“Maxwell Street was located about a mile southwest of The Loop, in the shadow, essentially, of where white-collar business in lofty offices was conducted, and a world apart. Maxwell Street stretched for about seven city blocks, with stores of every kind lined up next to each other, and, on Sundays, the big shopping day–this was before the era of malls–the street was closed to automobile traffic and thousands and thousands of elbowing and craning potential customers checked out the goods in the stores, on the card-table stands that had sprouted up along the curbs and the permanent wooden kiosks on the sidewalks, the goods ranged from top quality suits in stores like Gabel’s (who advertised on radio) to used toothbrushes to a raucous rooster to a purported money-making machine that seems to resemble nothing but a cigar box with a crank handle attached.”
From Ira Berkow, “Maxwell Street: Survival in a Bazaar” (Doubleday, 1977). This excerpt above from Berkow’s chapter “Maxwell Street As I Lived It” is also included in the MultiPac – DVD & CD & Booklet package by Shanachie Records, “And This is Free, The Life and Times of Chicago’s Legendary Maxwell Street” http://www.amazon.com/And-This-Is-Free-Legendary/dp/B0015FQZCQ
Pushcarts, Peddlers, and Permits
Once the city officially established the open-air market on Maxwell Street in 1912, an economy sprang up. Small cottages fronting on the street were soon built up into solid two and three-story storefront buildings. In front of the stores, vendors set up not only pushcarts and tables, but permanent stands with windows that closed up so the wares could be stored overnight. A 1931 ordinance made non-store vendors take down their wares between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. Some of the stands were grandfathered in, though, and became permanent, even holding street addresses. The tarp roofs of the stands formed a cool, breezy canopy in summer, creating a relaxed atmosphere for shopping and bartering. Peddlers carried their wares on their backs or pushed small wagons and shopping carts, vying for the best spaces to set up. A Market Master collected small fees from vendors and saw that trash barrels and other city services were in place.
Brick-and-mortar stores got customers’ attention amid the cacaphony of peddlers and stands by employing “pullers” to guide passing people inside their doors. The “pullers” would physically take the arm of a passer-by and attempt to direct them inside the shops, convincing them of the bargains they simply could not afford to pass up.
Maxwell Street visitors would be entertained not only by jugglers, card tricksters, and preachers, but by promoters of products, in the style of an old-time medicine show. One of the most famous marketers to grow out of the Maxwell Street Market is Ron Popeil, best known for his direct response company Ronco, his infomercials for the Showtime Rotisserie (“Set it, and forget it!”) and the phrase, “But wait, there’s more!” on television as early as the mid-1950s. Born in 1935, Ron suffered through a series of foster homes. But at age 17 he went to work for his father at Popeil Brothers manufacturing facility in Chicago. On Maxwell Street he developed many of his famous pitches:
“I gathered up some kitchen products from my father’s factory, he sold them to me at a wholesale price so he made a full profit, and I went down to Maxwell Street on a Sunday to give it a try. I talked, I yelled, I hawked, and it worked! I was stuffing money into my pockets, more money than I had ever seen in my life. I didn’t have to be poor for the rest of my life. Through selling, I could escape from poverty and the miserable existence I had with my grandparents. I had lived for 16 years in homes without love, and now I finally found a form of affection and human connection through sales.”
Popeil and Ronco are still at it: https://www.ronco.com/about-us.html
Buy Low, Sell High
During the 1970s, inexpensive Asian goods were becoming available, from Taiwan, Japan, and China (and also some from Mexico), priced dramatically lower than those made in America. Wholesalers lined Roosevelt Road and resold the items. With low overhead they could mark the goods up 100% and still make a big profit. “Big-box” retail followed this model.
After debuting their new brand of all-beef sausage at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition, Austria-Hungarian immigrants Samuel Ladany and Emil Reichel opened a shop at 1215 S. Halsted with their own factory in the rear: the Vienna Sausage Manufacturing Co., in the Maxwell Street neighborhood. They provided the local vendors in the Maxwell Street Market with their product and distinctive signs. Jimmy Stefanovic, an industrious man from Yugoslavia who had escaped from Russia with his parents and family during the Bolshevic Revolution, is said to be the first to put the “Polish sausage” on a bun and sell it as a sandwich. He arrived in Chicago in 1939, bought his aunt’s street stand to sell hot dogs and sausage sandwiches, and took over a building occupied by a deli on the northwest corner of Maxwell and Halsted. Crowds were attracted by the constant aroma of grilled onions that were added to the “pork chop on a bone” and sausage sandwiches for customers 24 hours a day, seven days per week. Jimmy passed the business on to his son and daughter and today it is operated by his son-in-law Gus Christopoulos, and Jim Christopoulos, his grandson. Other hot dog stands and the nearby Vienna sausage factory and distribution brought an Eastern European flavor to Maxwell Street, which was home to many Russians and people from Slavic countries. Jim’s Original, still featuring Vienna Beef, is relocated at 1250 S. Union Street today where it continues to operate 24 / 7.
