Krystin Grenon smiles out from behind the cluttered counter of her antique/curiosity/resale/junk shop on Newberry near 15th Street, at the southern tip of the Maxwell Street Market, and offers a visitor a cup of coffee. The sign out front says she’s got the “best coffee at the market–free with your purchase or 50 cents,” but this morning the coffee is cold; the machine is on the blink.
Strewn about the shop are elegant old woodwork, handmade tools, lamps, fixtures, and piles of knickknacks of every description (and occasionally beyond). Grenon seems to know where everything is, and the finicky coffee machine hasn’t put a damper on her spirit. It’s Sunday morning, there are plenty of friends and customers around, and the inside of her store feels like a cramped version of the Maxwell Street Market itself–chaotic and cluttered at first glance, rife with mystery and color, but with an underlying order that becomes apparent if one stays around for a while and watches the action.
On Grenon’s mind these days are much weightier issues than cold coffee. After years of rumors, it seems certain that the market, a near-west-side mainstay since before the turn of the century, is going to be displaced by the University of Illinois at Chicago. Grenon is the secretary and a founding member of Friends of Maxwell Street Market, a two-year-old organization dedicated to the preservation and improvement of the historic bazaar.
For Grenon and her colleagues, these past two years have been an exhausting grind: printing up fliers and press releases; rallying vendors to a cause many didn’t seem to appreciate or understand; holding endless meetings with university and city officials; riding out the strife inside their own organization; and finally, going down to heartbreaking defeat last December, when the city’s Commercial District Development Commission approved a plan that eventually will cede almost the entire current market area to the university.
University and city officials say there’s no need to worry: the market–which currently sprawls over, and sometimes beyond, a rectangle roughly two blocks long and a block and a half wide, extending south and west from the corner of Halsted and Maxwell Street (1320 south)–will simply be moved across the street, to the east side of Halsted, and everything will be fine. But after battling for years to save the market, and encountering what she feels was resistance and betrayal at nearly every step, Grenon no longer believes much of what she hears. “I had faith in the system,” she says now. “I had faith we could work things out. I don’t anymore. In retrospect I would tend toward radical politics.”
Grenon personifies a new generation that’s lately forged a place for itself in the hardscrabble society of Maxwell Street vendors. Well educated and artistic, she’s previously channeled her entrepreneurial energies into such projects as N.A.M.E. Gallery, where she was director for three years during the late 70s (the “height of the golden period of the nonprofits”), and into patenting her own invention, “Prooframe,” a little accessory worn like a lapel pin that displays a contact print of a 35-millimeter negative.
In the mid-80s, burned out from the art scene (“When I left the gallery I found who my real friends were!”), she began going to Maxwell and selling various oddities out of the back of her 1963 Chevy pickup. Still somewhat naive, she sold with a permit–“Oh, I went through the whole thing!”–and found the scrappy winner-take-all competitiveness of the market hard to get used to: “I’d automatically set up in a space that didn’t have a table in it, because I figured the tables are the ones that are marking the space. But what I didn’t know is that when the sun came out, people had also marked their spaces on the curb, like with paint. So it took about a month of Sundays to find a space that I could be in for a while.
“You’d stop your truck and start unloading it–‘Uh-uh! Somebody’s gonna set up there!’ So you’d go to the next space–‘Is anybody here?’ ‘No, you can’t park there because that’s a driveway.’ ‘Oh.’ So you move on down. Finally I worked out a deal with this guy named Tony; he’s one of these people that have been there for over 25 years and I’d bought from him numerous times. I would pay him $5 a week. That would basically be the cost of the table that he rented, he didn’t charge me any more–he could’ve really extorted me! It was a wonderful block. It was in the middle of Newberry between 14th and 14th Place, on the west side of the street. That’s a really busy street!”
Once Grenon had proved her mettle (“There’s not very many white women selling down there–there were bets on the street whether I would last!”), she discovered that the market was more than a means of acquiring extra income. It was a social event, a once-a-week community, vibrant and close-knit. “I loved being down there on the street. I loved watching the people walk by and smiling and saying hi, and talking to them and realizing that there were people that came back every week! All my conceptions of Maxwell Street were shattered.”
There are a lot of conceptions about the Maxwell Street Market. Thousands of people who flock there every Sunday to buy and sell cherish the place as a community where people interact with a rare spontaneity. Others see it as a den of thieves, or as a garbage-strewn vestige of a best-forgotten era when immigrants had to hustle on the street to gain an economic foothold. Still others value the market as a unique piece of Chicago’s ethnic and cultural heritage.
