It's been over four years since the great Maxwell Street preservation battle ended, and just about everyone agrees that Mayor Daley and the University of Illinois at Chicago got what they wanted. They moved the long-running open-air market off of Halsted. They evicted the poor people who used to live in the area. They tore down almost all of the storefronts and replaced them with new condos and dormitories. "They wiped away the old Maxwell Street," says Steve Balkin, a Roosevelt University economics professor who was part of the fight to save the area. "It's like it never existed."
Yet Maxwell Street lives in ways Daley and the university never imagined. In the last few months a documentary, Maxwell Street: A Living Memory, has come out and two books have been published about the old neighborhood. This month and next musicians and actors will stage several performances of And This Was Free, a new musical about the Maxwell Street market, at various city parks. Activists and archivists are putting together a Maxwell Street museum, in part to house all the artifacts they've collected from the neighborhood. If nothing else, the name will live on as a symbol of bad public policy--at least if Balkin has his way. "They took something irreplaceable and they killed it," he says. "Shame on them."
For many Maxwell Street lovers it's almost too painful to recount the saga of the area's destruction, a story of arrogance, bad judgment, and too much clout. There are actually three Maxwell Streets in the public's mind--the street (two blocks south of Roosevelt), the neighborhood (roughly from Roosevelt to 16th along Halsted), and the open-air market. For over 100 years the neighborhood was a port of entry for immigrants and migrants, Jews, blacks, and Hispanics. It was one of the birthplaces of modern electric blues, a gathering spot for musicians playing on the corner. On Sundays the neighborhood was taken over by the giant market that stretched along Halsted from Roosevelt to 16th and up and down the side streets, where people could buy everything from clothes to scrap for cheap. But by the early 90s the university had announced plans for expansion into the area, which is just east and south of UIC's main campus. The first big fight came in 1994, when Daley closed the open-air market and moved it to Canal Street between Taylor and 16th. By then the university had published plans to tear down most of the buildings.
A coalition of professors, musicians, and community activists rallied to save the neighborhood, battling the university, the city, and the state. For over eight years they argued that Maxwell Street had too much historical importance to be plowed over. "Maxwell Street is an icon of the urban experience," says Elliot Zashin, a member of the coalition. "How can you destroy an icon?"
Twice they persuaded the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Panel to recommend landmarking the area, which would have prevented the university from razing it. And twice the panel was overruled by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Two members of the agency were Julie Cellini and Carol Stein, whose husbands, William Cellini and Richard Stein, were developers working with the university on the expansion project.
In retrospect, destroying Maxwell Street may be one of the dumbest planning decisions of the current Daley era--and there are many contenders. The neighborhood was an internationally recognized landmark. Tourists flocked from all over to check out the street musicians, eat the hot dogs, and dicker with the peddlers. "The old Maxwell Street was instantly recognizable," says Lori Grove, an archivist who fought to save the area. "If you saw an old picture you knew it was Maxwell Street by the two-story commercial buildings and the sheds. Who else had street sheds? What amazed me is that it had gone on for almost a full century. The market and the community were self-perpetuating. Then they destroyed it. Unbelievable."
The new streetscape bears no resemblance to the old one. It's as though a piece of Schaumburg had been sliced off and dumped on the south side. Not that there's anything wrong with Schaumburg. But why re-create a suburb on an urban corner, destroying what makes the city unique? The storefronts have been replaced with the blandest of big, blocky brick buildings. Even the eight old structures remaining look out of place. There's no color or dash on the block, no characters on the corner. There's a Caribou Coffee where Nate's Deli once stood. Across the street is a Jamba Juice. The city's even posted no-peddling signs--there's one right next to the street signs that read Maxwell and Halsted. They might as well have posted a billboard saying poor people stay out.
"I suppose you can't blame the institutional mind-set of UIC--they just wanted to expand," says Laura Kamedulski, one of the leaders of the group Save Maxwell Street. "It's disappointing that no one had the foresight to combine what they had with what they want."
There's a lesson here. Too much power enables people to do stupid things. No alderman had the guts to stand up to Daley. No mainstream Jewish organization spoke up, even though a crucial part of Jewish history in Chicago was destroyed. Hispanic politicians remained silent, even though many Hispanic peddlers were thrown out of work. Black leaders from the west side stayed away, as though the issue had nothing to do with them. A few mainstream preservationist groups wrote letters of support, but when the battle got tough they cut and ran.