Formation: 1870s to 1912
Maxwell Street was named for Dr. Philip Maxwell, an assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army who stayed in Chicago after Fort Dearborn was abandoned in 1836. He had a medical practice in the Town of Chicago when it was incorporated into a city in 1837. The original portion of Maxwell Street was actually part of this incorporation. It wasn’t until the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, that the Near West side neighborhood really thrived because it had been untouched by the Fire. Many merchants reopened their businesses there, such as David Bremner who reopened his Bremner Bakery on O’Brien Street two blocks north of Maxwell Street. Bremner became one of the founding members of the National Biscuit Company (NABISCO), and opened a NABISCO distribution center for horse-drawn carriages on Maxwell Street. On the eve of the millennium, this building at 724 W. Maxwell Street was destroyed by fire.
With the influx of new residents and businesses, transportation needs established a street car line that encircled the early Maxwell Street neighborhood. Street peddlers lined Jefferson Street south of 12th Street (today Roosevelt Road) along a street car line to cater to the pedestrian and rail traffic. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1206.html
NEWCOMERS BUILD A THRIVING MARKET: 1912–1941
The Maxwell Street market was founded mainly by Eastern European Jewish immigrants who dominated it for most of its history. Many of its customers later 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. 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.
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.
“Extending west from the South Branch of the Chicago River just south of 12th Street (Roosevelt Road) as early as 1848, an easternmost section of Maxwell Street was made Chicago’s official open-air market by city ordinance in 1912. By this time, nearby train lines had brought European immigrants who settled there; among them, Jewish street peddlers who catered to the growing population. Carts and wagons lined both sides of the street and enterprising Jewish immigrants converted the front of their rented frame cottages to retail operations. ”
—From “Historic Maxwell Street” by Lori Grove, essay in the MultiPac – DVD & CD & Booklet package by Shanachie Records, “And This is Free, The Life and Times of Chicago’s Legendary Maxwell Street” (http://www.amazon.com/And-This-Is-Free-Legendary/dp/B0015FQZCQ)
Blacks + Jews = Blues: 1940-1970
The entrepreneurship and creativity of Jews and African Americans helped build the culture of mid-20th century Maxwell Street. One of Chicago’s very first record companies to record blues music was Ora-Nelle Records, owned and operated by Bernard Abrams at his Radio and Records store on Maxwell Street. Ora-Nelle launched the career of harmonica master Little Walter Jacobs, and Abrams’ store was a friendly place for musicians and blues record collectors for years.
“Sometimes the interaction between the Jewish merchants and the black performers was quite direct. As producer Sherwin Dunner noted: “You had to have a way to get heard over the street noises. When you see electric bands playing out there in the street, it’s only possible because they had extension cords going up into Maxwell Street apartments and stores. It’s where they got their juice!” And as the MultiPac materials show, Idel and Bernard Abrams, who ran the Maxwell Street Radio shop, recorded blues and gospel artists in their store — most often as test or demo records but also for the fledgling blues label they established, Ora Nelle. There’s also the story of Yiddish-speaking, pickled-herring-making African American Nate Duncan — who went on to run his own Jewish-style deli on the street after being trained in preparing the foods and serving the clientele by immigrants from Poland. ”
—Barry Mazor in Wall St. Journal review of re-issued film by Michael O’Shea, “And this was Maxwell Street”, July 31, 2008
As a boy on Maxwell Street, Nate Duncan learned to make pickled herring. He learned in Lyon’s Deli by carefully watching the kind Russian wife every day. Then he worked for the family faithfully from 1947, and took over the deli when they retired in ’72. A black man keeping a kosher deli never struck anyone as strange on Maxwell Street, and for decades his food nourished the bluesmen.
“We had them all coming in there, and the great ones, Little Walter, Junior Wells and the rest,” says Nate. “But my store was like, so…friendly. You walk in and you’re with friends, didn’t matter blacks, whites, Mexicans. A guy could walk in for the first time and it was just like he had been there for thirty years.”
