Chicago – Maxwell Street

In the not-so-distant past, these were points on the map marking places where unusual things happened, and where revolutionary ideas were born that changed the lives of ordinary people around the world. The impact of these ideas on our lives was enormous, even though physically their birthplaces were often thousands of kilometres away from our family homes. Yet they became part of our history, shaping our consciousness and identity.

Today, at a time when it is impossible to sort out and catalogue the mass of information assaulting us every day, it seems that certain landmark events and their birthplaces turn out to be unimportant details. One gets the impression that there is no need to remember them. Slowly, the material traces that prove that they ever happened are disappearing. Soon, many historical events will no longer have a physical trace and will only be left as a brief Google search note.

It will not be a tourist hit

The place I want to talk about will certainly not become a mass tourism hit. It will not be crowded and commented on by Facebook or Instagram enthusiasts, for example. Those who do visit it will find it difficult to take a striking ‘selfie’. You cannot buy attractive souvenirs or find Michelin-starred eateries. At most, you can count on a simple Starbucks or a stall with a common hot dog. No one gets excited about visiting these places and no one dissolves in admiration of them on social media.

But does it make sense to visit such a place, already on its way to oblivion and physical destruction? Personally, I think they are worth seeing. When you want to know something in depth, it is important to be physically present at the site. I always amaze myself because when I visit unusual places, I do not very actively photograph and document them. The reason for this is relatively simple. After all, I know that I can find all the facts I need in libraries and on the Internet, and I can buy photographs from photo agencies. During these visits, I am most interested in how the locations relate to other physical reference points. On site, I look for size, and scale, and get to know the surroundings, sounds, colours, temperature, and smells – in other words, I touch on the physical distinguishing features of these special places.

Optimism and vitality

There is a special aura over the place I wish to describe. I don’t look upon them as a depressing symbol of past glories or a bitter testimony to the passing of time. On the contrary, for me, they are a source of optimism. The current state of these places is evidence of what I appreciate most about American civilisation – the optimism and exceptional vitality of the people. This vitality, the unbridled drive for constant change, and the overwhelming urge to realise ideas for a better life are part of a process that does not allow Americans to stop and contemplate the success already achieved. Like classic homines fabrir, they are skilful people, producers, men of action. The American habit, so often criticised in many countries, of rapidly tearing down and building new things on the same site, and thus abandoning attempts to preserve and conserve what is old, is for me an overt demonstration of this vitality and energy. It pushes the country and the people towards exceptional achievements that would be considered by others to be disrespectful of history, a fantasy or a lack of common sense. As early as the mid-19th century, Herman Melville described this phenomenon in his book White Jackett (White Jackett, 1850):

“There are matters in which America should set precedents instead of succumbing to old patterns. As far as possible, we should become teachers of posterity rather than students of past generations. The future brings us more than the past has given us (…)

By mistake, straight into history

I was genuinely embarrassed. After many years of seamlessly travelling the streets of major American cities, what I had done was embarrassing. My plan was so obvious. I was to drive straight down the Dan Ryan Expressway towards the Kennedy Expressway to reach O´Hare Airport without any problems. Relaxed and confident, I savoured the happy ending to another journey. Stopped from time to time in the afternoon traffic, I was able to admire the imposing silhouettes of Chicago’s skyscrapers emerging on the left side of the highway. After a while, however, I decided that something was wrong. The magnificent skyline should actually be visible on the right side of my car, not on the left. I was not going to the airport! On the contrary, I was getting further away from it every minute! My first and only reaction was to immediately get off the motorway and turn back in the intended direction. After a few nervous minutes, I cooled down and decided that perhaps it was a good thing that my arrival at O’Hare would be delayed a little. After all, I still had four hours until departure. I started looking for a place to park and without any problems, I found an uncrowded car park just off the highway, belonging to University Village, or more precisely, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).

