects were the ordinary and extraordinary bits of daily life: workers hanging up a sign, dusk settling over the Wicker Park streetscape, a last-minute secret Rolling Stones show at the Double Door, to name just a few.
After 50 years in Wicker Park, Lopez died in April, said his son, Robert Medina. He was 74.
Medina is working with Heaven Gallery Director Alma Wieser to put together a memorial and exhibition for Lopez this spring. In the meantime, he’s grieving his father as a man who “was a benevolent force in the neighborhood.”
Lopez collected people’s stories and their photographs as the neighborhood changed dramatically during the decades he lived there. He was equal parts artist and community organizer, friends say: often giving people in need a place to stay, helping them showcase their art or just talking their ear off.
“He was like an ambassador for Wicker Park. I don’t think I ever knew anyone who loved that neighborhood as much as he did,” Wieser said. “I really appreciated how, as the neighborhood changed, he also refused to leave. So we always had that connection of, this was our neighborhood, and it meant something to us.”
During Lopez’s early years in Wicker Park, he became involved in numerous social causes, Medina said. That led to him helping organize and work with an alternative high school as well as a medical clinic in the neighborhood.
Arturo Menchaca met Lopez in 1971 at a summer camp organized through the high school. They hit it off immediately and became lifelong friends, and they talked regularly for the next 50 years, Menchaca said.
The two even lived together briefly in Humboldt Park in the late ’70s and later at the medical clinic near North and Western avenues, Menchaca said.
Lopez was like Wicker Park’s version of “Mother Teresa,” Menchaca said. He who would do everything from driving kids to the YMCA to buying sex workers on North Avenue a cup of soup in the winter, he said.
“He was a person that cared for the community. And if he sees somebody that needed help, he will help,” Menchaca said.
It was in the early 1980s that Lopez was first drawn to photography, he said in the 2000 interview. An influx of artists were moving to Wicker Park in search of cheap rent, and Lopez became friends with them.
“I was curious about these people. So, I went to the first gallery openings. I talked to many of these artists about the meaning of art, the meaning of them coming here. And so in that process I became an artist myself,” he said.
Medina said his father started collecting all kinds of cameras and teaching himself about white balance and how to use shadowing and other techniques.
Lopez began taking shots of everyday people and places in the neighborhood — the old-timers, the Puerto Rican families, the shop owners who had called Wicker Park home for years, he said.
In the interview from 2000, Lopez said he was so attracted to photography because, unlike painting, he could retain control of the original product — the negatives — forever.
“Without knowing anything about photography, I would go to places and I would take pictures of community residents. I took pictures of artists, I would take pictures of gallery openings. And I got acquainted with the beginning of the art movement in this particular place, Wicker Park,” Lopez said.
Lopez was a fixture at the Flat Iron Arts building, which has been home to artist studios, nonprofits and other creative spaces for decades. Lopez worked there for many years as a maintenance man and building manager, Medina said.
The building was also the headquarters for the Near Northwest Arts Council, a group Lopez helped form with artist Laura Weathered and other local artists in 1986, she said.
The group became a hub for artists, helping connect them with studio space and housing while organizing shows and other events, Weathered said.
“He organized exhibits and special events. He talked to everybody and was really responsible for bringing different elected officials to the gallery, talking about artwork,” Weathered said. “He had stories for everybody and kind of about everybody.”
Weathered said that organizing spirit never left Lopez: The two were talking just a week before Lopez died about hosting an exhibit this summer in Humboldt Park.
It was at the Flat Iron where Lopez also opened his own gallery in the 1980s, Medina said. He showcased art and artists of all kinds, from established painters to amateurs and everyone in between.
“That, to me, was the highlight of my existence here — to be able to have a gallery in which I could exhibit the artwork of the people,” Lopez said in 2000.
Medina said it felt like his father knew pretty much everyone in Wicker Park, which made him so successful as an artist.
“My father was an immersed person. It was a combination between his interest in bohemian-style photography and his interpersonal skills as a person,” he said. “I mean, my dad was like the leader of the hippies for a while there.”
As developers eyed Wicker Park and then moved in with full force in the 1980s and ’90s, Lopez experienced firsthand what it meant to be an artist in the middle a gentrifying neighborhood.
In the interview from 2000, Lopez said many of the artists he had gotten to know had moved out to Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Pilsen or had even left the city all together.
“I feel like a great deal of creative energy has been rooted out of the neighborhood and taken someplace else,” Lopez said. “This neighborhood right now has become a playground for people that come to have fun on the weekends … . Art has become, not totally, but somehow forgotten in the neighborhood.”
Lopez said that made it challenging for him to conduct his highly personal brand of photography, as he found the new residents he approached were less open to having their portrait taken.
Still, Wicker Park remained the nucleus of Lopez’s creative and social life until his death — and he was never shy about talking to friends and strangers alike.
“He was just open to everybody. He would ask people questions. I mean, it was like he was Studs Terkel,” said artist David Reninger, who met Lopez in 1992.
“He would just talk to people and take their picture and find out about them. You know, he found their story.”
Over the past two decades or so, Lopez moved around a bit but couldn’t stay away from Wicker Park, Medina said. His father’s photography became a chronicle of the change that was occurring.
“My father really, who was like a relic to his time, was still there, and the photographs that he’d taken really documented the change of how everything went from being kind of like mom-and-pop, Bohemian urban setting to commercial, mainstream, corporate,” Medina said. “We saw it. He saw it. He lived through it.”
Wieser said in recent years Lopez would show up at Heaven Gallery every weekend with baked goods for the staff.
Lopez was the gallery’s “dad,” Wieser said, and they bonded over operating a gallery against the economic pressures of modern day Wicker Park.
“No matter if the neighborhood changed, he could connect with multiple groups of people. So, as it changed, whoever came next, he just collected stories, told stories,” Wieser said. “He was a really special person.”
In the interview from 2000, Lopez shows off one of his favorite photos: the marquee of the surprise Rolling Stones show at the Double Door in 1997, as seen from across the street in the Flat Iron building.
For Lopez, the concert was a full-circle moment and a testament to laying down roots in a community.
“I used to like The Rolling Stones back in the ’60s. And I would do all kinds of crazy things to go and buy a record. So after 30 years of being here, the Rolling Stones showed up right across the street,” he said.
“So a lot of things come back to me, in terms of the meaning of things. … It’s one of those things about being in one place for many years.”
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