Akito Tsuda returned to the streets of Pilsen last week for the first time since he left town 23 years ago.
His photos preceded him.
They are amazing photos by any standard, but even more so when you know the story of the then-novice Columbia College photography student from Japan who made them.
They are photos that capture the essence of life in this Mexican-American community in the early 1990s.
Photos of playful children, hard-edged gangbangers, loving parents, hardworking men and women, stray dogs in cold alleys.
They are intimate photos of poor people in a poor neighborhood.
But what comes through most clearly in Tsuda’s work is the joy of his subjects, their pride and happiness in the pleasures of family and everyday life.
And that has struck a chord in a community that sees “Mexican Pilsen” slipping away as a wave of gentrification prices longtime residents and businesses out of the neighborhood.
“We were poor, but we were happy,” said real estate agent Andrea Maldonado who was among many Pilsen natives excited when photos of family members began showing up two years ago on Tsuda’s Facebook page.
Her own parents could not afford a camera, she said, and what family photos they had were destroyed in a house fire. That made it all the more special to discover Tsuda’s posted photo of her young brothers in an act of mischief.
For Tsuda, the posts were a way to begin making good on casual promises offered up long ago to the people who were kind enough to welcome him into their world.
“Let me take your picture, and I’ll give you one,” Tsuda would say in his broken English that was not much different than their own. But all too often, he said, he did not follow through on his end of the bargain. The result: a guilty belief he had taken more than he had given.
Now, with encouragement from those who found his work online, Tsuda recently published some of the photos he made between 1990 and 1994 in a new book, “Pilsen Days.”
Whatever misplaced guilt Tsuda carried with him all these years has melted away in the glowing embrace of residents who raised the money, with help from Cultura in Pilsen and Columbia College, to bring him back to town for a hero’s welcome.
There was a reception and book signing Saturday night in Tsuda’s honor at La Catrina Café, 1011 W. 18th St., where his photos will remain on exhibition through Nov. 5.
We chatted over lunch there Friday, then took a walk through the neighborhood.
He pointed out landmarks such as the corner of 17th and Carpenter where he had photographed members of a street gang.
“It was dangerous,” he admitted, but no more so than his portraits of young women with potentially jealous boyfriends.
I tried to explain to him the significance of Thalia Hall, the redeveloped concert venue that has accelerated the transformation of 18th Street, and pointed out the upscale restaurants replacing the taquerias.
Tsuda instinctively returned to the house on May Street where he spent many hours in an unfinished basement that had been home to his friend, Tom Herrera. The itinerant Herrera, pictured broom in hand, was the subject of an earlier photo collection by Tsuda that he considers his best work.
Tsuda was extremely excited when we tracked down Andrea Maldonado’s brother, Daniel, now a barber on 18th Street.
“Thank you for coming back,” Daniel Maldonado said, but it was clear the moment meant so much more to Tsuda.
Tsuda, 50, told me he had long since given up on ever being able to afford a return to Chicago.
He said he has lived a modest life in Japan doing a variety of jobs, most recently doing telephone customer service for a bank. Tsuda, his wife and son live in public housing.
He never pursued photography as a profession, except for briefly trying his hand at wedding photography.
“I’m not very skillful,” he told me with typical modesty, and when I scoffed, he allowed, “Maybe I’m good at what I like to do.”
Akito said his photographs of Pilsen began when he took long walks with his camera in search of subjects for a photography class and found himself in a Mexican-American neighborhood whose name he did not know.
Some may have mistaken him for a tourist at first, he said. But they accepted him more warmly than had English-speaking Chicago, and so he returned regularly, jumping from subject to subject at first, later pausing to look for deeper meaning.
Although he hopes to be supportive of those who are being displaced, Tsuda said the book was not meant to be nostalgic for what was, rather more a reflection on what Pilsen gave him.
“I’m from outside, but they welcomed me. They accepted me.”
In that vein, he titled an earlier version of the collection: “Made me better than before.”
When he goes home this time, Tsuda should know that the feeling is mutual.