The year 2001 marked the final destruction of the economic engine that wouldn’t quit: the Maxwell Street shopping district. Though plenty of arguments were made for preserving it–on cultural, historical, financial, and architectural grounds–no one doubted that the outcome would be its demise, squashed by the combined clout of the city, real estate millionaires, and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The university could have built its dorms and high-class housing development immediately to the west or east, in areas that once had public housing and a Chernin’s shoe store. Never mind that both spots are now vacant–or that Maxwell Street still had thriving businesses, some of which had been profitably run through the Great Depression and every subsequent recession. All remnants of the old Maxwell Street had to go.
The neighborhood allowed my family to get a foothold here and eventually prosper. I remember Nate’s Kosher Delicatessen when it was called Lyon’s, a place that dated from when the market was Jewish. Taquerias Mexico was one of the first Mexican restaurants in town. I recall the clothing stores on Roosevelt and Halsted, Smith’s Glass, Breyers, the Mad Hatter, Howard Open an Account, Cheat You Fair. One tailor shop and a church hang on, but everyone else has been chased out.
Hundreds of angry demonstrators had swamped the first public meetings called by the city and the university; then the meetings were scheduled during the day, when working people couldn’t attend. I participated in protests against the flea market’s move to Canal Street in 1994, but somehow a “consensus” was forged by people who mattered more than me. Some believe political favors were granted. Danny Solis, head of the community group UNO, supported the move and–big surprise–later got appointed alderman.
The street’s low-income taxpayers couldn’t afford to keep up with the parade of city-funded witnesses, heads of tax-supported organizations, and union officials bought off with the promise of construction jobs. While a third of the Sunday market was allowed to survive on Canal, rents skyrocketed.
When I sold on Maxwell in the 1960s, the market master demanded the princely sum of two bucks. If you didn’t have that, he’d just take a piece of your junk that struck his fancy. People who had nothing paid nothing. Now you have to pay $35 a week, $1,820 a year. Marginal junkmen can no longer set up for free.
Morrie Mages, flat broke, got his start on Maxwell Street.
I was in a group that once attempted to march into the old market area soon after it was closed in September 1994. We were ordered by mounted police to stay on the sidewalk. When someone attempted to march in the street, he was knocked down, and then arrested. Outright harassment by police, in squads of three and four, marked the last few Sundays at the old location.
This year has been tough on the survivors. Parking is prohibited on Sunday in the neighborhood to the south and west of the Canal market; you can’t park on 16th Street. The site is half a mile from the nearest public transportation. The city has closed off sections of Canal on numerous occasions without explanation, but these miraculously reopen when traffic flows again on Monday. The one section that’s always closed on Sundays is in front of a little building belonging to the Burlington Northern railroad just north of the viaduct on the east side of Canal. They fence out a dozen stalls and post an armed guard. The rumor is a terrorist wants to blow up the building. (I guess some terrorists prefer to work on Sundays.)
Meanwhile, the newly built condos of University Village are already driving up real estate taxes on the near southwest side. Consequently, rents are going up for the poorest of the poor, the former clients of Maxwell Street. Very few will be able to send their children to the university.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Ron Gordon.