As Eastern European Jews settled along Maxwell Street from the late 1800s through the 1920s, a thriving open-air bazaar developed there. The market was formally designated and is still protected legally by a 1912 Chicago ordinance. The ordinance allows the market to operate all week long, but from the earliest years Sunday has been the biggest day. The original market ran along Maxwell Street from Jefferson on the east six blocks west to Sangamon. There was also a strip running down Jefferson from Roosevelt Road to 14th Street.
In time, the entire area within these boundaries (Jefferson, Sangamon, Roosevelt, and 14th Street) became the Maxwell Street Market. These are still the legal boundaries today, although a lot of selling goes on every Sunday south of 14th Street, there’s usually some west of Sangamon, and most activity east of Halsted has been curtailed over the years by land clearance and the intrusion of the Dan Ryan Expressway. The area’s northern tip, from Roosevelt to Maxwell west of Newberry, was taken over in the late 1960s by the UIC athletic field.
Maxwell Street itself was laid out in the mid-1800s and named for a Fort Dearborn surgeon, one Philip Maxwell, a rotund gentleman of about 280 pounds with a flair for horsemanship and a reputation for galloping hell-for-leather through town. The street was fortuitously situated just upwind from De Koven Street, where the great fire of 1871 started, and after the fire displaced Chicagoans and arriving immigrants thronged the area, pushing south and west. These were the years of the great Eastern European immigration, and Jews fleeing czarist tyranny poured into Chicago; it’s estimated that 50,000 arrived here in the 1880s and 1890s alone, and they kept coming until 1924. Most settled in the Maxwell Street area.
Writer Ira Berkow interviewed the sons and daughters of many of these immigrants in his 1977 book Maxwell Street: Survival in a Bazaar, the definitive work on the community and the source of much of the history recounted here. They remembered the mixture of relief and trepidation that their parents had felt upon arriving. Chicago was big, loud, and dirty; public officials were uncaring at best and corrupt at worst, and nobody had money or resources. But here at least was freedom from persecution and the hope of betterment, and on Maxwell were the sights and sounds of home.
The air was thick with noises–of merchants and peddlers hawking their wares with throaty calls and songlike spiels, of children laughing and screaming along the side streets, of cantors and Klezmer musicians–and thick with the pungent aromas of fish and kosher meats in pushcarts, makeshift stands, and store windows, not to mention mud, sweat, excrement, and rotting meat.
This world, though new, was far from being a promised land. In 1900, a social scientist estimated that if all of Chicago were as densely populated as Maxwell Street, the city could have housed the entire population of the Western Hemisphere. Much of the flamboyant zeal for which Maxwell Street Market vendors are famous was born of a burning desire to get out. Jewish residents gradually accumulated enough savings to own their own businesses and buy property farther west and eventually in the suburbs.
By the 1950s, few Jews lived in Maxwell Street. Meanwhile, black immigrants from the south had been settling in the area since at least the 30s. As in similar neighborhoods in other U.S. cities, a complex pattern of racial distrust, real estate profiteering, and redlining brought Maxwell Street the tag of “Jewtown”–a slum community in which blacks lived, worked, and shopped but whose homes and businesses were owned mostly by Jewish landlords.
But on Sunday, racial and ethnic antagonisms receded as veteran Jewish merchants and recent black immigrants spieled, harangued, and sang side by side. Blues singers honed their art in the market, singing for tips as they’d done on the streets back home. Preachers collected donations, while vendors sold whatever they could beg, borrow, steal, make, or buy. The Maxwell Street Market had become a classic alternative economy, where goods were recycled and money flowed rapidly from hand to hand.
The worldwide fascination with Chicago blues in the 60s drew a generation of young pilgrims to the market. They knew that some of Chicago’s greatest bluesmen had played there; they knew that the first Chicago recordings of harmonica master Little Walter and guitarist Jimmy Rogers, among others, were made on the Ora Nelle label in 1947 at Bernard Abrams’s Maxwell Radio Record Company, 831 W. Maxwell. They knew they could hope to find living legends like Big Walter Horton, who performed in the market, off and on, until the summer before his death in late 1981. Still vibrant, more shrouded than ever in myth and legend, assimilating all cultures and generations, the market seemed vital enough to last forever. The market carried on even though the housing stock around it was old and dilapidated and steadily fell to bulldozers. Now blacks were moving out, when they could. Now no one ever moved in.
The Chicago Daily News reported as long ago as 1921 that the market was “near doom” from political pressure, and through the years periodic attempts were made to clean up, regulate, organize, and dispense with it. The late 50s and early 60s saw the elimination of much of the market’s eastern section, and in the late 60s UIC expanded into the three blocks bounded by Roosevelt, Maxwell, Newberry, and Morgan, in what was described by the Daily News as “the first phase of the Roosevelt-Halsted Urban Renewal Project that will eliminate the old Maxwell Street Market.”