After parking my car, I walked out onto a street that, with a few minor adjustments, could have been a copy of a small-town Main Street from the 1960s, or – without any adjustments – a photograph from a real estate agent’s flyer advertising sunny life on a modern university campus. I was surrounded by new, but pretending to be buildings from another era, apartment houses designed for well-to-do students, university employees and wealthy Chicagoans. Elegant cafés and bars were located on the ground floor of the townhouses. There were few passers-by on the pavements, but one could feel the discreet presence of security guards from companies ensuring the safety and tranquillity of the place. I had the irresistible expression that someone had designed this street to recreate the atmosphere of the “good old days”. This was partly successful, with the only caveat being that everything was brand-new, spruced up and combed – exactly like a well-made theatre set.

maxwell Street in Chicago
Someone designed the new Maxwell Street to recreate the atmosphere of the 'good old days', exactly like a well-made theatre set, © Stalmar Publication

Classic déjà vu

It didn’t take long for me to recognise that I was in a special place and, in its own way, one I had known for many years. It was a place that had fascinated me and fractured my imagination for decades to come, from the earliest years of my life. I have carried the image of this place almost all my life, in one way or another, it has appeared in my life many times, but each time for a different reason. For a long time, I did not know what this place was called or where it was situated. It took many years before I made the association that it was about this very small piece of land located on the west side of downtown Chicago. It was with some emotion that I finally landed on the legendary intersection of Halsted and Maxwell Street. My acquaintance with this place had begun decades earlier in my hometown thousands of miles away from Chicago.

Auntie from America

As a child, I always welcomed with joy the postman who brought the postal advice which was the signal that my mother could pick up a parcel from faraway America. The sender of the parcels was my mother’s best friend living in Chicago. And although the contents of these parcels were a great disappointment to me, no one could take away the pleasure of studying the cardboard itself, the postal stickers, the strange symbols and the smell of another world. The aforementioned disappointment in the contents of the parcels was because they contained nothing of interest to a young boy, just a mass of second-hand clothes.

However, the incomprehensible to me the content of the parcel was easily explained. My mother was a fantastically good seamstress and her friend from Chicago was an energetic woman who believed that life offered endless opportunities to do good business. In the parcels sent to my mother came second-hand clothes, all sewn from the best quality fabrics. In the hands of a good seamstress with a keen sense of current fashions, they could be transformed into new dresses, coats and blouses – objects of desire for women in the still-poor Europe of the 1960s.

Mum’s big business was not done, but personal visits from a friend in Chicago, although not frequent, were nevertheless a bright spot in our grey reality. On those days we had a fund-raising cinema, where the best westerns of the time were screened, such as “The Magnificent Seven” and “Rio Bravo”. When we returned from the cinema, the truest American lemon cheesecake and stories about where the clothes sent through the post came from awaited us. And the place was not as boring as the native fabric and haberdashery shops.

Everything - as long as the price is 'right'

According to a visitor from Chicago, it was the most interesting place in the whole city, especially on a Sunday morning. That’s when the proverbial half the city would descend on Maxwell Street to sell dearly or buy cheaply. The new and second-hand goods on display in the shops, on the stands and lining the pavements were cheap, so Maxwell Street really did deserve to be called a commercial paradise – whether the goods came from a factory a few blocks away or from faraway Taiwan or Italy. Chicagoans came here in the same way as you go to the mall today, where everything is cheaper than in the shops and boutiques downtown and where there is a good chance of experiencing good, free entertainment. Here you could always meet interesting people and eat something delicious.

Maxwell Street in Chicago on Sunday
Literally everything was bought and sold here, whether from shopkeepers, door-to-door traders, street stalls or impressive 'saloons', © Cushman Charles Weever, Indiana University, Bloomington.

Literally, every street corner in the Maxwell Street area sold traditional: Polish sausage, pork chops, Vienna Beef, kosher beef, pickles, pickled herring, and entrecote. A must with accompaniments such as grilled onions and warm potato chips. The market was dominated by beef and sausage, but you could still eat exotic tacos, catfish or chicken wings. Some bars selling hot dogs, like the famous “Jim’s Original”, operated 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Not only was excellent food served here. Standing shoulder to shoulder with the sausage sellers were preachers, priests, pastors and haunted prophets of all possible faiths. The market, frequented by crowds of Chicagoans every day, was the perfect place for various clergymen to spread their faith and recruit new believers.

The only survivor of the former Maxwell Street. THE Maxwell Street Polish Hot Dog Stand incredibly crowded with people and cars at 4AM in morning
The only survivor of the former Maxwell Street. THE Maxwell Street Polish Hot Dog Stand incredibly crowded with people and cars at 4AM in morning, ©Alfred Lui, Wikipedia Commons

Miracle City

At the end of the 19th century, Chicago quickly changed its face and transformed itself from a small city located in a swamp to a metropolis of millions giving people jobs and personal freedom. It was described as an economic and civilisational miracle, the centre of a new industrial America and a serious competitor to the previous dominant, New York.

