When it can’t remember yesterday, a country forgets what it once wanted to be.
For several years after my parents arrived in Chicago from Cuba, they shopped at discount stores out of necessity. On Sunday afternoons we drove all over the city in search of low prices. This was back in the early 1960s. I was a young child and what I didn’t understand was my father enjoyed looking for bargains. He took his time, talked to the shopkeepers, gave them advice and watched other customers.
After he passed the state medical boards, my father continued to shop for bargains. One of his haunts was the Maxwell Street neighborhood. Not the Sunday street market; rather, he’d make a detour over to the stores on Roosevelt and Halsted between his weekday morning hospital rounds and afternoon office hours.
One thing you should know about my father: he was a colorful dresser. He never, in any weather, left the house without a hat. “Mira,” he’d say as he showed us the shirt, hat or pair of shoes he purchased at a store in the Maxwell Street neighborhood, “igualito a Marshall Field.” Look, the same as Marshall Field’s.
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Unfortunately Maxwell Street doesn’t have a market anymore, but at least there’s the Chicago-produced documentary Cheat You Fair . Named for one of the Maxwell Street stores, this 90-minute film covers the history of the marketplace–from the 1870s to the 1990s immigrants found their way to Maxwell Street–and its demise. I interviewed the film’s writer/producer/director, Phil Ranstrom, about his experiences working on this project.
Frances: When did you start filming the Maxwell Street market?
Phil: During the summer of 1994, just before the market was purchased by the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).
F: Did you know the history of Maxwell Street when you started?
P: When I first began, I had no idea there was such a rich history at Maxwell Street. My original intention was to capture the pre-dawn table set-up, the shoppers and market tear-down through time-lapse photography, as kind of a documentation of a process that happened here, day after day, for over a century.
As I got deeper and deeper into the fight to save Maxwell Street, I began to learn about the the immigrant history on Maxwell Street and the entire near west side area. Also, the story of the blues and the tremendous role Jewish people played in its development is something that hasn’t really been talked about much in music history books.
But, in fact — and especially at Maxwell Street — the partnerships between blacks and Jews were essential for this new musical idiom to be developed, recorded and promoted. Without Jewish entrepreneurs, this musical form would have remained in the streets, there would have been no recordings, no records sent overseas, which inspired super-groups like The Beatles, Cream and The Rolling Stones. Without Jews, there would have been no “British Invasion” and, I dare say, no rock & roll.
They used to say on Maxwell Street, “Blacks plus Jews equals blues.”
F: What were your best resources for learning about the immigrant history?
B: I certainly learned a lot about Maxwell Street by reading all the works that had been written about it in books, magazines and online. I watched all of the films made about Maxwell Street. But the real validation came from the oral histories recounted to me by people like Fern Abrams and 99-year-old Uncle Johnny Williams and Jimmy Lee Robinson.
These are the people who grew up on Maxwell Street and saw what it was really like. In my opinion, it’s this oral history that is so important because these words will never be told again. During the making of my film, eight of the principle people featured in my film passed away, including Studs Terkel, Nate Duncan, Florence Scala and Bo Diddley, making this even more important archive.
F: Besides Abrams’ daughter, did you talk to any other family members of Jewish business owners? Any of their descendants still in business?
P: I suppose that Nate Duncan, who owned and operated Nate’s Deli (formerly Lyon’s Deli) can be considered a Jewish descendant because, even though he was an African American who never attended a synagogue (as far as I know), he spent his whole life working in a Jewish deli and learned about Jewish culture, which he passed onto others. So, in that respect, I see him as a descendant, even though he, himself, was not Jewish. Nate was famous for his pickled herring and Jewish people came from miles around to buy it. And black people came too!
F: In the documentary we hear various supporters of the cause to preserve Maxwell Street. You show how the movement gathered national support, but did it ever really pick up steam across the Chicago metro area? Did any prominent Chicagoans lend their names and clout to the cause?
P: Sure, there was politicians who stood up for saving the market, such as 27th Ward Alderman, Dexter Watson who almost got into a fist fight in City Hall with Ted Mazola over saving Maxwell Street, which is shown in the documentary.
But the ironic and unfortunate thing was that more people nationally and internationally saw value in Maxwell Street than did local people. At least there wasn’t the great cry from local people to stop the sale of the land to UIC and the destruction of this historic place. It was very sad. Maxwell Street had served the lives of so many generations of Chicagoans, yet, in the end, people largely turned their backs on this special place.
I think we all have a sense that “progress” is inevitable and that all things change. The problem with that thinking as it relates to Maxwell Street is that Maxwell Street was a thriving, energetic area, even in the last days. If you go down to that area today, while there is a lot of car traffic, there isn’t the same kind of foot traffic or “human” traffic there. This was “the people’s” place and UIC really should have preserved some of it, studied it, made it a tourist attractions. To this day, visiting Europeans show up thinking there is a Maxwell Street.
F: One of the major themes of the documentary is that Maxwell Street served as a place where Chicagoans of all ethnic and racial backgrounds could come together. It was free, out in the open. Are there any places left still serving that purpose?
P: Yes, there are still what sociologists call, “third places,” left in Chicago. None like the great Maxwell Street, but there are some. In fact, I have been invited by WTTW/PBS to create an entire television series of half-hour shows about Chicago’s “third places” and am currently seeking a sponsor to create a pilot for this in the spring.
F: The closing of Maxwell Street damaged many lives. Did you come across any stories of people who survived and perhaps flourished, or did every one lose from the closing?
P: The developers who gentrified that area certainly flourished, but everyone else lost.
F: What are your favorite examples of Maxwell Street blues?
P: I enjoyed the music of Jimmy Davis, Jimmy Lee Robinson and Little Walter. These were true Maxwell Street mavens, with Little Walter being the most influential of all, I think. He is considered by most to be the greatest blues harmonica player that ever lived and he invented an entirely new style of playing that is used today.
As Buddy Guy says in the film, “Before Little Walter, you could go buy a harmonica and the clerk would ask, ‘What will you give me for it?’ ” After he started playing, the harmonica became a legitimate instrument.
If you’re interested in Chicago history or the Chicago blues, this film is not to be missed. The 90-minute DVD, Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street, is available for sale online at this website.
From 1940s Havana to 2009 Chicago, my father had his own style. Click on Clothes Make the Man under Photos tab.
Photo credits: All photographs courtesy of Phil Ranstrom.
Sources: Studs Terkel quote from Esquire magazine.