An Interview with Patric McCoy

by Daisy Coates, AB ’22

last edited on Thu. December 5 2019

Patric McCoy is a University of Chicago alumnus (AB ’69) and an art collector with over 1,300 works in his Kenwood home. While he graduated from UChicago as a chemistry major and went on to work for the Environmental Protection Agency, he found his passion in art collecting and photography.  Not a new discovery, he grew up with an appreciation for art encouraged by his artistic family. In 2003, he co-founded ​Diasporal Rhythms​, an organization of Chicago-based collectors like McCoy who seek to collect contemporary art of living artists of African descent and encourage others to do the same and to engage with these works.

Just before the opening of Down Time: On the Art of Retreat this October, McCoy joined me, two other students from “Exhibition in Practice II,” Amelia Frank (AB ’21) and Jake Planer (AB ’21), and Leslie Wilson (the Smart’s Curatorial Fellow for Diversity in the Arts) for a conversation about his photography. We learned more about how his photographs ​Rialto in Drag, Alley Joint, Youngblood, and Dear Mama​ find their rhythm within the exhibition. We also learned how McCoy’s photography began, how this body of work was born, and the backstory of the Rialto Tap, a bar that was located in the south end of the loop on W. Van Buren street and was home to a thriving music scene as well as a community for gay black men. McCoy’s black-and-white photographs of the Rialto Tap made between the years of 1981–1989 offer a definition of retreat that focuses on community, but one that is experienced differently from person to person.

On how the Rialto Tap became the Rialto Tap:
As McCoy detailed, “There was a bar on the corner, the Rialto was kind of in the middle of the block, there was a bar on the corner called The Cellar. It was underground, and it has very steep steps—it was supposed to be an oyster bar... the health department came and shut the bar down with the people in it, they said this place is closed and they walked up those stairs and went down the street to the Rialto and said, ‘We’re gonna take this over.’ The Rialto came from people leaving The Cellar and going up the street, and the owner, he resisted. He said, ‘No, no no this is not a gay bar,’ ’cause all these characters had come up from The Cellar. He resisted for years and years and years but made a ton of money off them.”

Recalling the atmosphere of the Rialto, McCoy shared…. “It was a very, very unique place because the downtown Chicago was unique in relationship to what it is today. It was a complete reversal of what you would see today…it was a black neighborhood, for all intents and purposes. Essentially the white flight had given over the Loop and all the surrounding areas to black people, and they only would come during the work hours, from 9 to 5 was when you would see a mixed group of people. But the majority of people, moving around all day and night would be black”

McCoy characterized the Loop as a space that saw mixing of people across class, race, and sexual identity—even if it wasn’t openly acknowledged. Describing the owner of the Rialto Tap, McCoy stated, “To the end, he said ‘This is not a gay bar,’ even though it was. And it was a drug bar, [laughs], it was a place where you could easily get drugs.”

Even the hours of the Rialto set it apart from other bars at the time, “Also, to put it into context, ‘cause I’m sure that you guys have never seen a place that opens up at 6 AM in the morning and closes on every day except Saturday at 4 AM. On Saturday it closed at 5 AM, so it was only closed for one hour. And so… it had shifts of people coming all during the day and night.”

On the music of the Rialto Tap:
The ambiance of the Rialto was also shaped by the music that accompanied experiences in the bar, lively music would be played every night and would set the pace of the crowd. “They had the best DJs, the few people that came out of the warehouse and all these other places, they came to DJ in the Rialto, so it was a lot of different things going on at the same time… it was mainly RnB and House music,” with McCoy noting that McFadden and Whitehead’s ​”Ain’t No Stopping Us Now​” was one of the big songs of the Rialto. “Whenever that came on, the place would just go up.”

Not just a space for listening to House music, it was a site where the sound was evolving. McCoy shared, “…it was that and the whole concept of mixing music was starting and that was, that was basically be the soundtrack of it. So they would take the RnB and the House music and mix them.”

