“(A) special friendliness is universally remembered by everyone who went down to Maxwell Street. Talk to anyone who knew it, anyone of any color who went down there on Sundays on a streetcar or bus. Their memories are joyful ones, of the crowds, and the hustling merchants who never left you with a bad deal even if they got the better part of it. There is never a dour comment, never an ugly recall of racism. What stays in peoples’ minds is the friendliness of the place.”
—Alan P. Mamoser, “Requiem for Maxwell Street” December 2000 http://cowdery.home.netcom.com/maxwell/mamoser.html
When the Illinois and Michigan canal opened in 1848, the Irish, Germans and Bohemians were among the first residents to occupy wood newly constructed frame cottages on the “canal lands” that comprised the neighborhood. Father Arnold Damen, a Belgian priest, attracted Irish Catholics to the area to build Holy Family Church in 1860. St. Ignatius College opened in 1870 next to the church, which later become Loyola University, and now houses St. Ignatius College Prep high school.
German immigrants were among the first to settle around Maxwell Street, coming to work on the railroads of Chicago. In the mid 19th century, they made up the congregation of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic church. Immigrant communities would often set up their own schools. In 1869, pre-eminent architect Augustus Bauer, who gave Chicago many notable local structures, including the landmarked Old St. Pat’s Church, designed the First German School at 1352 S. Union Avenue. The original exterior façade of this pre-Fire building (replaced in 1944) was elegant and exemplary of the era. The school later became a synagogue, then a church, and was last known as Gethsemane M. B. Church, occupied by an African American congregation until it sold in 2005 after the neighborhood had been redeveloped. It was listed by Preservation Chicago as one of the “Chicago 7” most endangered buildings in 2012. This building has since been demolished.
Italian immigrants came to Chicago as early as the 1850s, before the massive waves of immigration from 1874 to 1920. They settled in small pockets throughout the city, but at one point a third of all Chicago’s Italian immigrants lived in the Taylor Street neighborhood immediately north of the Maxwell Street neighborhood. People from different parts of Italy settled there, bringing many different dialects. Some of their descendants remain, and although many have moved to the suburbs, their familial and emotional ties to the neighborhood cannot be broken.
Florence Scala grew up in Little Italy and fought many battles to save it. See Carolyn Eastwood’s Near West Side Stories
Peter Pero, a Maxwell Street board member, has written Chicago Italians at Work, an account of Italians all over Chicago but highlighting the Near West Side of the city. Arcadia, 2009: http://www.illinoislaborhistory.org/ccp8/index.php?app=ecom&ns=prodshow&ref=ChicagoItalians
Through historic photographs and text, this paperback edition chronicles Italian immigrants’ labor, talent and contributions in developing trade unions, building the city of Chicago, and much more.
—Illinois Labor History Society
Taylor Street: Chicago’s Little Italy, by Kathy Catrambone, 2007, is a pictorial history from the late 19th century and early 20th century, from when Jane Addams and Mother Cabrini guided the Italians on the road to Americanization, through to the community’s sad time of “urban renewal” in the 1960s and its rebirth in the 1990s.
The Maxwell Street market was founded mainly by Eastern European Jewish immigrants who dominated it for most of its history. Many of its customers referred to it as “Jewtown.”
The Jews were present in the Maxwell Street area for almost half a century and at their peak they numbered about 50,000, virtually all from Eastern Europe. In the area, starting about 1880, they established a type of Jewish ghetto complete with kosher meat markets, matzah bakeries, peddlers, stables, tailor and seamstress shops, bookstores, and sweatshops.
Among the many Jewish institutions in the area were the over forty synagogues, the Chicago Hebrew Institute, the Jewish Training School, and many Hebrew schools and Yiddish theaters. The Jews also benefited from the outreach of the nearby Hull House and schools such as Medill High School which had special evening classes for the immigrants.
Commercially there were many Jewish companies that became well known such as Mages, Keeshins, Chernins, Fluky’s, and small department stores such as Machevich, Gabels, and Robinson’s.
