Section 8 - Narrative Statement of Significance
The period of significance for the district is circa 1870 to 1950, the fifty-year cutoff date for listing on the National Register. This period includes the neighborhood's intensive development as a working-class neighborhood in the years following the Chicago Fire of 1871. It recognizes the area's history as the first Chicago home for many of Chicago's immigrants, including East European Jews, who were instrumental in the creation of the district's most distinctive institution, the Maxwell Street Market.
Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe were concentrated in the area until the 1920s. First as pushcart peddlers and then as renters of small shops and storefronts, they created the market, in large part, and built it into a thriving center of commerce. In a compact area, a very heterogeneous clientele of immigrants bargained, bought goods, conversed, ate, and enjoyed the hurly-burly activity of the streets. Here they acquired a taste for American styles of dress and learned the ways of mass consumption and marketing.
As earlier immigrant groups moved out of the area, others took their places and participated in much the same processes and experiences. Into the post-World War II period, the district remained intact as a major commercial area, and into the early 1990s, an open-air flea market continued on Sundays, frequented by a heterogeneous clientele from both the city and the suburbs, numbering into the thousands.
The period of significance also takes into consideration the district's later history, during the decades of the 1930s and 1940s, when the area became an important residential, commercial, and social neighborhood for African-Americans moving from the rural South to Chicago. Beginning in the 1920s, Maxwell Street became common ground for a wide range of African-American musicians singing both secular and sacred music. In particular, African-American blues musicians, steeped in the musical traditions of the rural South, performed on the streets of the district, where they combined southern blues music with electrified guitars and other amplified musical instruments to create a modern, urban blues sound that revolutionized popular music of the post-World War II period.
For more than half century, Maxwell Street offered transplanted blacks from the rural South some of the comforts of their former lifestyles as a social center where they could gather during time off from jobs in the city's burgeoning steel mills, slaughterhouses, and factories. As an open-air market, Maxwell Street offered bargains from street vendors on all kinds of goods, but the most enduring attraction was music. The area's streets were the primary meeting place for singers newly arrived in the city and the center of the amateur blues activity of Chicago.
The remaining buildings of the Maxwell Street Historic District collectively provide the physical context for understanding the area's history. These buildings contained the stores and apartments of many of the immigrants and their families that entered Chicago society through Maxwell Street. On Halsted Street, there are still businesses whose facades illustrate the development of clothing stores from the early stands and shops of Maxwell. The streetscapes formed by these buildings served as backdrop for the rich commercial and social activities of early Jewish and other European immigrants and later African-Americans arriving from the American South. On the sidewalks of Maxwell and Halsted Streets, African-American musicians hooked up their electrified guitars and developed a new kind of music, which can still be heard there on summer weekends.
The historical significance of the area lies not in the occurrence of particular events of note within its confines, but in the vital activity that took place from day to day in the area. Tracing the demography, the types of commerce, the living conditions, and the cultural milieu of the district through a series of chronological periods conveys some sense of larger processes that were taking place in American society: urbanization, acculturation and socioeconomic mobility of large immigrant populations, and the development of a mass-production, consumer-oriented economy. In important ways, the Maxwell Street market district has been a microcosm of American urban society.
Entrepreneurial development from pushcarts to department stores.
Markets are the earliest channels for distribution of goods and services in urban economies. The urban historian Lewis Mumford (1961:17) found, in the earliest records of cities, that the market function was undertaken by the center of religious activity, the temple. The two classic forms of the market, the open place and the covered bazaar, appear in their urban form as early as 2000 BCE. Girouard (1985:19) asserts that in the early stage of a city's growth, the single, central open market-place accommodated commerce of all kinds.
The English market tradition has been dated to the Roman occupation in 43 BCE, and English markets have been famous for centuries. Petticoat Lane and Portobello Road in London are among the best known. Cambridge has a centuries-old market in the town square adjacent to the university, and Oxford and Salisbury have ancient market traditions that continue to this day. Within the English vocabulary, the Anglo-Saxon word for market was 'ceap,' producing such place names as Cheapside and Chipping Norton. In the mid-1800s, Henry Mayhew (1861:10) wrote of the many London street markets, "Nearly every poor man's market does its Sunday trade...but for this opportunity many a poor family would pass a dinnerless Sunday."
In America, markets date from the 1600s in New York and Boston. Faneuil Hall in Boston is the oldest market building in the country, built in 1741. Cities such as New York, Boston, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Cincinnati, New Orleans, and St. Louis all currently maintain public markets. The Sunday open-air flea market in the Maxwell Street neighborhood represented Chicago's only remaining historic link to this tradition until it was compelled to move in 1994.