On Rialto in Drag:
The street scene of Rialto in Drag shows the understated sign of the Rialto Tap during the filming of a movie. McCoy revealed, “And so they wanted a scene that showed old time Chicago and Van Buren, it’s one of the few places in the Loop—and now it’s gone—that still had the structure of the buildings that were from the 1930s. That strip of the Rialto is one of the oldest places in the city, after the fire. In fact, the buildings that were the Rialto and right next to it were built in 1871, they were built right after the fire. They wanted that look, and so they came there and they put these facades on all the buildings. But it characterized the fact that the South Loop was where all the burlesque and the peep shows and so forth were, right around the corner. So this was they were giving it a 1930s look, but it was truly reflective of what was going on at the time.”

An avid cyclist, McCoy spotted the activity around the Rialto Tap and captured this image, stating, “I enjoyed being in the Rialto and when I came out there on the bike and I saw that they were putting up those plywood facades and I was like wow this is amazing that they’re able to transform the place, like overnight that they could just transform it. That’s why I captured the picture.”

On Alley Joint:
Alley Joint is Robert Blair,” McCoy divulged. McCoy referred to the Rialto as a “drug bar” because during the early ’80s, it was known that you could get what your hands on whatever you wanted there. “Everybody was just going there—they could buy weed, they could smoke weed with impunity. The police would come in, with people smoking, and walk right past them [laughs]. So everybody got accustomed to it, then there was a shift, and the owner said you can’t smoke anymore at the bar and so people had it now come up with an alternative way. Across the street from the Rialto was the army/navy store and then where the Harold Washington library is now was a vacant lot—between them was a little alley. And the alley went straight from the window of the Rialto, you could see that alley and so everybody would go there and smoke. And the police would come down that alley and if they were getting ready to come in—because everybody was paying protection—if the police were getting ready to come in they would come down that alley, sit there and flash their lights, so their lights would flash inside of the Rialto, everybody would know okay hide your stuff [laughs] put it down. And the police would walk and grab whoever they’re trying to get, pull them out and everything would go back to normal. So, that alley was the place where you went once they had to change the routine that you could not smoke at the bar. They smoked in the bathrooms and people would go outside to smoke in that alley.”

On Dear Mama:
“So there were shifts, you’d have an early morning shift, there was a shift of people going to work and they were stopping at the Rialto, get a drink, or something like that; and then there was right after that there would be a shift that would watch the soap operas. And they would come sit there, and during that time of the day, people didn’t have places or they were out of the homeless shelters, they would come there to take care of all their business. So this guy is…he’s writing a letter on the bar [laughs] and I just envisioned he’s writing ‘Dear Mama.’ So, I just took a picture of his, cause I’d never seen anybody write a letter at a bar before.”

More than a place to gather, the Rialto Tap became a home for many of its patrons. “People lived there,” McCoy said. “Literally, people lived in the Rialto. They would have their breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Cause it didn’t close, so you could go out and stand outside for an hour and come back in. So people actually lived up in the Rialto.”

On Youngblood:
“Joseph Youngblood—he was a character. There were a number of characters in the Rialto, but he was a definite character.” This is how McCoy described the photo where he’s captured Youngblood smiling widely and draping himself across a jukebox in the Rialto Tap. “He frequented the South Loop, all the peep shows and all that stuff and would come into the Rialto all the time. On the outside, external, he would give you the impression that he was just like anybody else, but when he came into the Rialto, he took on a whole ’nother persona and became very, very effeminate, in the sense of presenting himself as a ‘grande dame’ and so forth. So for him to have his legs crossed and smoking a cigarette, captures that persona that he had inside the Rialto that was different than what you would see when he just walked outside, he would be a different person.”