That particular land grab was traumatic for the people who were displaced–Ira Berkow’s account paints a vivid picture of resistance, including a woman fending off policemen with a frying pan and a defiant resident sitting at the door of his apartment cradling a rifle. But despite the Daily News’s dire prediction, the rest of the area was left pretty much alone for the next 20 years.
It wasn’t until the late 80s that stories about UIC’s new expansion plans began appearing in the press. The university enlisted the city’s Department of Planning in drawing up a strategy whereby a moratorium would be imposed on land transactions in the area. The area bounded by Roosevelt Road, 15th Street, Halsted, and Morgan would then be acquired for university use.
Now a veteran Maxwell Street vendor named Vern Price decided it was time to start mobilizing. He contacted Krystin Grenon, a street singer-craftswoman named Granny Jenkins, a printer named Larry Callahan, and a few others who shared Price’s sense of urgency. Slowly other market regulars started getting involved. Out of their initial meetings came Friends of Maxwell Street Market.
Price is a successful Chicago small businessman of diverse talents and interests, but he retains a good measure of the combative braggadocio that’s served him well on the street. His activities past and present include dog breeding (“My wife and I are the number-one breeders of any breed of dogs in the history of the world”); book publishing (his Will Judy Publishing Company is “the biggest dog book publishing company in the country”); and owning Heritage Jewelry at 114 W. Grand (“the finest collection of heritage jewelry and costume jewelry in the country!”). And he’s on 14th Street just west of Peoria selling jewelry every Sunday.
In the late 30s, when Price got his start on the street, it was full of fast- talking pitchmen who’d set up stands and sell to the gullible crowds. (“There’s no pitchmen on Maxwell Street anymore now,” he says. “You know where they are now, don’t you? They’re on TV!”) Price started by helping out a fellow who sold a balm for crippled and injured hands.
“It was just axle grease melted and poured into these flat containers,” Price remembers. The containers proclaimed the stuff to be “good for bruises, aches, and pains, etcetera etcetera etcetera. He sold these things for a quarter apiece, three for a half I think, something like that. He’d buy this axle grease in five-gallon cans, melt it, and put it in these little cans. He was partly crippled in his one hand. He says, ‘This hand was completely [crippled]; my father made this formula, look how well it is now!’–and that’s the way it’s always been!”
Price, whose own hands are scarred from a childhood illness, stepped in when the pitchman got tired. “I’d take over and say, ‘See my hands? See those scars on there? I couldn’t close my hands! They used to be real white and hard!'”
Price believes he owes a lot of his own success in life (“I had the first 1941 car driven in the city of Chicago!”) to the education the market gave him in hard bargaining. He was ready to act when it became apparent that UIC had further designs on the area.
The way Price sees it, Maxwell Street is being asked to pay for the university’s poor planning. Rather than build upward, the university has expanded outward. “Their buildings, they’re less than two and a half stories high!” Price fumes (although at least three of them on the expanding east side of campus–the 28-story University Hall, the 13-story science and engineering building, and the eight-story Chicago Circle Center–can legitimately be called high rises). “They got 19 parking lots!” [Actually 10 on the east side of campus and 19 on the west side, according to a university spokesperson; there are also four multistory parking garages.] And they said, ‘Oh, we gotta have more space!’
“It takes longer to walk from one end of the campus to the other end of the campus than it does from the northeast corner of the campus to the tallest building in the world,” Price continues. “And here they are spread out like they’re in the middle of Iowa or Nebraska!”
James Foerster, associate professor of urban planning and policy at UIC, is the expansion project’s “master plan coordinator.” Foerster concedes that the university has sprawled when it probably should have grown vertically, and he says that new buildings will be taller than the old ones. He also says that new parking facilities will be multistory. But for all of UIC’s past mistakes, Foerster defends the expansion south of Roosevelt Road as natural and appropriate.
“It’s one of the areas that was settled very early in the history of the city,” Foerster says. “It was fully developed by the coming of the 20th century, and according to the city’s studies in the 1920s and 1930s, the housing stock in the area was quite substandard even at that time. And well before the 1950s the city had already declared this as a blighted area, and the city was in the process of land assembly and the beginnings of land-clearance projects.”
The community battle to keep the university from overrunning the Halsted-Taylor neighborhood in the 60s was one of the fiercest in Chicago’s history. Lingering resentments from those days have contributed to the acrimony surrounding the proposed expansion into the Maxwell Street Market. But Foerster, acknowledging this history, insists that the university is simply participating actively in an urban renewal process that was bound to happen regardless.