An attraction of the market besides the bargaining and great variety of low cost used and new merchandise was the fact that most of the Jewish merchants could speak a variety of languages. This was helpful to the mainly ethnic customers who were used to this type of shopping in the Old Country and who would feel out of place downtown at Fields or Carson’s.
A number of well known Jews had their roots in the Maxwell Street area including Arthur Goldberg, Saul Alinsky, Admiral Hymen Rickover, William Paley, Federal Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, Colonel Jacob Arvey, Paul Muni, Barney Ross, and Benny Goodman. There were also some unsavory people including gangsters Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik, “Nails” Morton, and confidence man Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil.
In the last few decades before the market’s official demise in 1994, the Jewish merchants were partially replaced by Latino and African American vendors and the Jewish population by then had dispersed into various neighborhoods, especially some three miles west into the Lawndale community.
-From “The Jews of Maxwell Street”, an essay by Irving Cutler, 2017. Irving Cutler, who is a member of the Maxwell Street Foundation Advisory Council, is professor emeritus of geography at Chicago State University and a founding member of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society. He has written extensively on Chicago and Jewish Chicago, and is well known for his tours by boat and bus and his illustrated lectures on Chicago history.
“Deeply absorbing even for non-Jews, because of the astonishing history of this ethnic group, an unmatched rags-to-riches story. . . . with crisp prose.”
“Cutler does a masterful job of tracing the history of Chicago’s Jews from the German Jews who came in the 1830s and 1840s to the East European Jews who arrived in large numbers from 1880 to 1925.”
Jewish Theater: In the heyday of singer/ comedian Al Jolson, Lawndale, a neighborhood west of Maxwell Street, grew into a Jewish cultural hub. The Lawndale Theatre was Chicago’s stop on the Yiddish Theater circuit http://www.victoriansecrets.net/lawndale2.htm They featured local talent like Austrian immigrant Paul Muni (Mehilem Weisenfeund 1895-1967), who went on to act in movies like The Story of Louis Pasteur, Life of Emile Zola, The Good Earth, and The Last Angry Man. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Muni
Maxwell Street: A Living Memory, the Jewish Experience in Chicago. “I feel connected emotionally to the history of Chicago,” says Shuli Eshel after making this 2001 documentary: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZPb5Tqq1LY
“Just as the Lower East Side of Manhattan defined the Jewish immigrant experience of New York City, Maxwell Street and its pushcarts and bazaars defined the late-19th and early 20th century Chicago Jewish immigrant experience. Maxwell Street was the place where Benny Goodman formed his first band, and where Jewish entrepreneurs sold their first merchandise. This slim volume, a companion to the half-hour documentary “Maxwell Street: A Living Memory, The Jewish Experience in Chicago,” expands upon many of the interviews in that film and adds a few more stories as well. Each story weaves both first-person testimonies along with additional background information.”
—Reviewed by Leonard A. Matanky, Jewish Book Council http://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/book/jewish-maxwell-street-stories
—Irving Cutler, The Jews of Chicago: From Shtetl to Suburb, University of Illinois Press 1996 and 2009 http://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/68fqw3wm9780252021855.html
Shuli Eshel and Roger Schatz collaborated on a follow-up pictorial book: Jewish Maxwell Street Stories, Arcadia 2004
“The disappearing history of Chicago’s Jewish past can be found in the religious architecture of its stately synagogues and communal buildings. Whether modest or majestic, wood or stone, the buildings reflected their members’ views on faith and their commitment to the neighborhoods where they lived in a time when individuals and the community were inseparable from their neighborhood synagogues, temples, and shuls. From Chicago’s oldest Jewish congregation, Kehilath Anshe Maariv Temple (Pilgrim Baptist), to Ohave Sholom (St. Basils Greek Orthodox), to Kehilath Anshe Maariv’s last independent building (Operation Push), come and explore Chicago’s forgotten synagogues and communal buildings. Nearly 150 years of Chicago history unfolds in Chicago’s Forgotten Synagogues as the photographs and accompanying stories tell of the synagogues’ past greatness and their present and uncertain future. The author, Robert A. Packer, is a Maxwell Street Foundation board member. Lots of Maxwell Street content.”
