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Gone but Not Forgotten

Phil Ranstrom's Maxwell Street documentary, 13 years in the making

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While Mayor Daley and the city's movers and shakers rally the citizenry behind their campaign to bring the Olympics here in 2016, a documentary by local filmmaker Phil Ranstrom depicts a side of the city that's not likely to win many friends on the International Olympic Committee--unless they like bullies.

Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street, which debuted earlier this month at the Chicago International Documentary Festival, is divided into three parts. The first third tells the history of Maxwell Street as a port of entry for eastern European Jews and black migrants from the south looking to make a buck in the large open-air market that used to run along Halsted from Maxwell Street, two blocks south of Roosevelt, to about 16th Street. The second third tells the tale of the blues musicians who used to play in the market, inventing urban blues, the forerunner of rock 'n' roll. The movie, narrated by Joe Mantegna, features interviews with Buddy Guy, Bo Diddley, Junior Wells, Charlie Musselwhite, and Jimmy Lee Robinson, among others.

In the final section Ranstrom reveals how Mayor Daley and the University of Illinois used clout and connections to displace the area's residents and merchants in favor of block after block of condos and townhomes.

It's a classic Chicago story of urban renewal: move out the poor, tear down the old buildings, then put up housing so expensive the former residents couldn't dream of coming back. If anyone dares to fight back, clamp down to make sure they have no chance.

"You play by the rules and then they change the rules so you can never win," says Ranstrom.

Twice during the 1990s, preservationists led by Roosevelt University economics professor Steve Balkin persuaded the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Panel to recommend landmarking the area, which would have prevented UIC from destroying it. And twice the panel was overruled by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Two of the agency's appointees, Julie Cellini and Carol Stein, had husbands who were developers working with the university on the expansion project.

The First Ward alderman who shuffled the redevelopment and eminent domain plans through the City Council was Ted Mazola. After he left office in 1999 he became president and managing broker of New West Realty, handling condos and town houses in the area.

The city allowed UIC to scrape the area clean of any remnants of its past, and now it looks like any other development in any other town--"Anywhere USA," Ranstrom calls it. Why were Daley and UIC so eager to destroy the old neighborhood? The theories run from the obvious--all the money to be made selling condos and town houses--to my personal favorite, the urban legend that the younger Daley got his butt whomped by some Maxwell Street tough as a kid growing up in Bridgeport and never got over it.

Ranstrom, who began his project in 1994, accumulated more than 100 hours of footage, which he pieced together over the last two years to make the 140-minute movie. He's still searching for a distribution deal to pay off his bills, for now booking the film on the festival circuit.

The destruction of Maxwell Street undercuts the city's efforts to promote Chicago to the Olympic committee as a distinctive city with its own colorful culture. While Olympic boosters circle the globe promoting their vision of a new Chicago, Ranstrom will be showing the world the neighborhoods and traditions the mayor and his allies decimated.

For more on politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagoreader.com.

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