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The Lost Culture of Maxwell Street

Chapter 8 in the 2017 book: Being and Homelessness: Notes from an Underground Artist: “The Lost Culture of Maxwell Street” by John H. Sibley

It was an icy-cold Sunday afternoon in January as I devoured one of Jim’s Original Polish Sausages. The pungent open-air odor of grilled food wafted past my nostrils as hot onions, jalapeno peppers, and pitch-forked French fries clung to my mouth like blood-sucking leeches.

I thought about my beloved Uncle Miles Malone, who was born in 1908 in Greenwood, Mississippi. He moved to Chicago in 1924 at age 16 with 120,000 other black Southern immigrants seeking racial justice, better jobs, and a chance to improve their children’s lives. Frightened of the huge exodus, the Chicago Tribune expressed its concern with headlines like DARKIES FROM DIXIE SWARM TO THE CITY.” The newspaper urged in blunt language, BLACK MEN, STAY SOUTH.

Uncle Miles (lower right) in his Sunday best at Maxwell Street, 1959.
– Collage illustration by John Sibley

Uncle Miles, like thousands of other migrants, ignored the Tribune’s headlines and attended Crane High School. He received a certificate in masonry and became an amateur boxer and a policy runner on the Westside. Miles worked 29 years as a steelworker and five years as a policeman, store owner, and hustler. He married Easter CootWilson and loved his pork chops and whiskey as much as his wife.

Miles said he met Stefanovic, the owner of Jim’s Original when he used to shine shoes with Sol, the Shoeshine Man.He relished talking about how he once shined Al ScarfaceCapone shoes and those of his brother, Ralph.

He said a lot of mobsters shopped and got their shoes shined in Jew Townlike Sam MooneyGiancana, Frank Costello, Meyer Lansky, Jake Greasy ThumbGuzik, Frank Nitti, Tony Accardo, and Fat Leonard Califano. He said Capone would tip him $8, which was a huge amount of money back then.

I was a policy runner for Big Jim Martin, the policy king on Chicago’s Westside. It was my job to take down the numbers fromplayers and their bets, and take them to the policy banker. Back then, you could play for a nickel or a dime. And in a year Big Jim Martin would easily take in two million. Some of the major black players back then were the Jones Brothers on the Southside. But it was Teddy Roe, Ed Jonesprodigy, who worked as a bookkeeper and was part of their policy operation, whom I admired most. I remember one night I was on the Westside at the Boogie-Woogie Bar on Roosevelt near Paulina with a standing room only crowd to see Nat King Cole. Teddy Roe grabbed Sam Giancana like a bull and threatened to kill him over something he said. Teddy had grabbed the most ruthless, sadistic psychopath of the outfit who had more than 20 murders under his belt. Giancana was born in 1908, the same year I was born. But he had never met a black gangster like Teddy Roe. He was our Robin Hood in the black community. He was worshiped. He was a Policy King and controlled all the gambling between Roosevelt and Halsted Street. He was loved because he didn’t take any shit from the white mob. Teddy Roe would never punk out or turn down a fight. He was a fighter, a warrior. I once shook his hand and he told me he heard I was a good amateur boxer. Roe gunned down Giancana’s assassin, Fat Lenny Califano, and wounded Leonard NeedlesGignola in a gunfight on the Southside. On August 4, 1952, Roe was gunned down outside his home at 5239 Michigan by two white mobsters. I was one of the 50,000 people at his funeral.”

I lived with my Uncle Miles and great-grandmother, Lula Malone, in a townhouse on Blue Island Avenue. Uncle Miles died on December 28, 1997, 45 years after his idol Teddy Roe, 20 years after Howlin’ Wolf, and three years after the city shut down his beloved Maxwell Street.

When I was a boy, Uncle Miles would take me to Maxwell Street with him every Sunday, where he would sell two-wheeled, metallic refurbished shopping carts. He would always refer to the neighborhood — centered on Halsted Street and Roosevelt Road bounded by Harrison Street on the East and Racine Avenue on the West — as Jew Town. Bluesman Jimmie Lee Robinson says that Maxwell Street in the old days was known respectfully as Jew Town.

