It’s mighty cold down on the Maxwell Street Market these days, and it isn’t just the winter weather bringing the chill. The University of Illinois was recently given the go-ahead to purchase most of the land in the area: vacant lots have been fenced off, most of the few remaining buildings have been demolished, several longtime vendors have left in frustration, and some of the open spaces where the blues bands play in the summertime have been made inaccessible. After years of rumors and false threats, the demise of the legendary open-air market is finally imminent.
Maxwell Street was one of the first places where Tony Mangiullo, drummer and owner of Rosa’s, jammed when he came to Chicago from Italy in 1978. Since opening Rosa’s he hasn’t had much time for playing on the street, but he still has warm memories of the market and the musicians who gave him a chance to sit in. He’s appalled at the apparent insouciance with which city officials and the University of Illinois are erasing a living piece of Chicago’s history.
“That’s where the blues was born, on Maxwell Street right there, and it’s going to be destroyed,” Mangiullo says. “The city should have improved it and made it a major attraction for Chicago. Destroying the market is like somebody going to Rome and saying OK, we’re going to tear down the Colosseum.”
To honor the market and its place in Chicago history, Rosa’s will hold a Maxwell Street festival this Sunday, January 19. Mangiullo has promised to re-create as much of the actual market atmosphere as possible: vendors will set up tables and sell their wares inside the club (“bargaining is encouraged,” Mangiullo advises), and Polish sausage, the traditional greasy, onion-drenched Maxwell Street style, will be cooked on the premises. Cans of beer–served discreetly in brown paper bags–will be sold for $1.25.
Music will be provided by some of the market’s best-known musicians–the veteran Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis, Willie James and Maxwell Blues, guitarist David Lindsey, and the Black Knights Blues Band featuring John “Dancin”‘ Perkins and Riler “Ice Man” Robinson. O.V. Page, one of Maxwell Street’s most beloved and venerable figures, will serve as guest emcee. He’ll bring his battered old cigar box and stalk through the crowd encouraging donations for the band, as he’s done on the street for decades.
Two films about Maxwell Street–Gordon Quinn and Mike O’Shea’s And This Is Free, made in 1964, and Raul Zaritsky and Linda Williams’s Maxwell Street Blues, from 1981–will be shown during the evening. Festivities will start at 4 PM at 3420 W. Armitage. The cover charge is $5, but people are urged to bring some extra cash to feed the cigar box. Call 342-0452 for more information.