The public market tradition in Chicago dates back to the city's charter of 1837 that called for the city to create and operate markets for the welfare of its people. However, it was not until 1847 that Chicago built its first market at State Street and Randolph. Chicago's first public street market began in 1881 on Randolph Street between Des Plaines and Union Park. It was followed in 1912 with the city designation of a New York style pushcart market on Maxwell Street. The last publicly designated street market was in 1931 on State Street between 71st and 75th Streets.
By 1912 Jefferson Street had become so crowded with pushcarts that they were forced to move westward along Maxwell Street, which was then wider than Jefferson Street (Schulz 1954:10-12). Schulz states that in 1912 there were also no fixed stands, only pushcarts, and no peddler was in the same location for more than a day. Schulz notes, "With a large local market, small operating expenses, and the opportunity to move freely in search of trade, the pushcart trade prospered; and the area became so unique and significant that the Chicago City Council passed a resolution in 1912 officially recognizing the Maxwell Street Market." The resolution (Morales 1993:27) read as follows:
The 1912 ordinance established the position of Market Master. According to Schultz (1954:12), "Peddlers would gather in the vacant lots at 13th and Union Streets to await the Market Master's whistle; whereupon riots broke out in the dash for choice locations." Officially, the Market Master (or Superintendent, as he was then called) was obligated to collect $.10 from each peddler, but one of the longstanding complaints was that he collected much more than that. Eventually the position of Market Master was eliminated because of graft and corruption.
Despite changes, the market continued to thrive. The sociologist Louis Wirth (1928:232) described the market in the 1920s:
Eventually the other markets disappeared or street vendors were excluded by the City. An example of this occurred in recent years when the City Council took action against vendors selling in the Randolph Street Market area (Eastwood 1988:87-90). There was the case of City of Chicago v. Witvoet (1975), a case concerning a family of Michigan farmers who had sold on the 1000 block of West Randolph for more than three generations. In order to prevail in this case, the City Council amended the Municipal Code to require that only the public ways of the Maxwell Street Market could be used for market purposes. This action against vending in the Randolph market area, ironically, gave additional legitimacy to the Maxwell Street Market; however, under pressure from the University of Illinois at Chicago, even this market was closed in 1994. A smaller Sunday market, called the Maxwell Street Market to capitalize on the famous name, was opened six blocks further east.
Entrepreneurial Development in the Maxwell Street Market
The real beginnings of the Maxwell Street market were the pushcart peddlers who began selling on Jefferson and later expanded onto Maxwell Street. An 1896 Chicago Tribune article (cited in Berkow 1977:10) stated:
According to the Chicago Tribune of July 19, 1891 (cited in Cutler 1984:84):
It was natural for this on-the-street selling and buying also to take the form of crates, stands, and pushcarts in front of the shops of the area. The July 19, 1891, Chicago Tribune notes, "The principal streets in this quarter are lined with stores of every description. Trades with which Jews are not usually associated such as saloon-keeping, shaving and hair cutting, and blacksmithing have their representatives and Hebrew signs." A view (see reproduction) from Jefferson Street across Maxwell Street in 1904-06 shows a "street nearly impassable because of rotting rubbish" as a line of fruit vendors sell at their stands on Jefferson (Mayer and Wade 1969:261).
Mayer Laser who was born in Chicago in 1893 and lived a block from Maxwell Street tells his recollections of this period (Berkow 1977:57-64):
Most businesses in the Maxwell Street Historic District followed a similar pattern of development. Initially, they sold goods from tables or carts on the street. When enough money was made, the business moved into a storefront on Maxwell Street. Success on Maxwell Street often was followed by a move to Halsted Street. After prospering on Halsted Street, most businesses relocated in a different section of the city.
Wirth (1928:232) referred to the connection between the market and the commercial establishments of Halsted Street: "The proprietors of the substantial establishments on Halsted are the graduates of Maxwell, for the most part. The modern business man on Halsted Street represents the ideal of the sons of the pushcart owners on Maxwell Street." Cutler (personal communication, June 22, 1992) asserts that there was a hierarchy in terms of shopping. "Roosevelt Road had the wholesalers, Halsted was basically one price with two big department stores, L. Klein and the 12th Street Store, and Maxwell Street was the pushcart, open stand bargaining bazaar but it also had a few small, but very busy department stores such as Gabel's, Robinson's, and Mackevich's. There were also small factory sweatshops throughout the area." Well-known businesses such as Keeshin, Vienna Sausage, Fluky's, Meystel's, Karoll's, Chernin's, and Mages all had their beginnings in the Maxwell Street neighborhood.