According to Foerster, the university has to grow and there’s no place to grow but south. Building east over the Dan Ryan, which has been suggested, would be prohibitively expensive. There’s a good supply of empty buildings directly to the north of the campus, in the Westgate Mill area, but that’s such a hot investment spot right now, Foerster says, that it would cost more to purchase those buildings and bring them up to code than it would to start from scratch south of Roosevelt Road.
And there’s all that wonderfully vacant land down there. “If you look at the land use in that area, you’ll see that in fact 90 percent of the parcels are vacant,” Foerster points out. “To some extent, the university needs to move for selective closures of streets so it can assemble contiguous parcels of land, meaning vacation of streets so that the university could build in the street right-of-way.
“We do need to close streets south of Maxwell Street, probably with the exception of 14th Place–that’s the one that goes through to Barbara Jean Wright [Courts, a private housing development on Morgan Street west of the Maxwell Street Market]. We need to identify low-cost vacant land which can be developed at a minimum of financial and social displacement cost, and that’s what leads us to expand in this direction. It is the case that this is not a cornfield down there, there is some dislocation, but it is clearly the best way for the university to expand, given the constraints.”
Very little of the Maxwell Street Market area is earmarked for significant construction. According to a map in the UIC press packet, most of the land being acquired by the university there is slated for “recreation” or for parking. Two relatively small parcels will be used for “support.”
This might come as a surprise to those who have heard that the university plans to build research facilities and assumed that the market was being sacrificed for that purpose. Foerster explains: “The expansion plan calls for a total of 4.4 million gross square feet, and we’re calling for the acquisition of approximately 90 acres of land. The program is approximately 50 percent research facilities, perhaps 15 to 20 percent academic structural sort of space [i.e., classrooms, instructional laboratories, and faculty offices], and there’s a scattering of administrative, parking, dormitory, and so forth.
“Let me focus my comments on the area on the east side of campus south of Taylor Street [west of Halsted and north of Roosevelt Road]. We see the development of that entire superblock as a science and engineering research zone, with a chemistry building occupying the corner at Roosevelt and Halsted [where there’s currently a baseball field]. In order to build the chemistry building, we have to move the baseball field. It was never intended that the baseball field would always be there.
“Just to the west of that building on the frontage along Roosevelt Road, where there is currently parking, we would build an engineering research facility–robotics, civil engineering, metallurgy–and to the north of that, kind of kitty-corner to the Hillel Center [at the corner of Taylor and Morgan], would be a science and engineering library of several hundred thousand square feet.”
But what of the market area?
“South of Roosevelt there would be an intramural physical education field house of approximately 150 thousand gross square feet that would include a small basketball sort of stadium that perhaps would accommodate 3,000 people. We think this is a facility that can be used on a shared basis with the community. It would significantly relieve the load on the existing physical education building where we have practices that run from five in the morning till well past midnight. Thirty to forty thousand people not related to the university use our athletic facilities on an annual basis; we think that given the land for expansion and the ability to construct this field house we can expand that joint use of facilities.
“In addition to that field house, which would logically be located across the Maxwell Street right-of-way adjacent to the [existing physical education] building, you would be looking at the replacement baseball field, soccer field, and other outdoor recreation totaling approximately 20 acres.”
UIC’s other ambitions for the Maxwell Street area include a facility for the university’s motor pool (“Our current motor pool is in the basement of the physical plant building–probably the only university or the only major institution that currently is operating its motor pool in the basement of a building that’s used for other purposes”) and, in the old Maxwell Street police station, the station once on view at the beginning of every Hill Street Blues episode, a home for the university police department. Foerster says the police station, if nothing else, will be kept intact as a “criminal justice museum that would preserve the architecture of the building and provide for an integration of university and community use of the building as a curiosity for having been used in the TV show.”
UIC’s plans also call for acquiring most of the commercial property along Halsted Street between Roosevelt and 15th, although the eventual use of this property remains uncertain. “There is the potential there for university partnerships with the private sector that might result in office and commercial development. [It is] our position also that retail uses ought to be maintained at the ground level of any new buildings that might be sited adjacent to Halsted Street. As an accommodation to existing merchants, it would also be our position that the university would enter into long-term leases for a period of ten years with any merchant that would be impacted by a university involvement in the area.”
East of this commercial strip is where the Maxwell Street Market would go. There have been no specific proposals as to what the “new” market might consist of, and rumors continue to circulate; Krystin Grenon has heard that it wouldn’t be much more than “a parking lot.” But nearly everyone (except most of the people who actually buy and sell there) seems to feel that there’s plenty of space between Halsted and the expressway to put the entire market.
