Capturing the Evolution of Rogers Park

Local artist documents 30 years of the neighborhood in black & white photos.

Like any part of the city, Rogers Park has seen a wave of change over the years — many places that were once staples of the community have faded away and only remain in the memories of Rogers Park citizens. Now, one longtime resident is bringing the culture and history of Rogers Park back to life. 

Photographer Erik Oefelein, 70, spent much of his life walking the streets of Rogers Park, eating at the Heartland Cafe, drinking beer at the Red Line Tap and enjoying performances at the No Exit Cafe. While all these places are now gone, their legacy lives on in the hundreds of photos taken by Oefelein over a span of 30 years. 

Through the end of October, the Teal Room at Pub 626 (1406 W. Morse Ave.) is home to dozens of these black and white photos, which feature various locations and people of Rogers Park from the 1980s, ‘90s and 2000s. Those who attend the exhibit can purchase Oefelein’s photos, and those that aren’t sold will stay on permanent display in the Teal Room. 

Until now, Oefelein’s photos had never been on display for the public. 

“I’ve never had that kind of enthusiasm over my stuff before — at least not that people were telling me,” Oefelein said in an interview with The Phoenix. “I’m at a point now where I don’t care if I make money from it as long as people can see it and appreciate it.”

The idea for the exhibit at Pub 626 arose when Oefelein’s cousin, Barbara Button, showed some of his photos to her boyfriend, Jeffery Helgeson. Helgeson was fascinated by Oefelein’s work and the way he captured the environment of Rogers Park and its population. 

“It suddenly occurred to me that what he had in his collection of photographs was really a record of a period of time in this part of Chicago that had come to its end,” Helgeson said.

The photos on display primarily feature performers in the No Exit Cafe — which is now Le Piano (6970 N. Glenwood Ave.) — and the Heartland Cafe, which was demolished earlier this year. They also show the people of Rogers Park — a former ballerina balancing elegantly on one leg in an alley, a couple sharing a cigarette against a brick wall, a musician strumming his guitar on the stage of a cafe and many more. 

“There were a great many photos that … captured a sense of the environment of Rogers Park and the diversity of the population,” Helgeson said. “He photographed with a sense of respect for his subjects.”

Helgeson also brought the photos to the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society, where they will be archived online and become part of Rogers Park’s history. 

Now residing in Chalet Living and Rehab Center in Rogers Park, Oefelein said he misses being out taking photos, but displaying his photos in the pub has been a great new experience. 

Oefelein grew up in Cary, Illinois and spent the majority of his life residing in the Chicago area before moving to Rogers Park. His journey as a photographer began in 1970 when he joined the army. There he joined a photo club, learned the ins and outs of photography and began to use a darkroom to develop prints, Oefelein said. 

After returning from the army, Oefelein took a few photography classes at McHenry County College. He began using his skills to shoot live music and poetry performances at coffee shops in Waukegan and cafes in Rogers Park, such as Heartland and No Exit. 

Oefelein said his goal is to write a book with all the stories of his life’s adventures, many of which he remembers through the hundreds of photographs he has taken. He wants to be remembered as someone who simply lived and was able to capture life’s moments. 

“[I want to be remembered as] just this guy, walking down the street and seeing things and once in a while recording what I see,” Oefelein said. “I think I’m going to go with that for the title [of my book]. … ‘Just this guy,’ seeing things and learning things, trying to walk down the street with an open mind.” 

The photos on display range from $10-20. Oefelein and his family will hold a closing reception for the exhibit — which will be open for all to attend — in the Teal Room on Oct. 27 from 2 to 4 p.m.

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