"Mayor Daley preserves what he relates to--like the bungalows," says Balkin. "I don't think Mayor Daley relates to the working-class urban culture of Maxwell Street. Daley likes to think of Chicago as his dining room table. He likes a white tablecloth with flowers in the middle--very orderly. He likes trees, but only in a row. If things are growing wild and he can't control them, he doesn't like that. Thinking about it, I guess we never had a chance."
The fight to save the community is recalled in And This Was Free, which is based on the first-person accounts in Ira Berkow's classic book Maxwell Street: Survival in a Bazaar. Featuring Maxwell Street blues musicians such as James "Piano C. Red" Wheeler, Mr. H, and Bobby Davis, the musical tries to re-create the "sights and sounds of the historic Maxwell Street Market," according to a promotional flyer. "Try to resist the pitchmen and pullers! Hear how immigrants and migrants overcame the hardship of life in Chicago! See the authentic Blues Heritage Bus, a Maxwell Street icon! Eat a delicious Vienna Beef hot dog or Polish!" The next performances will be July 16 through 18 at the Garfield Park Conservatory; for information call 773-638-1766, ext. 20, or see www.maxwellstreet.org.
Many of the activists, including Balkin, who rallied to save Maxwell Street are now working on the Maxwell Street museum project. They have thousands of remnants, including terra-cotta from old buildings, signs, posters, and knickknacks from the old market. "Most of it is stored in various basements," says Zashin, a member of the museum's board of advisers. "We need to put it somewhere."
Over the next few months they'll be scouting a location and writing a mission statement. "We want the museum to be more than a receptacle of artifacts," says Zashin. "You have to define a mission that gives a rationale to remember Maxwell Street. One of those is to link the Maxwell Street experience with contemporary experiences. There's so much about Maxwell Street that's worth remembering. It wasn't all pretty and it wasn't all legal and it wasn't all of historical import. But it was very authentic, and we want to make it relevant."
So Long, Sweet Caroline
For 15 years Caroline Shoenberger was the commissioner of the Department of Consumer Services. And for most of that time, Steve Wiedersberg was needling her. They were unlikely combatants. She was a lawyer, fluent in three languages (French, Spanish, and English), closely connected to Mayor Daley. Wiedersberg's a south-side cabbie who looks like Jesse Ventura and talks trash like Don King. His battle with Shoenberger wasn't personal, he says. It's just that under her reign the city raised the cost and aggravation of driving a cab by instituting too many rules and issuing too many tickets--at least that's how he sees it.
In fairness to Shoenberger, many people--particularly the mayor--thought she did a marvelous job as commissioner. Wiedersberg was never convinced. His friends advised him to stop taking potshots at her. But he's one of the rare birds in Chicago politics who says what he wants regardless of whom it might offend. So on and on he went for the last decade or so. Reporters always knew they could depend on him for a good quote about "Sweet Caroline."
"Our fight was like Ali and Frazier. I'm Ali and she's Frazier," Wiedersberg says. "She made the Wicked Witch of the West look like Mother Teresa. She just ruled over us with an iron fist. Instead of offering the olive branch, she offered us a billy club. Most of her rules were silly: thou shall not do this, thou shall not do that, thou shall not take the name of the commissioner in vain. Her favorite thing was to tell us she was an attorney. At a meeting with some cabdrivers she told us, 'I've been an attorney for 20 years'--like everybody else is stupid. So I said, 'Now that we established you're an attorney, I want to know: Are you a better attorney than your boss?' You know, Daley had trouble passing the bar. Man, she turned green--like the Incredible Hulk. She said, 'You can leave now,' and she kicked me out of the room."
Wiedersberg figured he'd be battling Shoenberger for the rest of his cabdriving career. But in March she took early retirement, leaving him without his favorite foil. In her wake, Wiedersberg did the unimaginable: he paid a courtesy call on Norma Reyes, Shoenberger's successor. "I called [Reyes] up and talked to her assistant and came on in for a meeting--nothing to it," he says. "Basically, I was there to protest that new rule making [cabbies] take credit cards. I said, 'It's nice that we have a kinder, more gentle administration.' She smiled and offered me something to drink. I had a Pepsi and she had an orange soda. We made a toast to a better relationship. She said, 'There will be times we disagree, but we don't have to be enemies.' I agree. I'm not an obstructionist. I'm a person who stands for justice--not just us. I said, 'Amen to that.' Let's see how long it lasts."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.