The story of Maxwell Street and its environs is reminiscent of the history of hundreds of similar urban neighbourhoods born in the young American state. Although the street itself and the surrounding quarters already looked like an area aspiring to the infamous status of an urban slum in the 1950s (a fact confirmed by municipal decisions in 1966), the unique history of the neighbourhood has been etched in the consciousness of both Chicagoans and millions of people around the world.

It was a street of working people, those poorer but aspiring to achieve success in life. The fact that poorer people wanted to settle here was no coincidence. Maxwell Street was located on the west bank of the Chicago River. Across the river were numerous railway stations, which formed the continent’s largest railway hub. Thousands of immigrants, from as far away as Europe and the American South arrived here. The proximity of the stations, yet the separation of Maxwell Street from the strict city centre by the river, large timber yards, tracks and railway sidings created a kind of enclave. The street lay close to the city centre, but at the same time was a distinctly segregated part of the city that most of Chicago’s wealthy residents did not know, or did not want to know, existed.

Maxwell Street in Chicago in 50s
The proverbial half the city used to flock to Maxwell Street to sell dear or buy cheap, © The Library of Congress

Not exactly Americans

This was a poor part of town. Its inhabitants did not quite fit the stereotypical image of the “new Americans”. Even in a country as friendly to immigration as the USA, not everyone was expected and welcomed with open arms. “Newcomers” did not fit the desired model of the “good” immigrant, i.e. – a white Protestant, an Anglo-Saxon or a Northern European mix. According to the stereotypes disseminated, only such newcomers were hard-working, responsible and well-mannered.

Most of the newcomers were Jewish or Catholic, coming from southern or eastern Europe. Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were often accused of laziness, irresponsibility and lack of education. The newcomers were seen as an obstacle to the development of the country and a source of destabilisation of the nation. It was argued, for example, that Poles did not want an Irish priest and Irish people did not want to go to German churches. The idea of tolerance, which seemed to be the foundation of the new nation, was said to be under threat because the ‘newcomers’ did not know what it meant, nor did they know how to live in symbiosis with other ethnic groups. This tradition they allegedly did not have in their baggage brought from the old country.

Maxwell Street was different

Qualifying as part of such an undesirable group of immigrants did not make life’s start any easier, but – at least on Maxwell Street -, it did not make it impossible. Maxwell Street became a natural terrain of asylum and a chance to survive, and to do so on its own terms, brought over from the old country. Like many other famous slums (such as New York’s Lower East Side) it was simply needed by the city. Slums retained their ancient role as a refuge for the oppressed. They were an audience for social clashes and tensions between emerging groups, a melting pot where different attitudes to life and customs melded, and a school for the poor. The first significant influx of new residents was linked to the Great Fire of 1871, a fire that – ironically! – broke out a few blocks from Maxwell Street itself. Residents of Chicago’s burned-out neighbourhoods and the incessant influx of immigrants turned their eyes to The Near West Side, particularly the area defined by Maxwell, Jefferson and Halmstad Streets. Prominent among the incoming immigrants was a particularly large group of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe, who lived en masse in simple, small houses that were abandoned by German or Irish tenants.  The movement of Germans and Irish out of the relatively poor Near West Side was a natural movement of people who had already advanced in life and could already afford to live in the ‘better’ northern parts of the city.

The houses they left behind were small, even spartan. In keeping with the fashion of the time, they had simple wooden structures. Over time, their facades created the appearance that we were dealing with solid, brick townhouses. These houses were rebuilt many times. It was almost always a matter of expanding with new commercial space or accommodating new tenants. In 1891, more than 16,000 people lived in the mile-and-a-half-long Maxwell Street, with more than 40 synagogues, churches, cultural institutions, schools and welfare homes at their disposal.

Constant turnover

The massive influx of Jewish immigrants began to transform the entire neighbourhood. One could walk for miles and see only signs and inscriptions in Hebrew or Yiddish, and not hear a single word of English. Nevertheless, because of the intensive commercial contacts with neighbouring ethnic groups, Greeks, Italians, Czechs, and Poles, Maxwell Street managed to create a commercial centre that was able to cater for all needs.

