This Was Maxwell Street

"And This Is Free: The Life and Times of Chicago’s Legendary Maxwell St." (Various)

Very cool, I’m getting a copy.

Chicago’s legendary Maxwell Street open-air market, founded by immigrant Eastern European Jews in the 1870s, attracted bargain-hunters of every ethnic background every weekend for more than a century. The unique, vibrant street bazaar was officially closed in 1994, as urban shopping evolved and the University of Illinois at Chicago campus expanded into the area, just south of downtown. Maxwell Street had long since become best-known as the outdoor home base for many of the city’s world-famous blues musicians.

A coalition of blues aficionados, black and white; historians; and children and grandchildren of Maxwell Street’s Jewish pushcart and storefront merchants tried but failed to preserve elements of the area as the market was being shut down. Direct memories of the street in its mid-20th-century heyday are diminishing, and a sense of the life of the place might easily be lost.

But now “And This Is Free: The Life and Times of Chicago’s Legendary Maxwell Street”” — a new multimedia disc and booklet “MultiPac” that combines historic films and a photo slideshow on DVD, a CD of blues tied to the area, and informative written commentary — has been released by Shanachie Entertainment. The express purpose, says its executive producer, Sherwin Dunner, is bringing the texture of the street alive again.

[From This Was Maxwell Street –]

[non-WSJ subscribers can use this link]

(H/T Chuck Sudo)

My first apartment in Chicago was on 19th and Halsted; to drive to it, you have to pass through Maxwell Street Market (which has since been moved, and sanitized, and the University of Illinois has taken the area over). When we drove to see the apartment prior to signing the lease, we were a bit shocked (both of us recent college graduates from Austin, TX, which has no areas like Maxwell Street). Turned out not to be so bad, and we heard some good electric blues there later on. We also didn’t realize that 5 blocks in Chicago is a large distance, psychologically. The dudes standing around oil barrel fires, selling recently stolen merchandise had no interest in hanging out on my apartment stairs, we needn’t have worried.

Though this was the neighborhood that shaped Benny Goodman, Adm. Hyman Rickover, Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg and CBS Chairman William Paley, the longstanding Jewish experience on Maxwell Street had not been examined on film until Israeli émigré Shuli Eshel began shooting her documentary on that side of the story, “Maxwell Street: A Living Memory,” in 1999. More than half of the spirited, sometimes nostalgic interviewees in that film are already gone, but her film has its own key role in this new release — and Roger Schatz, her co-author on the oral history book “Jewish Maxwell Street Stories”” (Arcadia Publishing), provides the narration for the MultiPac’s informative slideshow.

“The Jews of Maxwell Street really didn’t care if you were black, blue or yellow as long as you bought the merchandise so they could make a living and educate their children,” Ms. Eshel suggested in an interview with this reporter. “But then, the famous Chicken Man (an African-American who performed with a live chicken on his head, shown at work in the MultiPac) was there to make a living, too. Maxwell Street taught you how to understand people well enough to do business. As the famous Chicago Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, from that neighborhood, puts it in my film, ‘Selling on the street was about survival at first, but later on became about the pursuit of the American Dream.'”

That spirit, as much as the remarkable talent of the street performers working the same urban blocks, is alive in this remarkable bit of multimedia history.

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