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Polishing Off Maxwell Street

Steve Balkin carries on a one-man crusade to preserve the last shred of the legendary market.



By Ben Joravsky

It's been two years since the great grassroots coalition of activists, academics, and vendors lost its fight to save the Maxwell Street market, but Steve Balkin refuses to give up.

The Roosevelt University economics professor was at the forefront of the unsuccessful 1994 effort to save the historic open air market, which was situated on 12 square blocks between Roosevelt and 16th Street, Union and Morgan. Now he's waging a second campaign--to preserve the last remaining dozen or so weather-beaten buildings along the two blocks of Maxwell Street itself. If he gets his way, Maxwell Street will become a permanent testament to the Jews, blacks, and Latinos who once peddled their goods there, as well as to the market's many street-corner bluesmen. It's a long shot, since Mayor Daley, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and several influential developers have other intentions for the land.

"I'm not trying to bring back Maxwell Street as it was--I realize that fight's over," says Balkin. "I want to preserve what little we have left as a tourist attraction, as an engine for development, as a fitting tombstone for the Maxwell Street that was."

Balkin's passion is partly personal and partly ideological. His grandfather Nathan, a scrap-metal dealer, used to shop there. "It was recreation for him, a poor man's country club." And when Balkin began visiting the market as a young college professor in the 70s, he saw in it a rough and raw "utopian village, one without fear or racism, where races and religions interact on a friendly level."

It was unpaved and strewn with litter, some peddlers hawked pornographic tapes and stolen goods, and buyers definitely had to beware--hustlers often grabbed them as they walked by.

"I learned how to hawk my wares from the four card table stands piled with boxes of nylons," wrote Ira Berkow, a New York Times columnist who worked on Maxwell Street as a teenager. "Since many of the people on the street were sometimes skeptical of the goods (and sometimes rightly so), we had to try to get their confidence. My best come-on was: 'There's only one hole in these stockings, and that's where you put your foot in.'"

Over time Balkin made himself a specialist on the market, visiting it nearly every weekend and interviewing dozens of vendors, including many ex-convicts who got back on their feet by peddling. When Mayor Daley said he wanted to close the market and sell the land to UIC, Balkin joined the opposition. "I couldn't understand how the city would want to close Maxwell Street while they were going to receive $100 million in federal empowerment zone grants," says Balkin. "It incensed me that the city was closing a real live, naturally occurring empowerment zone to do something untried, unproven, and bureaucratic. If you want to see a real engine of economic development for poor people all you had to do was go to Maxwell Street."

The passionate battle to save the old market was waged in various City Council hearing rooms as dozens of vendors, most of them black or Latino, begged the city to keep Maxwell Street open. In retrospect it's clear that the City Council had no intention of saving the scruffy old market, particularly not when nearby neighborhoods showed signs of gentrification. Originally UIC wanted the land for athletic fields, then claimed to need it for research labs and dormitories. The vendors opposing the university had few rich or politically connected allies, and many business leaders whose grandparents got their start as Maxwell Street peddlers pretended they didn't know the fight was going on. Some of UIC's most radical professors kept quiet, perhaps afraid of alienating campus chieftains.

Balkin wrote Jack Kemp, William Bennett, and other conservative advocates of unfettered capitalism, but they all ignored his pleas for help. One of the most disheartening moments occurred when Danny Solis, a prominent Mexican-American activist, stepped forward to endorse the mayor's plan as Latino vendors hissed and called him "gusano" (worm). (Solis's loyalty paid off two years later when Daley named him to fill an aldermanic vacancy in the 25th Ward.) The final City Council vote to move the market and sell the land to UIC was 40 to 10.

To this day doubts persist as to why the market was closed. UIC officials still say they plan to build housing, research labs, and a performing-arts center on a 30-acre site along and around Halsted just south of Roosevelt Road. The university went so far as to ask developers to submit proposals for consideration, narrowing the applications to two well-connected companies, Stein & Co. and Walsh, Higgins. But neither Stein nor Walsh, Higgins has drawn up specific plans, and there's no start-up money from the city, state, or feds. Much of the old market area west of Halsted remains vacant and unused. "It's a project for down the road," says a UIC insider.

To this day Balkin believes the university was never fully committed to developing the site. "Moving the market was just old-style urban removal or people removal. I believe the impetus came from real estate developers and Mayor Daley, who thought the market was an impediment to upscale development. My sense is that UIC was the dupes--willing dupes, but dupes nonetheless. I mean, they had a hard time coming up with a justification for the change. The city kept saying, we need a place for research labs. But when the Bears stadium proposals came up the first place the mayor wanted it to go was on the old Maxwell Street. I laughed when I heard that. I thought, 'What about those research labs?'"

Balkin says UIC should make the best of the situation by preserving Maxwell Street proper, the little east-west street south of Roosevelt that gave the market its name, and incorporating it into whatever development scheme the university devises. "Our model is Beale Street, which has been turned into a tourist district and is now the biggest tourist draw in Memphis," he says. "The university should fix up the remaining buildings on Maxwell Street. We could have three museums--one for the great Eastern European Jewish immigrant story, a museum of African-American history focusing on the great migration and Maxwell Street as the birthplace of the blues and rock 'n' roll, and a museum on Mexican-American history.

"We could use our great legacy, our tradition, as a lure for tourists, and the real draw could be the blues connection. Maxwell Street's the birthplace of electrified blues, which led to rock 'n' roll," Balkin insists. "Bo Diddley used to play on Maxwell Street. Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter--they all played at Maxwell Street. This could be an important landmark for blues and rock fans around the world."

Balkin appealed for help on the Internet, and now archaeologists, preservationists, music lovers, and historians from all over the world have endorsed his claims for the Maxwell Street market. Nonetheless, he realizes he faces an uphill battle. Locally, his crusade has been slow to catch on, joined only by a relative handful of blues musicians and preservationists such as Piano C. Red, Elliot Zashin, and Lori Grove. Many of Balkin's old allies from '94 are burned out. Others are offended by the notion of turning Maxwell Street into a tourist site. To them it's too Disney-like--better to let the old market die.

To succeed he'll probably need some sort of influential patron, a successful Jewish or black business leader, for instance, someone proud rather than ashamed of his or her humble, working-class roots. Or a famous musician eager to commemorate the cradle of rock 'n' roll. Perhaps would-be supporters--especially rich and powerful ones with something to lose--are reluctant to step forward without Daley's blessing. So far the mayor has taken no position on Balkin's idea, though he plans to expand the new, far smaller flea market the city opened at Canal near Roosevelt, because it's been so successful. "On nice days it draws as many as 20,000 shoppers," says Connie Buscemi of the city's Department of Consumer Services, which oversees the market. "It's become a real family-oriented event, a great tourist attraction."

As for the university, it's cautiously interested in Balkin's suggestion. "Chancellor [David] Broski says he wants to see some kind of memorial to Maxwell Street, so we're at least in agreement with Balkin that Maxwell Street's presence ought to be noted," says John Camper, a UIC spokesman.

In the meantime, Balkin worries he'll lose the race against time. Even if a big development plan never does get off the ground, the old buildings left on Maxwell Street might fall apart for lack of upkeep. Eventually they could give way to condos, town houses, and gated communities like those that surround the rest of UIC, leaving nothing to honor the past but a plaque.

Says Balkin, "One thing that keeps me going is this vision of driving my grandchildren down Halsted Street and pointing to Maxwell Street with the old buildings intact and saying, 'All the things that make you what you are--your roots, the music you listen to--began here.' Wouldn't it be better to see those old buildings than a luxury hotel or a 7-Eleven?" o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Steve Balkin photo by Robert Drea.

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