Background - Why Maxwell Street Market Was So Special by Barbara Balkin, 12/9/95
By 1900 Chicago's near west side was a thriving residential and commercial area, populated largely by immigrant workingmen and their families. Around 1910, pushcart businesses began spreading onto Maxwell Street, and the Maxwell Street Market was officially established by the City of Chicago in 1912. This market area went through good days and bad, providing a livelihood and convenient, inexpensive, shopping for thousands of Chicago residents for many years. It was a colorful and interesting place to visit with well-known vendors and local characters, food specialties, and music. As the nature of city government, the economy, and the local population changed, so did the market and its image. The market suffered from the same problems of petty crime and deterioration as other parts of the city and other market areas, but they tended to be exaggerated in the press and government pronouncements. The real estate became increasingly valuable in the 1980's and 1990's, as it was located next to University of Illinois and close to downtown Chicago, and was one of the last undeveloped sites in an area that was increasingly gentrified.
In September 1994, the Maxwell Street Market in Chicago was destroyed by the City of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago. That market, one of the greatest outdoor urban bazaars ever, and a unique part of Chicago's history, had to make way for urban development and gentrified corporate sensibilities. Rather than trying to salvage the existing market and taking advantage of its unique qualities, such as the fact that it was in a geographically 'neutral' spot, where Blacks, Whites, Asians and Hispanics all felt comfortable mixing, the City and University opted to physically create an alternative market. The new site has little historical physical infrastructure and is isolated by being moved further from public transportation, from the South Water Street Wholesale Market, from Barbara Wright HUD Housing, and from the businesses along Halsted Street. Those Halsted Street businesses are now suffering large losses because of the lost association with the old Market. Businesses that were located within the weekly market area, such as the famous Nate's Delicatessen featured in the film 'The Blues Brothers', are gone for good -- demolished by the University of Illinois community-wrecking-ball.
In creating the alternative market, the City greatly diminished its size, increased vendor fees five-thousand-fold, and established a bureaucratic system which is especially cumbersome for newly arrived immigrants, less educated or sophisticated people, and those seeking to sell at the market on a flexible basis.
The old market was an important main shopping source for basic foods and household supplies; it was the only discount shopping area for the nearby neighborhood. Besides the permanent shopping resources and residences, the market was adjacent to an important neighborhood church, which has since been abandoned by the Archdiocese. Many of the market's shoppers came directly from church to the market, with the beautiful communion dresses of the little girls adding to the market's color. The old market was also overlooked and underpromoted as a tourist attraction and draw for middle-class/city-wide shoppers. It provided the opportunity to eat delicious ethnic foods, listen to live music, and purchase interesting odds and ends. On a typical visit to the old market, for example, we might feast on freshly roasted corn (50 cents), wonderful freshly grilled steak tacos ($1.00), and freshly peeled mangoes on a stick. We could also listen to free live blues, buy funky old china or clothes, locate a good used book, find interesting spices, and buy fresh roasted unsalted peanuts and inexpensive Islamic baked goods. Among our most memorable purchases were a beautiful Revlon 'glamour' doll from the 1950's, with her complete original outfit ($2.00); a pair of slightly battered but very serviceable high-top roller skates; colorful plastic picnicware from the 1940's - service for six, in it's original box - for $4.00, photographs of blues musicians, and many other interesting paper items such as old Elvis magazines. We took many visitors, from America and abroad, to see the market, and they all commented on how they now felt they had seen the 'real' Chicago - as opposed to the usual tourist places where they encountered mostly other tourists. Our family from Paris were particularly enamored of the market. My cousin Arlette was delighted when she found an antique Singer sewing machine, beautifully enameled and still in working condition, for $5.00. She assured us it would cost at least 20 times that price at a Paris flea market.
The new market has been established by the City about a half-mile east of the old market. Although this New Maxwell Street Market on Canal Street and Roosevelt Road is an interesting and worthwhile place to visit, it lacks the full flavor of the original market. But, as Steve has said, "The old Maxwell Street Market was so fantastic that a market which is only a shadow of its former self is still a great market."
It is fervently hoped that the character of the new market will not shift such that it ultimately becomes another characterless shopping strip, with the same unimaginative goods and foods available at every other 'market/tourist' area, seemingly all designed by the same urban planning firm. There are already countless places, in Chicago and in every other American city, where one can eat McDonald's and buy 'Lion King'' souvenirs - but only in Maxwell Street lies the soul of the city.
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