By Kari Lydersen
The Chicago Fire of 1871 was one of the best things to happen to D.F. Bremner. His O’Brien Street bakery was near Maxwell Street, an area that “became economically vital” because it escaped the blaze, according to Steve Balkin, a professor of economics at Roosevelt University. Bremner’s grandson Edward, now 95 and living in Winnetka, says the bakery’s loaves were stamped with the initials DFB–he likes to say it stood for “Damn Fine Bread.”
In 1899 Bremner constructed a large four-story factory at 720-24 W. Maxwell, and his business continued to thrive, growing into the American Biscuit Company and later Nabisco. When the bakery moved in 1906, the building housed a variety of concerns, including the Maxwell Street Merchants Association. It was at the very center of the thriving outdoor market, where thousands would gather to buy cheap and eclectic goods.
At 12:47 AM on December 31, the old Nabisco factory went up in a “hot orange wall of flame,” in the words of nearby resident Tyner White. Fire brigades arriving on the scene shortly before 1 AM called repeatedly for reinforcements, eventually bringing out 125 firefighters to battle the blaze. Some stayed late into the following afternoon to douse the final embers in the rubble of the long-abandoned building. On January 1 a demolition crew leveled what was left. The neighboring Haas Brothers clothing store was another casualty. The shop was famous in Maxwell Street lore because it catered to musicians such as Count Basie, and bluesmen playing on the sidewalk would sometimes plug their amplifiers into its outlets. A pile of charred wood now sits in an empty lot just west of where the factory used to be, next to a “Wall of Fame” erected in homage to the market’s more famous citizens.
It was another sad day for Balkin, vice president of the Maxwell Street Historic Preservation Coalition. After the market was moved in 1994, and the University of Illinois at Chicago announced its plans to expand southward, the coalition fought hard to preserve some remnant of Maxwell Street. The group’s ambitions were scaled back as the fight wore on, and the university finally agreed to save eight buildings on Halsted, while 13 facades on Maxwell, Halsted, and Roosevelt would be integrated into its development scheme. But that wasn’t good enough for the coalition; it’s been trying to save more buildings by having the area listed on the National Register for Historic Places. Balkin says the group had hoped to use the Nabisco factory as an “economic anchor” for its alternate plan, converting the structure into retail shops and lofts. “That had so much square footage it was the perfect building to make a revitalization of Maxwell Street economically viable,” he says.
The Nabisco fire fueled the fears of residents in the Maxworks Co-op, at 716 W. Maxwell, an offbeat collection of artists, activists, and drifters who occupy the lone building on the far east end of the block. The remainder of the north side of Maxwell Street now looks like a wasteland, with a half-demolished building hugging the corner of Halsted. A banner begging the city to save Maxwell Street droops forlornly behind mounds of debris, where a tattered American flag hangs upside down in protest. Though the co-op wasn’t damaged in the fire, an “art fence” decorated with discarded toys was partially knocked down. Sometime resident Lorenz Joseph also lost his motor home under a pile of rubble.
The Maxworks Co-op was without electricity for three days after the fire. Joseph, White, and Merlyn McFarland worry the new devastation will make it easier for people to give up on Maxwell Street altogether. “People are going to say, ‘There’s nothing left on Maxwell Street–it’s lifeless,'” says McFarland, who has served as a self-appointed unofficial caretaker for many of the abandoned buildings. “Year after year there is ongoing deterioration because the university doesn’t keep the buildings up. They let the buildings fall apart, and they don’t secure them well enough, so vagrants can enter. They’re creating situations that open the door for fires.” White had been using the factory to store crates of salvaged wood, books, and other odds and ends. Though he had a key to get into the back of the building, he says he rarely saw anyone else enter. White suspects arson, because, he says, two cars in the neighborhood were set ablaze within the same week.
“On the street there’s a suspicion that vagrants got into the building and started a fire that got out of hand,” says Balkin. “But the deeper cause is the intentional neglect of UIC. They buy buildings, kick the tenants out, don’t maintain or secure the buildings, and so vagrants come in and fires happen.”
Fires are nothing new to Maxwell Street, according to fire department spokesman Bill Norris. Last year a pair of buildings on Halsted burned down. “There’s some very old structures in bad condition,” says Norris. “And there’s always concern in that area because of the political aspects of closing Maxwell Street down.”
UIC spokesman Mark Rosati says the latest fire doesn’t affect the university’s plans, because the factory had been slated for demolition in the spring. He also disputes the charges of Balkin and Maxworks residents. “I can’t give you specifics, but we certainly make efforts to be sure the buildings are secure.”
“It’s like a war and they’re trying to exterminate our resources,” says White, who has built thousands of bizarre instruments and knickknacks out of “recycled” scrap wood, including the “Stradizooky,” a violin-like musical instrument, and his trademark “Toker,” a device for smoking marijuana that he claims will help replace the demand for cigarettes. He says he now hopes to “get a moratorium on bulldozing” and to pave Maxwell Street with bricks salvaged from the demolished factory, which, he says, had also contained remnants from the days when the market was predominantly populated by central European Jews. “There were thousands and thousands of Jewish books in there. This is the biggest burning of Jewish books since 1933, in one of the last places on earth called ‘Jewtown.’ This is like a Nazi crime.”
Such overheated rhetoric shouldn’t obscure the value of protecting what’s left. Balkin notes the south side of Maxwell is still in relatively good shape. The one remaining business–Paul and Bill’s Tailor Shop–continues to operate, and storefronts like the Cheat You Fair shop remain “structurally sound,” he says. Yet Balkin cautions that many of these buildings are close together–another fire could be even more devastating. He wants the university to accept responsibility.
“Our biggest fear is that in another few months we could be standing in this same place again looking at this same scene but on the south side of the street,” says Balkin, who on January 22 will be honored by Memphis’s Blues Foundation for his work to preserve Maxwell Street. “Those were two key buildings we lost, but there are still 58 more buildings we need to fight to save. Ironically, the Chicago Fire is what gave Maxwell Street its vitality, and now it’s fire that’s taking it away. But this isn’t fire caused by a cow, this is fire caused by a university.”