Continuous ethnic and racial changes continued uninterrupted until 1994, which is when the Maxwell Street Market was decommissioned.

As early as the 1920s, the better-off Jews slowly began to move out of Maxwell Street and their homes were occupied by successive groups of new immigrants. This time it was newcomers from the American South and Mexico. At the time of the market’s closure, African Americans were the largest group of residents in the area, and half of all stalls and shops were already owned by Latinos. Although all of the ethnic groups that set the tone on Maxwell Street in the decades that followed had in practice applied the principles of ethnic, racial and social segregation where they lived, their commercial interactions proved to be very intense and took place on the ground that was accepted by all – a marketplace that included Maxwell Street and seven surrounding blocks. The colour that was universally accepted by all was “green” – the colour of the American dollar.

Controlled chaos

In front of their new American homes, newcomers from Russia and Eastern Europe began to erect makeshift outbuildings or usually stalls, which served as shops and service establishments. For those who did not have this option, there was nothing left but door-to-door sales, trading on pavements or using their own bodies as a walking advertising pole and stall in one. The boom in trade, commerce and services of all kinds was so great that as early as 1912 the city authorities had to formally designate, and therefore restrict, the areas of this rapidly growing fair spilling over into Maxwell Street and the surrounding streets. A formal commissioner was even appointed to ensure that the city’s Trade Order Ordinances were respected. The rules set out sounded simple. Trading could take place every day from six o’clock to nine o’clock. The municipal authorities had ambitions to decide on the way stalls were set up, their colours, traffic rules and hygiene in the market area. Usually, life and the personal views of customers and vendors modified these ambitious plans and meant that Maxwell Street functioned throughout the 20th century as a partly – and only partly – controllable chaos.

Original Curt Teich Postcard Donation 1940-49, Wikipiedia Commoms

A glittering trap

In 1939, the MSMA (The Maxwell Street Merchants Association) brought together the owners of 228 shops and 89 door-to-door salesmen In addition to MSMA members, every vacant square metre suitable for commerce was swarming with countless ‘wild tenants’, each of whom wanted to do business. In the 1950s, on an average Sunday, commercial Maxwell Street was transformed into the largest ‘flea market’ in the USA. On such a day, up to 60,000 people would pass through the area – all hoping to do good business.  On Saturdays and Sundays, the area was so crowded that traffic came to a standstill.  Such a huge number of potential customers coming from all over the city was like a magnet even for the more established businesses, which, although they did not want to be associated with the market itself, were keen to invite the more affluent customers into their showrooms. Banks, restaurants, theatres, performance halls and even department stores built their own buildings near Halsted Street and Roosevelt Road.

Maxwell Street Market became a vibrant, energetic shopping street where people came to buy new and second-hand: shoes, hats, clothes, shirts, radios, meat, vegetables and fish. Whole quarters of streets specialised in trading a particular type of goods, for example, furs, home furnishings, electronics, tennis rackets(?!). Literally, everything was bought and sold, whether from shopkeepers, door-to-door traders, street stalls or impressive “salons”. Shops such as Gabriel’s, Smokey Joe’s, Mackevich’s and Robinson’s could occupy up to two thousand square metres of retail space.

Simone de Beauvior, a French writer and philosopher who visited Maxwell Street in the late 1940s, described the place with undisguised affectation:

“Superstitions, science, religion, food, physical and spiritual remedies, rags, silks, popcorn, guitars, radios – what an extraordinary mix of all the civilizations and races that have existed throughout time and space. In the hands of merchants, preachers, and charlatans, the snares sparkle and the street is full of the chatter of thousands of brightly feathered birds.”

maxwell street in Chicago, Black man selling cameras
"Superstitions, science, religion, food, physical and spiritual remedies, rags, silks, popcorn, guitars, radios – what an extraordinary mix of all the civilizations and races that have existed throughout time and space.” © The Library of Congress

A climate of collective madness

Maxwell Street Market was subject to constant transformation. The dominance of African Americans and Mexicans was particularly evident in the last years of its existence, the late 20th century. Koreans took full possession of the second-hand and new electronics trade. Another – and not insignificant – group was made up of people of various provenance who traded in goods of undetermined origin. “The goods often came from suspicious sources. They were pirated copies or stolen from wagons on nearby railway depots. Here they were put up for quick sale and few people asked where they came from, especially if the price was ‘right’.”