—Alan P. Mamoser, “Requiem for Maxwell Street December 2000 http://cowdery.home.netcom.com/maxwell/mamoser.html
Neighborhood Declines; People Shop Anyway: 1971-1994
“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.”
—David Whiteis, Chicago Reader, July 26, 1990 http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/maxwell-street/Content?oid=876062
“Now they’re talking about how bad it is. The people didn’t do that, the city did. It was nice here…They just let it go, let it run down.”
—Nate Duncan, owner of Nate’s Deli, 1990, quoted in history doctoral student John Terry’s “The Urban Renewal Blues: The Destruction of the Old Maxwell Street Market” University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee: e.polis Volume V, Fall/Winter 2012 35: http://www4.uwm.edu/letsci/urbanstudies/epolis/archive/2012/index.cfm
“… the market gradually descended into a kind of benign neglect, and by the ’70s it had become a pretty shabby affair. But the place remained ever lively. When Aretha Franklin played the waitress in[side] Nate’s [Deli] for Jake and Elwood Blues in ’79, Maxwell Street was a customary destination for people from across the city, drawing many thousands on a Sunday. It was a sprawling bazaar spread over concrete fields, with the bluesmen playing, the polish stands steaming, folks coming from mass at St. Francis, and the blue bus parked along Halsted. A neighborhood to the south called Pilsen was filling with the latest immigrants, now from Mexico, and the market gradually began to take on something of a Latin feel.”
—Alan P. Mamoser, “Requiem for Maxwell Street December 2000 http://cowdery.home.netcom.com/maxwell/mamoser.html
Open-air Market Moved; Battle for the Buildings 1994-2000
“UIC administrators apparently never fathomed the depth of attachment, never foresaw the outcry of diehards who would try to wrest from their hands this one small scrap of the urban fabric. They agreed verbally, then reneged, and then rejected the alternative plans. But not totally. Slowly, reluctantly, under pressure they came to acknowledge that there was indeed a Maxwell Street, a place with a history worthy enough for commemoration. In a 1999 TIF development agreement with the city, UIC promised to keep intact eight whole buildings (not the merchants, just the buildings), and to preserve the facades of twelve others. The facades are to be pasted to the exterior of a new five-story concrete parking garage, slated for the corner of Maxwell and Union Streets. This façade cover-up idea received withering criticism from the city’s most noted architecture writer, while the preservation coalition takes little consolation from the small UIC compromise.”
—Maxwell Street foundation board member Alan P. Mamoser in “Requiem for Maxwell Street” http://cowdery.home.netcom.com/maxwell/mamoser.html
“I received a call one day from Steve Balkin, a professor of Economics at Roosevelt University in Chicago. That is how I learned the University of Illinois was threatening to demolish the Maxwell Street neighborhood. Steve was spearheading a group that was trying to save it. He was realistic about their chances. “How would you like to get involved in a losing cause?” he asked me on the phone that day. Implausibly, I said okay.”
—Former Maxwell Street Foundation president Chuck Cowdery, in his 2004 essay “Some thoughts…possibly final–on Maxwell Street” http://cowdery.home.netcom.com/maxfinal.html
Even after the official city market moved to Canal Street, street peddlers and musicians continued to visit their old haunts at Maxwell and Halsted, attracting fans and buyers.
New Market, Older Memories: 2001-
A new upscale shopping and restaurant district stands south of Roosevelt on Halsted now, complete with “no peddling” signs. A half dozen statues and plaques on a remaining half block of the street still called “Maxwell” pay tribute to shoppers, vendors, and performers like Daddy Stovepipe and Chicken Man Casey Jones.
The City re-established the open-air market several blocks east on Canal Street. It was a much smaller venue, with new rules and higher fees which drove away many of the original vendors.
Then in 2007 the City moved the Market once more, from its temporary Canal Street location to Desplaines Street where it remains today, reduced again in size. Recently, vendors battled an increase in vendor fees and insurance requirements to operate there.
Prof. Steve Balkin of Roosevelt University’s letter to Rahm Emanuel in 2011, presenting Maxwell Street market and history as a cultural asset to the city: http://sites.roosevelt.edu/sbalkin/elinks/emanuelletter/
Dancin’ Perkins sings and plays guitar at the market after it was moved to Canal Street, 2006: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wdeRc5vsoS4
In spite of everything, the Market and the spirit of the entrepreneur remains–a Sunday morning mecca for bargain hunters looking for new or used items. The vendors ranks today have been joined by many Latinos, and delicious south-of-the-border food smells waft through the air. The city advertises the New Market at http://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/maxwell_street_market.html