He also called it the Holy Cityand the Lost City.Uncle Miles loved to read history and said it was a Lost City like those of Great Zimbabwe, Teotihuacan, and Angkor. And like the ancient Minoan city of Knossos, the legendary Troy and Petra, City of Tombs.

Uncle Miles viewed Maxwell Street as a modern Blues Capital of the World, whose open-air market was its beating heart. Some viewed it like a mental asylum, a shrine for the marginalized, a cathedral for blues people, an outdoor circus for the Delta Blues — a city that soon would be toppled into the worlds vast cultural graveyard.

This city was populated every Saturday and Sunday by vagabonds, cripples, pimps, bluesmen, and the Egyptian Cobras, who were a gang whose turf ended at Maxwell Street. Artists, gypsies, fugitives, sluts, professors, mobsters, scientists, voodoo priests, and giant mutant rats lived here.

In 1912 the City Council formally certified Maxwell Street as an official open-air market. Thousands each Saturday and Sunday would come in droves to the blues city, like compass needles pointing toward a lodestone — a place where anything you could buy was for sale.

At its peak, it attracted 20,000 visitors each Sunday and helped furnish a living for 1,000 vendors. Maxwell Street and its surrounding Halsted-Roosevelt neighborhood, from the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, has been a port of entry for immigrants and migrants, including French, Irish, German, Bohemian, Jewish, Italian, Mexican, African-American, and Gypsies.

If you want to be a great artist, son [Uncle Miles always called me son], you must learn to smell, touch, hear, and feel the divine,Uncle Miles whispered. You must endure suffering, pain, and rejection. That’s what the ‘bluesmen’ on Maxwell mean to me.”

Even at an early age, I realized the vibrant beauty of the city. After so many years I now only recall the myth, the memory and blues- suffused-karmic sacredness of that lost culture. The people of Maxwell Street worshiped Blues Godsor man-gods with names like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King. These man-gods created a sound that cracked our temporal world and transported us to a music netherworld. This world disengages the body from mind into a world of joy, ecstasy, and transcendence.

I think that author, Ted Gioia, sums it up brilliantly in his book Delta Blues: Blame it on Pythagoras if you want. Western thinking on music was developed by scientists and philosophers, starting with Pythagoras and continuing with Ptolemy, Boethius, and others, who sought quantitative explanations for the art of plucking strings and doing what in Africa remained a matter of feeling became in the west, an area for thinking and counting. The profound difference impacts not just the structural basis of the two approaches to music, but even more the human element. To this day, the path to musicianship in the West builds from interaction with pieces of paper — written scores, lessons, songs to learn — driven by pedagogical systemsmethodologies and arcane disciplines, scales, exercises, and the like. The African’s achievement pointed to a weakness at the heart of the European system, an area of musical expression that eluded its grip. The bent notes, the supreme inflections, the slipping, sliding tones and rule-breaking rhythms defied Pythagoras and heirs, refused to be squeezed into the four- four-boxes, stacked on high, of Western music. Music had by-passed mathematics and returned to an elite ethos of emotional immediacy and unmediated doing.

As I washed down the Polish with a grape pop, I glanced at my watch and patiently waited for Roosevelt Economics Professor Steve Balkin, Vice President of the Historic Preservation Coalition of Maxwell Street. He contacted me because of a nostalgic piece that I wrote in New City, a free Chicago weekly, about Maxwell Street. Steve suggested that he take me on a tour to show me the historic marketplace that soon would be demolished by the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).

After waiting for a while, I walked half a block down a deserted street and gazed at a cloudy, sorrowful and disheveled sky. It cast graven shadows down upon a street that once was seething with existence. Now, it’s as silent as slain rats rotting belly-up in the noonday sun. Its street culture once was the birthplace of the cryin’ strings of electrified blues: a mode of being-in-the-world based on a blues epistemology of feeling the world intuitively, but with participation.

To quote Associate Professor of Anthropology at UIC Michael Dietler’s appeal letter to Katherine Stevenson of the National Park Service: It is astonishing to me that the University of Illinois at Chicago still does not recognize the historical treasure that lies in its backyard. Maxwell Street is not just another quaint neighborhood for which a few people have a certain sentimental regard. It is a uniquely important landmark in the history of music and in the history of Chicago, and the blues constitutes Chicago’sgreatest claim to international fame.

