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Monday, April 15

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If you stand at the intersection of Halsted and Maxwell streets on Chicago's Near West Side and take a look around, you won't really see anything special. About a mile southwest of the Loop, it's just like many other gentrified areas of the city, complete with modular brick housing, bars, a Caribou Coffee bar and a Jamba Juice. Once one of the city's busiest crossroads, this was the nerve center of the Maxwell Street Market, an old-world-style bazaar that brought together people of all nationalities and religions, but all that remains is a sanitized version of its former self. Noisy curbside vendors no longer hawk their wares to throngs of eager customers, and racks of rumpled men's wool suits no longer line Maxwell Street. The smells of polish sausages, onions and mustard linger no more here, but several blocks away on Union Avenue.

On this afternoon, the street is quiet and almost eerily still. An arch inscribed with "Maxwell Street" near the Dan Ryan Expressway and several small metal statues representing the musicians that used to serenade pedestrians on the street, but don't anymore, make it an almost comical remembrance of the area's storied past.

A new documentary traces the life — and eventual demise — of one of Chicago's most historic thoroughfares. Directed, written and produced by Phil Ranstrom, who lives in Evanston, and narrated by Chicago native Joe Mantegna, Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street was featured in the Chicago International Documentary Film Festival in late April. He is currently seeking a distributor for the piece.

Maxwell Street now.

"Maxwell Street combined many different spheres of culture, politics and social issues," Ranstrom says, rubbing his shaved head. "Almost every immigrant that came into the city moved down there and got along."

Raised in Elgin, Ranstrom graduated from Southern Illinois University in 1980 with dual degrees in English and Radio-Television. After that he moved to Chicago, where he went on to study improvisational comedy for two years with noted teacher Del Close. In 1982, he started working on documentaries for WTTW-TV, thus beginning his professional filmmaking career.

He started the project in 1994, recording one of the final days of the Maxwell Street Market, wanting to preserve a way of life on film that was about to disappear. He finally finished last year, so Cheat You Fair, his first feature-length film, was truly an Odyssean effort. "I realized that if I was able to get a good story and good material, I would be able to do something worthwhile," he says. "With videographer Tony Medici, I approached it as a pure documentarian."

In making the film, Ranstrom conducted 54 on-camera interviews with musicians, market vendors, historians (including Studs Terkel) and others. The most interesting of the interviews, he says, was with "Uncle" Johnnie Williams, a 99-year-old blues musician who died shortly after the interview, two months before his 100th birthday. Williams played with Muddy Waters, famed harmonica player Snooky Pryor and others.

"He saw the transition from the acoustic blues to the electric blues," Ranstrom says. "He became a pretty famous blues player and, at one point, his wife said, 'It's either me or the blues,' and Williams said to me, 'At that point, I bought me a brand new Gibson.'"

In later years, Williams became a preacher. How he earned his nickname, however, was less than holy.

"I shot a man and I thought I had killed him," Williams says in his documentary interview. And I went on the run for about three years, and I changed my name to Johnnie Williams," he says, "but way back in those days they didn't hunt you down like they do now."

Phil Ranstrom interviews "Uncle" Johnnie Williams.

As Ranstrom made the film, Maxwell Street transformed. The market moved. Nate's Deli, formerly located at 807 W. Maxwell St., is no more, closed in 1995 after 70 years in business. (If you don't remember Nate's Deli, you might remember the scene featuring John Lee Hooker in The Blues Brothers. Aretha Franklin's scene was filmed on a set made to look like the restaurant.)

Jim's Original restaurant, one of the originators of the "Maxwell Street Polish," opened in 1939 at the northwest corner of Halsted and Maxwell. The store moved in 2001 to nearby Union Street once the building was sold, muscled out by the soon-to-be-built University Village apartments. But UIC development in the area had permanently changed the timbre of Maxwell Street, says Jim Christopoulos, 39, the third-generation owner of Jim's Original, speaking via phone from his Southern California, his "Chicaaaahgo" accent long gone.

"You can just walk down the street and see the difference," he says. "They've even got a Jamba Juice where we used to be."

What happened to Maxwell Street, Ranstrom says, is part of a larger urban trend: gentrification.