—Chicago’s Forgotten Synagogues, by Robert A. Packer, Arcadia Publishing, 2007 http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/073855152X/charlekcowder
—Reviewed by Chuck Cowdery
Eastern Europe: Poles, Lithuanians, Russians, Romani
Lithuanians, Bohemians, and other Eastern Europeans often lived near Jewish market areas in the old country, so they were attracted to the Maxwell Street Market.
Romani (Gypsy) people
The Romani have often been an outcast ethnic group in Europe, but their music is loved all over the world and has infused itself into American jazz. Gypsy musicians play lively, plaintive fiddles and a kind of hammered dulcimer known as a cimbalom.
—Maxwell Street preservationist Steve Balkin, a Roosevelt University professor, has compiled more information on the Romani people: http://sites.roosevelt.edu/sbalkin/roma/
Mexicans fleeing the revolution in their country in 1910, came north to fill a labor shortage during World War I. They worked in steel mills, factories, and railroads. A poor but persistent contingent of Mexican farm workers settled in the Maxwell Street neighborhood in the 1920s, aided by St. Francis of Assisi Church and occasionally by Hull House. St Francis of Assisi Church, originally a German congregation, began a Spanish-speaking mass in 1925.
Many Latinos settled on the Near West Side but were uprooted in the 1950s and early 1960s by urban renewal and the building of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). By 1994, when the city moved the market to Canal Street, Latinos made up almost half the vendors. That’s the year the Chicago archdiocese began trying to close St. Francis of Assisi Church. For two years, parishioners petitioned church leaders who turned a deaf ear. Finally they occupied their church in the dead of winter, 1996. Cardinal Bernardin, suffering from his last illness, heard their pleas and kept the church open.
See Hilda Portillo’s first-person account in Carolyn Eastwood’s Near West Side Stories: http://www.amazon.com/Near-West-Side-Stories-Neighborhood/dp/1893121097
The church’s current website offers fascinating bits of its history but fails to mention the 1996 occupation which saved the building and kept the congregation in place: http://www.stfrancisofassisiivechicago.org/brief-history.html
Take a look at the tempting Latino foods offered at the city’s outdoor market after it was operated on Canal Street (1994-2007). On website of barbecue aficionado “Smokey Pitts.”
By the 1960s, Koreans had set up shops on Maxwell Street, often hiring people of their own nationality.
Maxwell Street was just a few blocks west of the Illinois Central rail terminal, which brought thousands of African Americans from the South in the Great Migration between the years 1916-1970. Work was available in many steel mills, stores and factories. At the Maxwell Street Market, the new arrivals could get a foothold in the big city, selling goods and produce and buying inexpensive furnishings to set up their apartments.
In the late 1940s, Stanford Park, which had opened in 1920 at 14th Place and Union Street, had become an African American institution in the community. The park served over 500,000 people a year with an afterschool center, sports teams, a shower house, a library, dances and concerts. The park was demolished for the Dan Ryan expressway in the 1950s.
Even after leaving the South for the Windy City, people still wanted to hear music from down home, so blues and gospel musicians set up on the street corners and played for tips. Musicians amplified their instruments to keep up with the street noise; thus electrified Chicago Blues was born, right on Maxwell Street.
See our Music page.
By the 1960s, African Americans made up about 1/3 of the vendors on Maxwell Street, and some operated stores. Nate Duncan took over Lyon’s Deli, after buying the business in 1973 from the owners for whom he had worked. The first Blues Brothers movie replicated the interior of Nate’s Deli for the scene where Aretha Franklin dances and sings “Think.” Nate’s Deli closed in 1994 when the city began pressuring owners to sell out to the University of Illinois at Chicago, and his building was demolished quickly thereafter in 1995. Nate’s full story in Carolyn Eastwood’s Near West Side Stories.
Part of the story is here: http://www.bluesbrotherscentral.com/forum/topic/2578-nate-duncan-nates-deli/