Foerster is adamant about this being a reasonable compromise, and he seems to wonder why everyone is so upset. “We are talking about preserving the market,” he insists. “We are talking about ensuring that there will always be a place where that market can continue. The university could have claimed the entire area, and could have said that there should be no provision for the market. In fact we’ve done the opposite.”
At the meeting last December 19 of the Commercial District Development Commission, the Department of Planning submitted a report recommending that the land bounded by Halsted, Morgan, Maxwell, and the Chessie tracks (roughly 15th Street) be developed for “institutional purposes” (i.e., UIC’s) and the market moved east. The market’s advocates remember this meeting, and much of what preceded it, as a blatant betrayal of the democratic process. In retrospect, they say, it’s obvious that the university’s expansion into the market had been preordained from the start.
On the other hand, the nature of the issue and the nature of the people affected by it made organizing coherent resistance a daunting task. Maxwell Street habitues are notoriously individualistic and hard to manage–“I’ve started other organizations and never had any problem whatsoever,” Price laments. “This is a toughie!”
“He’d [Vern Price] rented this whole room, passed out about a zillion fliers, and a handful of people showed up,” says Grenon. Many vendors apparently mistook the UIC expansion for just another scare story that eventually would come to nothing.
However, help came from an unexpected source. In August of 1988, the planning commissioner at the time, Elizabeth Hollander, was contacted by community leader Joseph Mason. Mason is president of the Residents Development Corporation, which is based in the low-rise Barbara Jean Wright Courts housing development west of the Maxwell Street Market. He’d been in touch with other community organizations in the area, including Friends of Maxwell Street Market, and now he requested the help of a Community Assistance Panel to address several pressing community concerns.
Community Assistance Panels, commonly known as CAP panels, are a service offered by a coalition of real estate and urban planning organizations –Lambda Alpha Land Economics, the Urban Land Institute, and the American Institute of Architects–created to encourage community participation in the planning process. In cooperation with Chicago’s Department of Planning, the coalition has provided expert panels of planners, developers, and architects to community groups in various parts of the city.
A leader of this coalition is Larry Lund, who’s a vice president of U.S. Equities–the real estate firm building the Harold Washington Library–and a member of Lambda Alpha Land Economics, which Lund describes as “an honorary real estate organization for anyone involved in land planning.” Lund is also a student of public markets. He’s observed them throughout the U.S. and abroad, and was one of the founders of the New York-based Public Markets Cooperative, a not-for-profit group that advocates including public markets as components of urban development and real estate planning. Lund says he has no personal stake in Maxwell Street except for the fact that he’s “a real believer” who thinks “it’s one of the things the city needs.”
A CAP panel, says Lund, is an independent group of experts that’s beholden to no one, although the city of Chicago provides meeting spaces, some staffing, and other resources. “We pull together about ten or twelve professionals, we meet after work or at lunch, and try to get up to speed on what are the issues.”
The Department of Planning called in Lund and his associates, and several months later a Community Assistance Panel was arranged. Although Mason’s letter had raised issues ranging from jobs and affordable housing to improving residents’ access to the nearby west-side medical center complex, the focus of the panel became Maxwell Street Market.
The CAP panel’s activities consisted of a tour of the market on Sunday, April 9, 1989; an all-day panel discussion the next day that brought together planning experts, community residents, and representatives of the city and university; and, finally, a three-hour “presentation to the community” attended by over 150 people the following evening.
Most Maxwell Street advocates remember this as a particularly optimistic period. City officials finally seemed to be listening, and the CAP experts were receptive to the idea that the market was an important local resource. Most importantly, the final CAP report to the Department of Planning suggested strongly that the university and the market could coexist. This report recommends that the “Market should serve as focal point for the area in addition to UIC,” and concludes: “The City of Chicago remembers its [the market’s] importance, and begins work with the community and a modern academic institution, the University of Illinois, to enhance both learning and a marketplace like the one within which learning began.”
Krystin Grenon says that “two main things” came out of the CAP report. First, “Maxwell Street [is] a really valuable resource for the city. The coming together of all kinds of people and culture and backgrounds and economic and ethnic backgrounds and that people could come and have a good time together–it’s virtually one of the only places in the city that that can happen.” (The report states that “the ethnic pluralism of the Maxwell Street Market is precious.”)
“The second thing that the CAP report brought out,” Grenon continues, “was that there should be a coming together; each group should meet, each entity–the university, the city, the people who want to save Maxwell Street–should meet, should make their plans, and then come together and show each other their plans and compromise and go back to their drawing tables and make some changes and then come together again. And this is what they suggested should happen.”
