If you think about Jew business history in Chicago, you must think about Maxwell Street Market. Known for many years as Jew Town, this street was home for many Jewish stands and peddlers. Being an open market, Maxwell Street became home for street commerce and the precursor to the flea market scene in Chicago. People could buy almost anything there, legal and illegal.
Born and raised by Jews, Maxwell Street has never been a place for those with weak hearts. This commercial district, initially populated mostly by Jewish immigrant families, has provided inexpensive shopping and entertainment for thousands of Chicago residents and tourists since 1910. During its early years, one could see how the “pullers” stationed outside stores wouldn’t hesitate to grab customers and steer them to their cars.
For many years, Jew Town attracted thousands of immigrants from many different nationalities, vendors, picturesque local characters and shoppers who came to the market to bargain over the price of food, clothing and household goods. Chicago blues was born in Jew Town, and Jews themselves encouraged musicians to do what they were best at: playing good music with their hearts and souls.
Even though Maxwell Street’s history sounds cheerful and resilient, reality is that it has suffered many changes along the years. It stopped being called Jew Town in the 1970’s and most commerce stopped being held by Jews. Nevertheless, its history is worth being told in this article.
1930’s and 40’s
During these glorious decades, the market used to see 50,000 in foot traffic on a regular Sunday. The smell of traditional Jewish food filled the air, as “pullers” offered their products to, often unprepared, buyers. Vendors would drag buyers to their stands, under the idea of “Cheating them fair”.
The urban electrical sound of the guitars and the deep voices of musicians gave birth to what later would be known as Chicago Blues. Jewish shopkeepers were responsible for encouraging musicians like Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy, Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf to play out front. They would run extension cords from their shops to plug the amplifiers, letting the crowds gather to listen to the music while shopping.
During these decades, Maxwell Street’s customers were Slavic speakers, Germans, Italians, Greeks and Jews. The street was filled with excitement, dozens of languages were spoken while different types of merchandise occupied both streets and sidewalks.
By the 1960s, the University of Illinois moved into Maxwell Street and the buildings started being demolished. The neighborhood changed considerably and the merchandise vendors would sell, was more of the flea market variety – used stuff, antiques and secondhand china and housewares – everything at extremely low prices.
The food changed along with the neighborhood and kosher food started to become a rare product. Since the area was now dominated by Asians, African Americans, and Latino people, the hot dog carts gave way to roasted peanuts, Middle Eastern goods, grilled steak tacos and some interesting spices.
Maybe vendors didn’t get the chance to receive financial advice from someone as professional and experienced as Yosef Meystel, but they were indeed running a profitable business. No matter if they were selling “junk”, the Tribune reported in 1968 that a food street stall in Maxwell Street could profit $15,000 a year, which is equivalent to more than $105.000 dollars today.
New generations of immigrants were taking over businesses. The last Jewish Deli, for instance, was closed in 1972 after being managed for many years by African Americans.
The University of Illinois kept growing and buying every square foot that once belong to Maxwell Street. The street that had been known for many years almost as a foreign institution was displaced by gentrification prior the 1990’s.
By this time, community activists starting petitioning repeatedly to preserve Maxwell Street as a National Historic District. The petitions didn’t succeed.
1990’s – 2000’s
In 1994, finally, the market moved east to Canal Street, displaced by the University of Illinois. Many businesses fell off as nearby stores closed, thanks to urban renewal. Trendy restaurants and student condos erased Maxwell Street’s heritage.
Later in 2008, the market would be relocated again to Desplaines and Roosevelt.
Today the former site of Maxwell Street Market belongs the University Village Marketplace, where a neat multi level parking structure rises surrounded by upscale establishments.
It is fair to say that even when it is sad to see how a part of Chicago’s history was lost to high-level commerce and student residences, Maxwell Street’s infrastructure was not in good shape when the University of Illinois took it. Crime rates were scary and now they are quite good. Plus, what once used to be immigrant vendors has now become immigrant students, and that is actually a positive change.
To read more about Maxwell Street, click here.