On the end of the Rialto Tap and a changing Chicago:
In the Rialto Tap’s closure in 1990, McCoy contends that we’ve lost something in that fact that these spaces aren’t around anymore, saying, “I think that they add a color to communities that we tend to wanna sanitize and remove them. They actually provide an ability of people to communicate and connect. The Rialto brought a lot of people together, people would come out of the office building with three-piece suits on, and they would be next to on the bar people that just came out of the homeless shelter. You know, they were laughing and joking, everyone was just getting along. When Harold Washington was running, people would stand on the bar and politicize, they would tell people to go out and vote and so forth. It was a very interesting, and there was a whole class of athletes that would come to the place, there was a mixture of all different types of people in there and that’s been lost. People don’t communicate, don’t mix anymore. So I think the city is at a loss for having pushed those things out. They could have maintained them.”

On his photography practice:
McCoy started photographing in the 1970s with a point-and-shoot camera, but his body of work began later when he bought a 35mm camera, at the suggestion of a friend, and began to teach himself photography. “ … I got the camera and I’m gonna take a class and I’m gonna teach myself photography. So I wrote out a commitment, in 1984—that’s why a lot of the pictures were around that time—I wrote out a commitment on my birthday in December, said, ‘I’m going to teach myself photography and I’m going to take my camera with me everywhere every day. I’m gonna have my camera with me, and I’m gonna take at least one picture every day.’ And then the third part of the commitment was if anybody asks me to take their picture, I would stop what I was doing and take their picture. And so, I’m carrying this camera, not to do anything like what we we’re seeing. I’m just teaching myself photography, and in the process, I just ended at thousands and thousands and thousands of negatives, because the last thing is what got me. I never expected anybody was gonna say ‘Hey, take my picture!’ and everybody did… Everybody was wanting their picture because I would give it to them. I would print them and give it to them; so, it just became a self-feeding sort of an activity. So, I never thought of doing anything with the photographs, I just threw them in a box, the negatives in a box, and they just sat there for 30 years.”

Photography became a daily promise for McCoy. “Some interesting things that I did back then… because I said ‘How am I going to prove that I took a picture everyday?’ and back then the cameras didn’t have the dates… So, I think my father had told me about this, he said, ‘Go and take a photo of the newspaper everyday,’ a newspaper or anything that’s dated that I could not have gotten this the day before. And so my negative strips have all these dated items, a lot of them are newspapers, headlines of newspapers and so what we have are some interesting statements that are gonna be made: Nixon, Star Wars, and all that…. It was only for the purpose of documenting the dates and now it’s just interesting, interesting things.”

Asked if photography was a retreat for McCoy, he responded, “It was more of an experience, a learning experience. I did get a lot of satisfaction out of it because what I learned to do with the camera was learning how to see. ’Cause I did as I took more and more pictures, I realized, ‘Oh, I’m seeing some interesting relationships and so forth that I have not seen before.’ So in that sense, it was satisfying and kinda like a retreat for me, to go into learning how to see. But no, I never thought, definitely never thought of it in showing. No, that was the furthest thing from my mind.”

On having his photography on view back at UChicago:
Returning back to the University of Chicago allowed McCoy to experience the institution in a way he couldn’t in the past. “…I grew up in a very artistic family, so I grew up around art and so forth, but had professionally pursued the sciences, so I for a long time thought that they were so separate, but I recognized that they really are intertwined. The University of Chicago has not been a place where I would have ever thought that I would come back artistically. For a long time, it was a source of irritation to me. In fact, I don’t know what it’s like now, but it was unbelievably painful here back in that time, it was just brutal. But, I enjoyed the education I got here, but I didn’t like it as an institution. So to come back and be involved with it institutionally is kinda a stretch and it took me a while in the early part of the first part of the 21st century to kinda come to grips with that.” McCoy has since been able to experience the University in a different through his work with it institutionally.  “Through the Civic Knowledge Project, I started seeing the University making some attempts to reach out to the community, because I’m originally from the community and it has not been a good neighborhood through the majority of my life. Now it’s much easier to be a part of a process where you can interact with the institutions of the university.”

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