Coming together proved difficult, however. A fragile unity among the diverse leaders and members of Friends of Maxwell Street Market had begun to unravel over what some factions believed to be the exceeding narrowness of the Friends’ agenda. The leading dissenters belonged to Maxworks. Maxworks, located in a ramshackle storefront on Maxwell east of Halsted, is a “recycling co-op,” according to member Dan Miller. Others describe it as a hippie commune or an anarchist collective. Maxworks wanted to see issues like housing and recycling added to the Maxwell Street Market agenda.
Answers Grenon, “That’s not what our group was put together as! We were put together to promote the market and preserve it, and we’re concentrating on the market. It’s not mutually exclusive, but at this time we could see the city moving in on us. We really had to narrow our options down. To deal with all these other things would’ve taken all our energy. It was getting to the point where nothing was getting done at meetings.”
There was also unhappiness with the leadership style of the Friends’ president and cochair, printer Larry Callahan, who by now was claiming that he’d founded the Friends and was accusing others of trying to usurp his authority. It all came to a head at the Friends’ June 1989 election. Grenon and Price and others who’d originally incorporated the organization decided to “put together a group of people that had good backgrounds and were really straight, people that could deal with the city. We decided we’d put down a few rules for the organization and try to get it back on track with the vendors.”
Maxworks saw the move as a power grab, whatever its pragmatism. Callahan and everyone else with a real or imagined grudge against the founders eagerly joined the opposition. The election was a tempestuous affair, with each side accusing the other of unethical practices. Proxies were hauled in by the bundle; crowds of friends and relatives showed up to vote. When the dust cleared, the new president of Friends of Maxwell Street Market was Robert Tutman, a vendor and neighborhood landowner who had been involved with the organization almost from the beginning.
Callahan is still angry about that election. He maintains that Tutman, Grenon, and their allies pulled a coup. The ill will made it increasingly difficult for the Friends to present a united front.
Last July, the Department of Planning established a Roosevelt-Halsted Advisory Committee to carry out the bargaining and planning recommended by the Community Assistance Panel. The composition and leadership of this committee also became a matter of heated debate, and resentment lingers over the way it was put together.
The Department of Planning appointed three chairmen of a steering committee: Robert Tutman; Oscar D’Angelo, a controversial former attorney (he’d been disbarred in 1988) and real estate developer with interests in the Taylor Street neighborhood, who was perceived as an ally of the university; and Florence Scala, the Taylor Street businesswoman who’d led the fight against the university in the 60s and was eager to take it on again. The idea, according to Grenon, was to “have everybody have a voice in it, not just the vendors, not just the university.” It was a strategy suggested by a city planner who was working with Friends of Maxwell Street Market at the time, and some saw it as naive.
When the advisory committee met for the first time, everyone who showed up for the meeting was considered on the committee and got to vote for five more members of the steering committee. Those elected included local businesspeople and a representative from the South Water Market, the wholesale fruit and vegetable market contiguous to Maxwell Street Market on the southwest that’s existed since the 20s, which is also threatened by the university’s proposed expansion. “A lot of people from the city, everybody got together, the different sides and factions were all meeting together,” remembers Dan Miller of Maxworks. In theory, this was just what the CAP panel had recommended.
But Robert Tutman complains that the Planning Department’s new director of community planning, Marty Goldsmith, effectively stripped the steering committee of most of its power. “Marty Goldsmith ran the meetings and decided what was done,” Tutman says. “We were figureheads.”
Under a rule imposed by Goldsmith, anyone attending a given advisory committee meeting could vote on all resolutions considered there. Goldsmith says he did this because different people came to different meetings and he wanted everyone to have a voice. But in practice, people whom no one had seen before were showing up and voting; agendas were forgotten or became irrevocably muddled as new, sometimes conflicting resolutions were passed; and ancillary issues such as recycling continued to get flogged.
Tutman calls the final Roosevelt-Halsted Advisory Committee report an “unedited, uncorrelated, un-put-together” melange of recommendations from nearly everyone who had ever spoken at any meeting. Even so, the “bottom line,” as Tutman calls it, the fact that everyone wanted to see the market preserved in its current location, was clearly stated.
On December 19, the Department of Planning submitted the Roosevelt- Halsted Advisory Committee report to the Commercial District Development Commission as an “attachment” to its own presentation. Friends of Maxwell Street Market submitted a sepa
rate report, six pages long and typewritten, that did not specifically address the UIC expansion. After objecting to the advisory committee process, the Friends outlined in detail what they wanted to see in their community. The recommendations were basic, even prosaic: sanitation (“Food vendors will provide soap and water and/or hand-wipes for themselves and customers”); enhanced security; provisions to ensure vendor honesty; recommendations for better market organization and traffic control; and no permanent closure of existing streets or contraction of market boundaries.