As I walked farther down the street, a sign read: “No Trespassing. UIC Property.” The sign was like a cross at a cemetery.

I saw parked bulldozers, bobcats, cranes, scrapers, and excavators that reminded me of Sherman Tanks in Nam with blood splattered on their mucous-green exoskeletons.

I kneeled down and grabbed a handful of crushed mortar, concrete, and dirt, wondering if there were secrets buried in my hand from the ruins of a demolished blues city whose coup de grace was delivered by Chicago’s City Council in 1994 with the blessing of Mayor Daley, who despised Maxwell Street.

An undefinable gloom seemed to claw at me. It was as if the spirits of dead bluesmen and their buried consciousness were warning me about the avalanche of mortar, brick, concrete, and steel that would soon demolish the city. This city soon would be pillaged, smothered, and trampled upon.

Smoke and dust particles danced in shafts of orange sunset rays as it shone on the front windows of buildings that would soon be destroyed.

Graffiti on one of the buildings read: “Maxwell Street is doomed by the three C’s: Capital, Christianity, and Color!”

The wind gusted and beer cans, plastic bags, napkins, all snaked across the sidewalk. Were the mayor and city power brokersdestroying the site of the world’s most brilliant blues culture in order to drive a wedge between the blues and the concrete and steel of modernity?

Was urban renewal merely a guise for driving that wedge between the blues-as-a-mode-of-being-in-the-world that opens a hidden door to reveal a universe outside our range?

The idea of linear Chronology is itself perfectly modern.’ It is once part of Christianity, Cartesianism and Jacobinism,said Jean- Francois Lyotard.

For hundreds of years, an open-air market has co-existed with the prestigious Cambridge University in Cambridge, England. Why not in Chicago, instead of burying its blues legacy under concrete and steel for student housing and parking lots? How much more impressive would it have been to create a Blues Museum out of one of the storefronts?

On Maxwell Street, unlike other lost cultures, there will be no excavations for diamonds, bronze, silver, gold, basalt, obsidian, or jade. But, fortunately, people from all over the world will listen to the Chicago Bluesseeking to probe its Maxwell Street genesis and visit its spiritual dimension via CDs, albums, books, the Internet, movies, and documentaries. Music can transform people and transmute them into a higher spiritual realm, just as the medieval alchemist tried to transmute base metals into gold.

We were all down there,guitarist Hound Dog Taylor says. Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers were all in Jew Town. I’m tellin’ you Jew Town was jumpin’ like a champ, jumpin’ like mad on Sunday morning. And I had the biggest crowd there was in Jew Town. All the cats would beat me playin. But I would, you know, put on a pretty good show.

Years ago, I used to do portraits and caricatures on Maxwell Street on Sundays, not just for the money, but to be drenched in the spontaneous energy of the wah wah wang of the screeching moans of the blues guitarists.

“I was at Howlin’ Wolf’s funeral. His real name was Chester Burnett,Uncle Miles said with pride. I even remember the day he died: January 10th, 1976. It was a sad day for Chicago and the world. I used to watch him play on Maxwell. Oh, how that man could sing. I should say howl. He had a voice that could wake the dead. It was like hearing the roar and crackle of thunder. His voice was like the wrath of nature. He was a giant of a man, 6 feet 6 inches, and at least 300 pounds. I use to get shivers and goosebumps listening to him. Of all the bluesmen, I think Howlin’ Wolf was the most powerful. I was only one of the 10,000 who viewed his body on that icy cold, January day.”

I understood Uncle Milesfeelings because when I first heard a recording of Little Red Roosteryears later it sent cold chills down my spine. It was like listening to the lupine howl of a wolf on a night with a full moon. His barking, howls, squeals, and shouts were like a Wildean hero; it was as if he was actually lying in the gutter, but howling at the stars.

Anyone listening to Howlin’ Wolf’s powerful voice would readily believe he was a medium; an oracle whom dead slaves used as a vehicle to show the pain, suffering, anguish, and dread of slavery.

Howlin’ Wolf was from the “Deltawhere some of the first slaves arrived in Mississippi in the 1830s, bringing with them an African oral tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation. I think it’s fair to postulate that the Mississippi Delta is the birthplace of blues culture.

