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What - or Where - is Maxwell Street?

If you have ever lived or spent time in Chicago you would know the answer to that one!

It is a city street, or, more accurately, WAS one.  

Drive to the 1300 South on Halsted Street today and you'll see a one-block stretch of quaint-looking old buildings housing chic bars and restaurants.  The buildings look old-style Chicago - but, really, they're not.  They were actually constructed in the late-1990's after the real attraction of The Street - The locally-famous Maxwell Street Market - was relocated away from its roots in 1994.

For more than 120 years, daily - but busiest on Sunday - a string of ramshackle shops, and old-school eating establishments (joints, more accurately) lined the street.  The daily bustle of the street was a flea market for all kinds of household goods and services.  Most were procured legally, some, well - the Maxwell Street rule - DON'T ASK!

Each Sunday, during the summertime, there was a fruit and vegetable market just to the south and east.

With shops predominantly run by Eastern European Jewish Immigrants, many whose owners could not find jobs elsewhere due to anti-semitisim and job discrimination in the early part of the last century, the market catered to anyone, from any socio-economic class or religious or ethnic group, looking for a bargain.

Dickering?  It was king here!  On everything from packages of sweat socks, to white wall tires, to cases of toilet paper. 

When you hear two Chicagoans talking negotiating a price on something, and one party comes back too low, you'll often hear the phrase, "What do you think this is - Maxwell Street?" 

Both parties, even today, instantaneously know what that means!

Jim's Hot Dogs, Italian Beef, and Pork Chop Sandwiches, from a permanent stand RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE of Maxwell Street, at Halsted, were legendary.  The Blues Brothers Movie also spotlighted the street - remember Aretha Franklin singing "Respect" from the counter of a coffee shop.  THAT WAS MAXWELL STREET - ALL, NOW, LONG GONE!

I had my first paying job here - when I was only five, in 1961!

My grandfather, a forty-year Maxwell Street veteran and a tailor by trade, earned commission selling modestly-priced (aka, "cheap") suits, in a basement storefront just off Maxwell and Halsted.  When I was a kid, my grandpa made me dress in my cute red blazer, my white shirt and black bow tie, and, of course, my crew cut.

He was a "puller."  Grandpa would stand at the top of the stairs, waiting for men in shabby suits to walk by.  When he spotted one, or two, he would gently "pull" them by the coat sleeve downstairs, to be "fitted" for a brand-new suit.

My job - hold out both of my hands, put a smile on my face, and serve as a coat and hat rack for the prospective customer's overcoat and Fedora while my grandpa measured him up.

This is a true story!  I got 10 cents per sale - 25 cents for over 5 sales each day.  On a good day, I could earn a buck and a half or so!

Well, the old market closed 14 years ago, making way for an expansion of the University of Illinois at Chicago Campus, as well as high-end and mixed-use condos and apartments in the new University Village Neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago.

The entire market - lock, stock, and barrel - moved to Canal Street, just south of Roosevelt Road, to the east.  A lot of the ambiance disappeared with the move, but the market, after a brief transition period, started doing well.

Now, once again, the whole market is on the move, to the 600-1200 Blocks of South Des Plaines Street, just a little to the west of Canal, and closer to the Dan Ryan Expressway.

Why the second move?

Well, as is the case in many Chicago Neighborhoods, the area is "gentrifying."  The new, chic, 21st Century businesses, as well as big-box Target, Kohl's, and Best Buy's, just don't swoon to the idea of being located next to a flea market, even if it is a Legendary Flea Market.

So, the market moves.  But it just won't be the same.

In fact - it never really was, ever since the move from the original, true Maxwell Street!

See Jeff Long's story in last Sunday's Chicago Tribune for more detail, reminiscing, and quotes by a few of the old Maxwell Street vendors, and patrons.


Posted: Wednesday, September 10, 2008 2:14 PM by Dean's Team


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