"What's happening in Chicago is what's happening everywhere else," he says. "We're losing places like Maxwell Street to gentrification, which separates the haves from the have-nots, and the market really tied people to their community."

Chicago's Ellis Island

The story of the street really traces back to 1871, right after the Great Chicago Fire burned down most of the city north of what is now Roosevelt Road. As a result of the destruction, many people moved to Maxwell Street, exactly one block south of Roosevelt, to rebuild their homes and businesses. Local peddlers, mostly Jewish at first (spawning the area's first nickname, "Jewtown") sold their goods — both legal and illegal — on the street, which included everything from sausages and other food to clothing and watches.

"It was a place where you could start with a business idea and not spend a lot of money," says Tom "Bossman" Obertein, who has operated a stand since 1991 and who currently serves as one of the market's representatives with the city's Department of Consumer Services. "It was one of Chicago's great small business incubators," says the 6'5", 245-pound garbage man.

As more immigrants moved into the area, it became a top Chicago destination. Each Sunday, thousands of people flocked to Maxwell Street for its market and it became so popular that in 1912, the City Council formally designated it the Maxwell Street Market.

06042007_aerial.jpgMaxwell Street in its heyday.

Through the 1940s, the street became more diverse. Italians, Irish, Polish, Greeks, recently-transplanted Southern blacks and others mingled freely on the onion and mustard-stained cobblestone street.

"You could walk down Maxwell Street in its heyday during the 1920s to the 1940s and you'd hear 50 different languages being spoken," Ranstrom says. "Here we had the integrated neighborhood in the most segregated city in the country. It was the Ellis Island of the Midwest, a haven and a gathering place for new arrivals."

When construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway in the mid-to-late 1950s split the street in half, and after UIC moved to its current location, university properties extended north into Little Italy and down to Maxwell Street. By then, however, many of the nearby buildings were already falling apart. Dan Portincaso, head docent at nearby Hull House and the City of Chicago's Little Italy tour guide, says this accelerated the area's deterioration. The university was granted "eminent domain" powers by the state to develop a sizeable chunk of land stretching down Halsted Street. Buildings were razed as a result and the area was designated "blighted" by the city's Department of Urban Renewal in the 1960s.

"When the University acquired the property a long time ago, they let it fall apart," Portincaso says. "When it finally came time to tear it all down in the late 1990s, the people who wanted to preserve it looked like fools, not realizing that the politicians probably wanted to make it look that way."

All that's left are the preserved brick facades of two buildings on the northeast corner of Maxwell and Halsted. (The facades were originally torn down and new buildings constructed in the rear. Then the brick exteriors were put back on.) "At least four blocks' worth of buildings were demolished," Portincaso says. "It's a shame that so much had to be physically destroyed, but it was the only surefire way to get people out. I think more could have been done to support the cultural integrity of the neighborhood."

UIC Police Commander David Peters, 60, an 18-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department, served two years in the 12th police district, which includes Maxwell Street. In his second-floor office at the old police station at 943 W. Maxwell St. — which was recognized in 1996 as a national landmark (its exterior was filmed for various "Hill Street Blues" shots) — he says he witnessed the decline, but it wasn't only structural.

"In 1966, Maxwell Street was a free enterprise zone," he says. "Sure, you could find almost anything you needed to buy at the market, but from a police perspective, it was horrible. I once got a call about a burglary in a Chinese fortune cookie factory. Who would steal something like that? We could have done surveillance out of the station window."

06042007_1917.jpgMaxwell Street, 1917.

Ranstrom saw the opposite. "In my research, I found that there were two police officers patrolling the 20,000 people at the market," he says. "Think about that ratio. It's amazing - if you could have a city that was that peaceful, we'd be living in nirvana."

So why, then, the title for the documentary? It was the name of a store located on the southeast corner of Halsted and Maxwell streets, Ranstrom explained. "The play on words — it sounds like 'treat you fair' — was Maxwell Street's unofficial motto in the 1960s and 1970s, and exemplified the spirit of bargaining, with both vendor and buyer looking to get the edge," he said.