The Department of Planning report acknowledged the market’s historic and economic importance and summarized the Roosevelt-Halsted Advisory Committee’s recommendations to preserve the market as it is. It then turned its back on these recommendations and drew quite different conclusions. The Planning Department recommended that the market be moved east and the current market area be “developed for institutional purposes in order to accommodate the University of Illinois’ long-term (40-year) land use needs.” The market would be moved east into a space one or two blocks wide and a little over a half a mile long.
After a long, turbulent meeting, the CDDC gave the university virtually everything it had asked for. Its sop to the Friends was to make UIC’s victory conditional on a specific plan that would have to be drawn up to relocate the market and accommodate any businesses that might be displaced. A two-year period was suggested for doing this planning.
Maxwell Street advocates have never really recovered. Some petitions are still being circulated, and recently a few of the blues musicians have taken up the cause and started making speeches through their microphones, but there’s little public activity going on in the name of Friends of Maxwell Street Market these days. Grenon admits that dissension and exhaustion probably hurt her side as much as anything. Yet she wishes they hadn’t been sucked into the trap that she thinks the Roosevelt-Halsted Advisory Committee turned out to be.
The advisory committee was “a great distraction,” she says. “It took a lot of energy to go to all those meetings, they were not always nice to deal with, and it was like you had no other time to do anything else. We could have been putting our energy toward raising hell and working to save the market. I don’t doubt that that’s a common strategy for governments to use.”
If she had the fight to wage over again, she’d opt for confrontation and street politics–“like Maxworks.”
City officials insist they didn’t sandbag anybody. A central problem with the Friends’ cause, says Charles Thurow, first deputy commissioner of planning, was the lack of a cohesive agenda among the market’s advocates. “There wasn’t any single voice down there, or single issue. Maxwell Street had Friends of Maxwell Street, you had the Greens, Maxworks, who had a whole ‘nother agenda.”
But Robert Tutman repeats that everyone–from Friends of Maxwell Street Market to Maxworks to the Roosevelt-Halsted Advisory Committee–was united on the basic issue: they wanted to keep the market in its present location.
Patricia Dowell-Cerasoli, deputy commissioner of planning, says the Maxwell Street community was “totally unrealistic.”
She explains, “When we tried to get the market people to look at a way for them to coexist with the university on what is finite land, they basically ignored the fact that the university had legitimate expansion interests in this area.
“When we tried to get them to talk about places where we could consolidate the market, get down to specifics regarding the land uses in this area, they were totally unrealistic. They did not want any kind of consolidation or discussion on land uses if they couldn’t have the whole thing.”
Dowell-Cerasoli and Thurow insist that the city, like the university, is determined to keep the market alive.
“At the December 19 meeting we suggested that the market could be located east of Halsted Street, somewhere between Roosevelt Road and the expressway and the railroad,” Dowell-Cerasoli says. “We basically acknowledged that we had a two-year planning effort. The university had informed us that they were not ready to take down this land until over a two-year period, which gave us a two-year period to do planning for how we would situate the market.
“We had general knowledge that we could accommodate a market of this size, in terms of the number of vendors. And given the stall spaces that they recommended through the Roosevelt-Halsted Advisory Committee, we knew we could consolidate them somewhere in this area [east of Halsted]. We didn’t have a specific plan identified, but we had a general study that showed us that we could do that in this area.”
Echoing the CAP panel report, planning officials say that the market’s ethnic and cultural diversity is one of its strongest values. Nevertheless, Robert Tutman is convinced that racism had a lot to do with what he still sees as an orchestrated betrayal. He believes that the city just doesn’t care about “a bunch of brown people and Koreans.”
Charles Thurow, however, says that racial diversity is high on the city’s agenda for any future market. “One of the unique characteristics, in terms of an urban environment, is this is no one’s territory; the ethnic groups and racial groups mix in a way that they don’t in other areas of the city. I think that if we played on that, and built a market east of Halsted that did that, I think it would be pretty hard for [anyone] just to stomp it out.”
Adds Dowell-Cerasoli: “One of the [good] current things is the Spanish flavor of the market, the Mexican flavor–I think it’s Mexican, but it’s Latino nevertheless–of foods and spices, music.”
The configuration of the east-of-Halsted Maxwell Street Market is unknown. Neither the university nor the Department of Planning has any specifics ready to release, and most Maxwell Street vendors and residents don’t even want to talk about a new market against hope that it won’t be necessary. They trust no one anymore, and they feel that a move east would be an irrevocable step toward the market’s death. They want no part of it.