Vienna Beef (originally Vienna Sausage): Samuel Ladany and Emil Reichl were immigrants from Austria-Hungary who bought a storefront at 1213 S. Halsted Street following their success selling sausage at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. With their talents from the "Old Country", they made sausage in the rear of the shop and sold it in the retail store in front. By 1907, Vienna Sausage had moved next door to 1215-1217 S. Halsted, and they remained in the neighborhood until 1972 when the company moved their plant to their current location on Damen Ave. in Chicago. Today it is a nationwide distributor of sausage and other beef products. (The History of Vienna, Vienna Sausage Manufacturing Company).
Mages Sporting Goods: Morrie Mages learned his trade by selling jackets from a pushcart in front of his Russian immigrant father's store, Henry's Sports Store, on Maxwell Street in the 1920s. In the 1930s, Morrie opened a store at 835 W. Maxwell, where he became successful enough to move his store outside the neighborhood. When his business failed there, he returned to 729 W. Maxwell St. where he remade the fortune that enabled him to open Mages Sporting Goods, an eight-level store on LaSalle Street. (Personal communication with Mae Mages and Tillie Shore).
Jim's Original Red Hots: The building at 1320 S. Halsted houses a hot dog stand that was originally operated by Leavitt's Delicatessen with a full-scale deli attached to it in the 1920s and 1930s. Jimmy Stefanovic, a Russian who emigrated to America from Yugoslavia, purchased the building in 1939 and continued the hot dog stand business. Today, the family of Jimmy Stefanovic continues to operate the stand year round, 24 hours a day, in keeping with its well-known reputation for the "Maxwell Street polish". (Personal communication with Jim Christopoulos and Bruce Kraig).
Ethnic Heritage: The Maxwell Street Neighborhood as the Port of Entry for Chicago’s Immigrants
1850-1870: Early Immigrants
Describing the Near West Side, including Maxwell Street, Pacyga (1986:199) writes:
The earliest traceable ethnic group in the proposed district area was German. The first parish church on the West Side was St. Francis of Assisi (Hill 1976:20; Pacyga 1986:207, 226). Built originally in 1853 at 11th and Clinton, the church of this German parish was rebuilt in 1866 at Roosevelt and Newberry. (Today it attracts a congregation of predominantly Mexican American worshippers.) By 1850 Germans (5,094) were 17% of the population; there were some Catholics, but more were Protestant. Just west of the proposed district on 12th Street (immediately west of Blue Island), the German Lutherans established Immanuel Church in 1854 (Pacyga 1986:205). Other early German churches include the Maxwell German Methodist Episcopal Church, which worshipped in a schoolhouse at Halsted and 12th St. in 1864 and established themselves as the Maxwell Methodist Episcopal Church at the corner of Newberry and Maxwell in 1866 (Andreas 1884(I):330, 332). Gethsemane Baptist Church, located on the corner of Union and 14th Street, which now serves a Baptist congregation, was originally constructed as a German church and later changed to a Jewish synagogue.
Parish records aid in understanding the district's changing populations because, as Pierce (1937:36 1) points out, "Separate parishes met the needs of ethnic groups whose mother tongues were not the same, and whose mastery of English was not great enough to permit religious instruction in that language." Such an indication is given by another historic church adjacent to the proposed district. Pierce notes (1937:180) that with few exceptions the Irish subscribed to the Roman Catholic faith, so when the Church of the Holy Family was built on Roosevelt at Blue Island, it "drew to its arms workingmen who lived in the small wooden houses near the railroad buildings and lumber yards." In 1857, Father Arnold Damen founded Holy Family Parish, and when the church was completed in 1860, it rose to a height of 246 feet, making it the fourth largest church in North America (Hill 1976:20; Cutler 1982:50). The Census of 1843 listed the Irish by wards and showed that the greatest concentration (26%) of the Irish lived in the 2nd ward, slightly to the north and east of the proposed district. That population then expanded to the south and west (Pierce 1937:180).
By 1860 Bohemian settlers had also moved into the vicinity of the proposed district as they settled in the area bounded by Canal, Halsted, Harrison and 11th Street (Cutler 1982:78). This community, whose boundaries were somewhat larger than the proposed district, was called "Praha." Immigrants from the area of Bohemia were classified as Bohemians in most censuses, although Slovaks, Moravians and other people from that area were also included (Hill 1976:35-36). Because of the scarcity of priests and the poverty of the group, they did not have their own priest, so some of the Bohemians attended St. Francis on Roosevelt Road.