The molo of Senegal, a one-string instrument, is the equivalent of the guitar and banjo in the Western Hemisphere. Howlin’ Wolf, along with most of the Delta Bluesmen, learned to play the guitar by nailing a broom string on the side of a shanty and plucking it as Kristen Lippincott states in The Story of Time, For example, melodic intervals could be described as ratios, which were calculated by holding down the string of monochord with one finger. The musical ratiobetween two different notes was created when the string, plucked on either side of the finger, corresponded to the ratio of the relative lengths of the string itself. In practice this was a refinement of Pythagoras’ observation of the effects of striking an anvil with different sizes of hammers, thus producing different pitches that could be in sequence.

I remember when Uncle Miles and I experienced history together while listening to a blues band. I even remember the motes of desiccated particles of cigarettes, cigars, and reefer floating in the air. I remember trying to capture in my sketchbook the ethereal light on their Delta black skin, which reflected an orange-yellow sheen from the noonday sun on their faces like wet rain on a newly tarred street. They all wore hats at rakishly sharp angles on their heads — being cool, the group used a standard twelve-bar blues structure as they tuned-up their instruments.

Uncle Miles smiled and patted me on the back proudly as he looked at my sketches of them. We both stood there transfixed. Frozen. We were outside on the pavement not inside a lounge, studio, or club — not at Chess Records on South Michigan Avenue where Mick Jagger and Keith Richards paid homage to Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon — but on a garbage-littered street.

I did not realize, at 15 years of age, that I was witnessing blues history in the making. That we were listening to The 1964 Live, on Maxwell Street recording.

“That’s Robert Nighthawk, the master of the slide guitar up there, son!Uncle Miles whispered.

The crowd moved to sonic waves of his slide guitar as blinding sunlight beamed on it, making like a star in a supernova. Sound bent around corners, changing vectors after clanging off the metallic, market goods.

He grasped the guitar by the neck and plucked the strings of the guitar body like it was a woman whom he loved passionately. The crowd started to move like a tack to a magnet. They moved to the hypnotic sound like lemmings to a cliff leaping to their deaths. Like beached whales on a California beach.

All were driven by some unfathomable primal energy like gravity acting on a planet lightyears away. Like protons exerting a repulsive force on each other. Scientists are still bewildered about how primal energy interacts.

While I sketched the band, listening to the music was like standing on an El-Train platform noticing the lowering of the pitch of the trains whistle as it speeds past you. The wavelength of the sound that you hear is a little higher as it approaches and a little lower as it moves away in a phenomenon that is called the Doppler Effect. It allows us to measure the rate of motion toward or away from us.

Listening to Nighthawk and his band was like two trains: one coming toward you and the other fading away in distance.

Suddenly, seagulls whirled above us and swooped down around our feet, pecking at garbage. Uncle Miles called them flying rats. A nanosecond later, pigeon crap had splattered on his coat sleeve.

Only on the streets of Rome in the 1600s did art finally become that portable, bartered object of our longing, the sport of hawkers and the furniture of the bourgeoisie.” — Culture and Trash.

As an artist, I viewed Maxwell Street as a place in Rome where a rebel artist like Marisi de Caravaggio would sell tiny oil still-lifes. Caravaggio, who was born in 1571, influenced generations of artists with his chiaroscuro technique. He lived in the underground of Rome. He was a street artist. A brawler. A murderer: he killed a man over a tennis match and had to flee Rome. Howlin’ Wolf had to flee the Delta after killing a man.

The models that Caravaggio used for his paintings were reflections of him: outcasts, rejects, robbers, musicians, grave robbers, actors, and alchemists who existed on the fringes of society. He painted them as saints, angels, prophets, Mary, and even Jesus. The female model in his Death of a Virginis a bloated female corpse he hauled to his studio who had drowned, which is why she looks pregnant in the painting.

Caravaggio would have felt at home at the Maxwell Street Market. The way his talent evolved is strikingly similar to the apprenticeship of blues artists. Caravaggio was 13 years old, a young boy, when he started his mentoring with Simone Peterzano in Milan in 1584.

Muddy Waters got his first guitar, a used Stella, at 17. Bo Diddley mastered the harmonica at 15. The harmonica wizard, Little Walter, acquired the instrument at age eight. Willie Dixon, a lyrical genius at 17, wrote the most popular songs of the Chicago blues “Little Red Rooster,” “Wang Dang Doodle,” made famous by Koko Taylor.