The Real Market Days

On a Sunday morning in February, many people rolled over, sleepily, in their beds, but thousands of people — including myself — lined Canal Street, several blocks away from Maxwell, braving the weather to look for deals on everything from high-quality power tools, professional film projectors and work uniforms to grandma's not-so-haute kitsch. On the nearly frozen air I could smell hot flour tortillas piled high with spiced ground beef, onions and cilantro. Tacos, topped off with a tasty cinnamon churro, have replaced the polish as Sunday menu specials.

Other than the food, I learned, much has changed. While the original market had lively Maxwell Street as its backdrop, the new market looks like it's in Anytown, U.S.A., the streetscape featuring pre-fabricated banks, a Walgreens and a Whole Foods supermarket. Steve Balkin, former vice president of the Maxwell Street Historic Preservation Coalition and an economics professor at Roosevelt University, thinks what happened to the market is deplorable.

"Every sense of the original Maxwell Street was destroyed," he says. "It wasn't only a case of 'scorched Earth,' but scorched people as well."

But, change or not, plenty of people still come to the market, city upper-crusters and hobos alike rubbing shoulders. Bill McCaffrey, Chicago Department of Consumer Services spokesman, estimates that upwards of 20,000 people spend money at the market's roughly 480 vendor stands each Sunday during the summer. He doesn't think this number will decline in September once the market moves to its new location, which will be mainly on Des Plaines Avenue between Roosevelt and Harrison — and, unlike Balkin, McCaffrey doesn't think the market has lost much of its flavor.

"The vendors will remain the same and they are the heart and soul of Maxwell Street," McCaffrey says. "The culture and the history of the market will remain intact."

06042007_buddyguy.jpg Ranstrom interviews Buddy Guy.

The Maxwell Street Market was also a place of great innovation, with country blues musicians like Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf performing there regularly for enthusiastic listeners in the 1930s and '40s. Out of necessity, they had to amplify instruments to be heard over the large crowds, thus creating a new blues genre that was to be called the "Chicago blues," or the electric blues — directly influencing rock 'n roll bands like the Rolling Stones and Led Zepplin.

But after the market moved in 1994 to its current location along Canal Street, more than half a mile from its original spot on Maxwell Street, the location wasn't the only change. "When the market was moved from UIC, the city didn't really accommodate the music that was there," Obertein says. "They didn't allocate for music or art. The market is for much more than the vendors — people used to go there and dance."

According to McCaffrey, plans for the new market include six areas for local blues musicians to perform. "Music has a strong history at the market and that's something we want to preserve for the vendors and the patrons," he says. "We're happy to give the musicians a place to perform."

Christian Diaz, 27, and Elizabeth Pagliai, 25, have sold Mexican-style wrestling masks and other memorabilia at their market stand for almost a year. On this day, however, it's too cold for them to stand outside. We step inside Diaz's heated Honda Element SUV, where he estimates that they can make anywhere from $100 to $700 dollars a week depending on the time of year, but Pagliai says it's more than the money that keeps her at the market — at least for now.

"When I hear about the history of the market, I feel connected to it," Elizabeth says. "I feel part of a larger community."

Obertein thinks the atmosphere engendered at the market will continue to make it a destination for Chicagoans and suburbanites alike. "You go down to Maxwell Street to take a stroll with your family," he says. "You also go to Maxwell Street to get a polish and a deal."

Preserved on Film

Whether for local historians, blues enthusiasts or even gastronomic experts, Ranstrom thinks Cheat You Fair is for everyone.


"People who have a sense of history will love this program, but people who love the blues will also like it," he says. "I've never seen any program that traces how the blues evolved from acoustic to electric and how that turned into rock 'n roll. We're talking about how the blues became a commercial idiom."

But other than Maxwell Street itself, it seems, the film's overall theme is change.

"Maxwell Street used to be such a vibrant area and now it's like a ghost town," Ranstrom says. "You used to be able to go down there any day of the week and there would be thousands of people. Now, the shops are half-empty. I wonder how long this can last."

You can view a preview of Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street at


About the Author(s)

Daniel B. Honigman is a graduate journalism student at the Medill School of Journalism. A recent New York City transplant, Daniel concedes that Superdawg's hot dogs are much better than those at Gray's Papaya.

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