On Maxwell Street, in this climate of near-collective madness, ideas were being formed all the time and people were forming who could create unusual things and amaze the world. Already in the early 1940s, the Fox brothers, who were talented tailors originally from Russia, launched a new men’s outfit that became a symbol of the youth culture of the time.

The suits created by the Fox brothers began to become a hallmark of young people manifesting their independence and unconventional lifestyles. As one of the brothers, Harold Fox, who was not only a tailor but also a talented musician, once said: “It came right off the street and out of the ghetto.”

The zoot suit was particularly distinguished by its wide legs, extremely high waist and the broad shoulders of the long jackets. The suit was complemented by eccentric accessories such as feathered hats or long gold-plated chains hanging from the waist to the knees and returning to one of the trouser pockets. The extravagance of these suits aroused exceptional interest in young people, while others were astonished and disgusted.

A special place for working-class America

The fate and face of Maxwell Street were shaped not only by its – imaginative and energetic – inhabitants themselves. The street and its neighbouring quarters lay “dangerously” close to the very centre of Chicago, which was growing in strength as the centre of American capitalism and industrialism. Many of the powerful looked to the Maxwell Street area as a fantastic development asset for the city. The temptation to integrate this enclave with the rest of the city was growing stronger, especially given the exodus of wealthier residents to other parts of Chicago, the declining infrastructure and the disastrous state of the housing stock. For this reason, as early as the mid-1950s, the eastern part of the street was earmarked for demolition. In its place, an expressway – the Dan Ryan Expressway – was to be built. The new urban highway became a physical barrier dividing Maxwell Street in two and causing its still functioning western part to effectively become a dead-end street ending a few hundred metres east of the central intersection with Halmstad Street. The construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway was a painful blow to the local community living here for generations and enjoying an unwritten autonomy. It was a painful blow, but not yet a fatal one.

The decisive attack came as late as 1965 when the city authorities identified the area as the location of the future campus of The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). During the first phase of construction, the plan was to evict 14,000 residents and 800 businesses from the area, most of them belonging to Italian, Greek and Mexican immigrants. What came as an even bigger shock to all the residents and merchants was that only a year later the area was officially declared an urban slum. This was the signal for the start of a ‘clean-up operation’ steered by the city authorities and the UIC (‘keep it clean’). In practice, this meant rapidly demolishing what could be demolished and stopping any renovation work on existing buildings. Houses that still had their old owners were to be bought up by the UIC in the future and faced rapid liquidation.

The fate of this part of the city was effectively sealed. It was to disappear from the face of the earth, despite being a special place in working-class America. For many generations of immigrants, workers, craftsmen, and tradesmen, it was a piece of the city where they could develop the skills they had brought from their old homelands, sometimes thousands of kilometres away from Chicago. In decades past, settling right here was a form of successful escape from the poverty and pogroms of Eastern Europe, from the traumas of the brutal Mexican Revolution or the racist Jim Crow laws in the American South. The Near East Side and Maxwell Street were, for almost 150 years, the proverbial ‘promised land’, a point where people of all races and backgrounds could find their place and survive their first, difficult period of acclimatisation in the big city.

The new immigrants, for whom the Maxwell Street area was often their first American address, stood out for their particular skill and energy in creating their own existence in their new homeland. The recipe for success, however, did not only come from America. Its source was also experience carried over from the old countries. There was no complete assimilation of immigrants in the Maxwell St. area, nor did anyone pretend to be a typical American, as we know from the stereotype of new citizens born in an ethnic melting pot.

Most immigrants arriving in Chicago at the turn of the century obviously had ambitions to be American, but not at the cost of losing their identity. There was no simple or automatic process of becoming a typical American, of fitting in with the dominant culture. This was, and still is, the process of creating a cultural mosaic that takes full advantage of one’s American constitutional right to choose who one wants to be in life as an independent and free individual.

Most of the newcomers were – perhaps – disappointed with the conditions and prospects of life here, but this does not change the fact that some achieved phenomenal success. By the second generation of immigrants, outstanding individuals had already begun to emerge and had established themselves as prominent American entrepreneurs, factory owners, musicians, film producers, judges, politicians, military officers, athletes or gangsters. Maxwell Street was, although anchored at the social bottom, a fantastic platform to begin to realise the ‘American dream’.