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Why Maxwell Street Matters

By Marielle Shaw in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 6, 2014 8:30PM

Maybe it was the perfect storm, of sorts. This year Paczki Day and Chicago’s birthday collided. And maybe, while I sat ingesting an unholy amount of calories and sugar, the buzz put my brain into overload. In any case, that leaden pastry in all its splendor got me thinking of traditions and heritage.

I’m from a long line of Chicago Polish. When I’m at the White Eagle, you could easily mistake anyone there for my relatives. Hell, I often do. For me, paczki are a part of that. Food tells important stories of culture and family in an instant, but there is so much that makes up a place. It got me thinking about Maxwell Street and its stories. While it’s true that the permeating smell of snappy sausage and onions is a great snapshot, it’s far from the full story. And I think, at the outset of a new year in the city we love to “Ist” about, it’s time to revisit that.

Maxwell Street was a microcosm of the city itself. It was a landing pad for so many immigrants coming into Chicago—starting with the Jewish community which laid the foundation for the eventual market with their produce and wares proudly on display in the streets in pushcarts. Then the Polish, Hungarian, Italian, Czechs and Irish. Everyone brought something to the place. The market that grew out of those pushcarts on wood plank streets may have been the largest in the country in its heyday and while not everything was on the up and up as far as what was bought and sold, it was a true community of buyers, sellers and performers all adding their own stories and colors. Anyone was free to set up a table and try to make their way.

The immigration continued, with a large African-American population coming in from the Deep South. There were always performers, but they brought with them a unique blues sound. When the city and the market with all its wind meant they couldn’t be heard, the musicians bought amplifiers and electric blues was born; Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf…the names are familiar. Benny Goodman (one of this clarinetist’s personal idols) grew up on those same streets, clarinet in hand, waiting to swing away.

But this isn’t how it stands today. The sad truth is, no matter how hard we fight to preserve a place and its sense of identity, the world rolls past and sometimes over them. Since the Dan Ryan made its first incision, Maxwell Street has been whittled down. Those wood planks are long gone and it seems sometimes that sausage and pork chops are what are left of a legacy much richer.

But this is why art is important. Through stories and songs and photographs, we can get a glimpse of it again, so what’s lost can be found, if only on a computer screen. And luckily for us, there are people dedicated to telling these stories and preserving these memories.

Here are just a few places you can find a window into what Maxwell Street was and why it matters.

Cheat you Fair
Nathaniel Burkin's gallery of Maxwell Street photos