When University of Illinois students listen in their new condo dorms to English rock groups like the Rolling Stones, Cream, Led Zeppelin, the Animals, the Manish Boys, David Bowie, Johnny Winter, Bob Dylan and the Yardbirds, I hope someone reminds them that Eric Clapton studied Muddy Water’s recording, and felt that a major breakthrough in his guitar playing came when he could imitate part of the blues man’s Honey Bee. He also asked Howlin’ Wolf to show the band how he played a guitar lick on “Little Red Rooster” and many others who tried to pluck and duplicate notes created by the Maxwell Street bluesman.

It is critically important that they realize their dorms were built upon the cradle of Chicago’s most influential musical contribution to the world’s culture.

Music did bring me to the gutter. It brought me to sleep on the levee of the Mississippi River, on cobblestones, broke and hungry. And if you’ve ever slept on cobblestone or had nowhere to sleep, you can understand why I began [The St. Louis Blues] with ‘I hate to see the evening sun go down,’” said W.C. Handy.

As we started to walk west toward my grandmother’s townhouse on Blue Island Avenue, I could see the rising steeples of the 18th– century Baroque facade of the historic St. Francis of Assisi Church as golden orange sunrays beamed through cumulus clouds, illuminating the church like a sacred altar.

As we passed Nate’s Delicatessen, a woman hollered at us, Miles! Miles!

We looked around as a beautiful Romanian woman walked toward us. Her dark, lupine eyes were hypnotic. Exotic. Alluring. Her black hair glistened like silk in the sunshine. She was tall and elegant with a long gazelle’s neck. She was dressed in all black. A pink shawl whipped around her shoulders. An aura seemed to glow from her. I felt an eerie palpable force as she neared us. Dread swept over me like a wet sheet.

She is a Gypsy woman,Uncle Miles whispered.

Miles, I want to buy a cart from you. How much?she asked in a thick Eastern European accent.

Eight dollars for you, Annie.

Lets go to my store and I will give you the money. And who is this handsome young man with you, Miles?

My nephew, John Sibley. He is a young artist.

I nodded my head shyly and was so awestruck by her beauty that I just smiled and gazed at her.

As we neared her storefront on Union Avenue, Uncle Miles told me to wait outside as he walked up a few stairs, carrying a cart, to enter the store.

Two Gypsy girls, my age, sat smiling at me at a table in front of the store selling scented votive candles, crystal balls, incense, magic lanterns, Mojo cream, Loa Lotion, Red Devil dream books, John the Conquer Lucky Root, good luck charms, and cheap jewelry.

Gypsies lived all down Union Street. It was a community. A village. The faint scent of incense, the odors of their food, and the sound of their thick foreign accents blanketed the street.

Thanks, Annie,Uncle Miles said as he walked out of the store and we headed home.

Annie is a fortune teller, son. She says that one day you are going to be a famous man,he laughed. She said the same thing about me years ago. But alcohol, gambling, and women killed my dream of becoming a professional boxer. Remember, son, don’t let nobody or anything kill your dream!

It is the bluesman who embodies the sub-cultural or folk attitude. It is not printed music that reveals it as the profound reality, nor a university, nor as something learned, but it is passed on as a secret blood rite.UIC, in its zest to destroy Maxwell Street, cannot tell us what Lifeis. As Richard Wright wrote, “Twentieth-century rationalism and technology, for all their material advantages, leave much to be desired in the realm of emotional and spiritual values.”

About the Author

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John H. Sibley was born in Chicago and also lived in Robbins, Illinois and Aurora, Illinois. After graduating from Dwight D. Eisenhower High School in Blue Island, Illinois, (he is a hall of famer) he studied at the American Academy of Arts in Chicago. After studying there for a year he enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1968, during the bloody Tet Offensive during the Vietnam era, and served two years at Osan Air Force Base in Korea. Upon his discharge, he enrolled at Kennedy and King College on Chicago’s Southside. After failing to live off his art, he became a homeless-existential artist on Chicago’s mean streets for 6 months. After getting hired by a high tech acoustic company, he married and worked for 27 years raising his family. He also briefly worked as a substitute teacher. He has two daughters, a son, and two grandchildren. Now retired, he continues to pursue his passion of painting and writing full time.