Is anyone enthusiastic about the new location? Larry Lund, interestingly enough. Lund wants to see the market east of Halsted because the move “would constrict the boundaries.” Today’s market is too strung out, says this student of public markets. “The more condensed market adds to the excitement” and it’s excitement that draws the crowds.
Charles Thurow also insists that the Friends’ fears are groundless. He and his colleagues hint broadly that if the city takes control of the market to move it east of Halsted the city will become, in effect, its permanent landlord and many of the market’s problems will be addressed.
Take garbage. Maxwell Street advocates perceive official neglect in such matters as collecting garbage and enforcing dumping regulations. There’s no neglect, answer planning officials, only unwieldiness; the city already spends at least $200,000 a year cleaning the place, but the city can’t clean some of the lots right now because they’re privately owned.
“There’s no central management,” says Thurow. But that would change if the city took charge and “if you had someone who was actually responsible to think about how to make that market better and better and more interesting.”
Back on the street at her shop near 15th and Newberry, Krystin Grenon gazes northeast to the Chicago skyline, shimmering hazy blue in the Sunday morning sun, and wonders. The mood of many market regulars these days is a combination of fear and party-as-if-there’s-no-tomorrow desperation. Dan Miller of Maxworks says the constant roar of bulldozers fills the air with a palpable tension, and the demolition this past winter of most of the buildings on the west side of Halsted from Maxwell to 14th Street sent a death tremor through the community.
Yet throughout the market, life goes on in a cavalcade of colors, smells, and sounds. A team of break dancers entertains a crowd in front of a pair of huge speakers half a block up from Grenon’s shop; vendors’ stalls line the streets; and voices ring through the hot mid-morning air: “Shirts, T-shirts, socks!” “Cold pop! Cold pop! Get yer cold pop here!” “Laundry bags, tote bags, gettin’-put-out-of-the-house bags!” “X-ray movies! X-ray movies right here!”
In a stand west of Morgan, young Mexicans serve Polish sausages dipped in jalapeno pepper juice. Farther east, the famous hot dog stand on the northwest corner of Maxwell and Halsted fills an entire block with its greasy, onion-drenched pungency, and just down the street Killer Joe the jazz DJ plays and sells platters from his inexhaustible collection of used LPs. Behind Joe, the voice of Howlin’ Wolf roars from the speakers of a record store, and in the vacant lot behind that store the rough-hewn music of Willie James and Maxwell Blues has the crowd dancing. Less than half a block away, reggae music blares from the window of a shop with “Jamaica” painted brightly on it; a powerful- looking man in dreadlocks does portraits in charcoal and a woman in a flowing purple robe sells jewelry.
The market is a once-a-week carnival of the soul; one has to wonder what will happen to that spirit if it submits to bureaucratic control.
Planning officials say both the practical and the spiritual objections to moving the market can be worked out to everyone’s satisfaction, but Krystin Grenon isn’t so sure. She questions whether planners who aren’t an integral part of daily market life can truly understand it.
The market’s appeal goes beyond commerce, beyond good times, even beyond preserving important Chicago history. Although in the old days many of the neighborhood’s residents wanted nothing so much as to get out, Grenon fervently believes that the market has become essential for many people to return to. Life there, in all its diversity and sometimes chaos, is empowering, even healing in a way she feels is often ignored or misunderstood.
“Some people don’t do anything else the rest of the week,” she notes. “Other people have businesses and such, and some people do flea markets full-time. But it takes a certain mentality to sell down there, a certain rough edge to it. You’ve got to be at least strong in one sense; a lot of people may not be mentally strong but this gives them some balance, it gives them a camaraderie. You’ve got to use a lot of the right side of your brain down on Maxwell Street; you have to be aware of what’s going on, because of the shoplifting and the theft but also to see your customers, to watch stuff. There’s a lot of visual stuff going on there.
“I see a lot of lives picked up at Maxwell Street. Where they might not have been valued elsewhere, they get their stuff together and they come down there and they’re all a character, they’re a personality–their individual character, they become a personality, each person sells their things differently, they each have their different way of doing it. People know people because of what they sell down there. There’s the Glass Lady, there’s the Glove Man–I don’t know what they call me!–there’s the Peanut Man, there’s the Bicycle Man, people become what they sell and they characterize a product and they can kind of get into a role.
“It’s like finding a piece of junk that nobody else sees, and you take it home and you fix it up, you wash it, you clean it, you put it on your stand on Sunday, and you value it, you put a value on it. And by taking people’s lives who may be considered junk by other people, or who are not valued, I think a lot of people are rehabbed down on Maxwell Street. That’s one of the things that I stress is the social aspect. We don’t want to lose that.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Booz, Marc PoKempner.