To see Sibley’s art please visit:

http://www.artworkarchive.com/artwork/john-sibley

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For other books by Sibley please visit:

 

 

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  1. Abdou SAMB |

    Hello United States, hello world
    I once again reiterate a vibrant tribute to my friend, my brother Mr. John Sibley. .here where I am in West Africa, in Senegal in the city of Dakar, we give a lot of respect to the elders because they hold the history as they learned it from their fathers and their father to our grand- fathers. .that is why I would very much like to do a project like that in the city of Saint-Louis in Senegal. May the youth of Chicago, of America discover your free. Thank you, I always wish you the best! .

  2. Stanley Kincaid |

    : ” I think the article is brilliant”.

  3. Professor Steve Balkin |

    I remember visiting with John Sibley in the old Maxwell Street neighborhood in the 1990s when he was exploring how to capture the historical feeling of Maxwell St. through painting and drawing. While immersed in intellectual learning, he could still relate to the working class strugglers of immigrants and minorities. This shows in his writings about observations of society and the world, in his autobiographical work and science fiction. While I am not blood related to his family, I feel that, through the love of Maxwell St., his Uncle Miles is also my Uncle Miles. – Steve Balkin, Professor Emeritus, Roosevelt University

  4. Bonni McKeown |

    Thank you John Sibley for portraying the spirit of Maxwell Street in a way no one else has. Your art is cool too.

  5. Peter Pero |

    I believe John Sibley has writing talent as reflected in his worldly and erstwhile chapter on “maxwell street” and beyond. I hear echoes of Richard Wright and Nelson Algren in Sibley’s story. John is a favorite son of the Near Westside.

    1. John Sibley |

      Thanks Author Pero to mention my name with Richard Wright and Algren is the ultimate compliment.

  6. Laura Kamedulski |

    A great piece of writing and an evocative piece of artwork! I enjoyed your description of listening to Robert Nighthawk’s music in person. And how your uncle described Maxwell Street as a “Lost City.” Yes, that primal energy of the old Maxwell Street – my first experience of it was in the 1990s when it was already being heavily chipped away by all of the forces at play to take the land, and it was still magnificent in that regard, even as a sliver or shadow of what it was!

  7. Emily Ross-Brown |

    Evocatively and poignantly written. Especially this paragraph, which made me both weep and smile: “After waiting for a while, I walked half a block down a deserted street and gazed at a cloudy, sorrowful and disheveled sky. It cast graven shadows down upon a street that once was seething with existence. Now, it’s as silent as slain rats rotting belly-up in the noonday sun. Its street culture once was the birthplace of the cryin’ strings of electrified blues: a mode of being-in-the-world based on a blues epistemology of feeling the world intuitively, but with participation.”
    Thank you John!

  8. Tom Coogan |

    A wonderful article! I was not a frequent visitor to Maxwell Street when I was growing up in the 1950’s & 60’s., but I do remember how fascinating it was to just wander around there. Your writing is very evocative. I was reminded about playing the numbers during the summers in 1966 & 1967 when I was loading freight on the midnight shift at RR Donnelly’s at State &22nd Street. My co-workers were great teachers. Thanks for sharing your amazing memories.

  9. Lisa Sachs |

    I enjoyed John Sibley’s reminiscences of his trips to Maxwell Street. His trips with his Uncle Miles Malone sounded like a real blast. They could have a hotdog, hear great jazz, and find great bargains too. I didn’t live in Chicago at that time and didn’t have the fun of going to Maxwell Street to hunt for bargain treasures. My mom was one of the great bargain hunters but in New York, that meant going to Klein’s and picking over the same rack or table for hours until one found the one thing that was marked down to a tenth the price. John obviously had a much better time on Maxwell Street. His article made me wish I could go there.

  10. Britt Sibley |

    Wonderful work! Thank you for the background on Maxwell St in Chicago, IL as they still have the best street food, I have ever tried…I look forward to reading more great works from you, God bless and Lord Almighty speed. What a wonderful artist and great writing, DNA MATTERS! – Love your daughter Britt Temple PEACE!