Cutler (1982:118) notes that the first significant black settlement developed along the south branch of the Chicago River and was composed of both free black and former fugitive slaves. However, Mayer and Wade (1993: 64) assert that as early as the 1860s a small black population existed in the Maxwell Street area.
1870-1890: After the Great Fire
The Great Fire of Chicago of 1871 began in a barn at 137 DeKoven Street, just outside the proposed historic district. Although the fire destroyed three and a half miles of stores, houses and churches, it burned north and east and so caused only minor damage to the Halsted/Maxwell neighborhood (Erbe 1984:75; Hill 1976:42). Instead, the fire actually resulted in an upsurge in population and an increase in building and business activity in the West Side area because one third of Chicago's population, or 104,500 people, were left homeless. Construction in the entire area south of Madison Street and east of Western Avenue resulted from these refugees of the fire seeking places to live. As Adelman noted (1993 Colloquium), many of the Loop businesses temporarily located along Halsted Street while the State Street stores were being rebuilt. He states, "This caused a period of great prosperity for the area, but this ended as soon as the new downtown buildings were rebuilt. Jobs were lost but nothing was done for the area or its people."
Since the area was populated by immigrants, it is not surprising that there is evidence of working class organization and union activity. Adelman related (1993 Colloquium) that during the early post-fire period, the Turner Hall, on the southeast corner of Halsted and 12th Street, was a center for union activities and it became the founding site of the Workingmen's Party of Illinois. Apparently, the workers' living conditions were miserable in cities throughout the country, and in the summer of 1877 rioting broke out from coast to coast. In Chicago, demonstrations took place in the Halsted area among the unemployed. On the morning of July 26th, the police attacked German furniture workers who were holding a meeting in the Turner Hall, killing one and injuring many others. That afternoon federal troops brought in by General Sheridan killed 31 and injured 100.
In 1880 Eastern European Jews comprised only a small fraction of Chicago's 10,000 Jews, but after the Russian pogroms of 1881 and the repressive "May Laws" of 1881, Eastern European Jews emigrated to Chicago in great numbers (Cutler 1982:68). So many of them settled in the Maxwell/Halsted area that it took on the character of a Russian or Polish ghetto. Cutler notes that the Jews moved south along Canal and Jefferson Streets and westward to Halsted, and then farther west as the congestion increased. Horwich (1939:125) described Liberty Street, one of the many unpaved streets, where he lived in 1880, as narrow, muddy and dirty. He added, "The wooden sidewalks were uneven, and at some places they were elevated, with steps on each side leading to the houses."
1890-1910: East European Jews
Although people of many nationalities lived in the area, the culture and commerce of the Eastern European Jews was primarily reflected in the next period of the history of the Maxwell-Halsted area; it was their activity which gave rise to the peak period of the market. In 1891 a Chicago Tribune article described the West Side, which included the district, at that time:
An English journalist (Mayer and Wade 1969:261) described a neighborhood scene graphically after travelling to Chicago in 1896:
A surprising number of prominent individuals had familial ties to the Maxwell Street ghetto; for some of them, peddling on the streets of the neighborhood was their first job (Berkow 1977:10-11). A partial list of these includes: Barney Balaban (President, Paramount Pictures); Walter Paley (CBS founder); Benny Goodman (jazz musician); Muddy Waters (blues musician); Arthur Goldberg (Supreme Court Justice); Admiral Hyman Rickover (father of the atomic submarine); John Keeshin (trucking magnate); Colonel Jacob Arvey (influential politician); Abraham Lincoln Marovitz (federal judge); Saul Alinsky (community organizer); Muni Weisenfreund (actor Paul Muni); and Barney Ross, King Levinsky, and Jackie Fields (boxing champions). Most of these individuals were children of Jewish immigrants. The fields in which they achieved success are indicative of some of the limited mobility routes that existed for this community: entrepreneurship, especially in new industries, politics, entertainment, and sports that appealed to the working class, particularly boxing.
1920-1950: Maxwell Street & Changes in Ethnic Composition
By the end of WWI, the East European Jewish community began to break up as its members left for Lawndale and other parts of the city. Their place on the Near West Side was taken by African-Americans and Mexicans (Erbe 1984:75; Cutler 1982:73). The main concentration of the black population was immediately south of the proposed historic market area. The first boom of black migration into Chicago occurred during and after World War I. The war closed foreign immigration and the city's labor supply ran low, so industrial jobs opened up for southern blacks, who were looking for a way out of the oppression-laden South. From 1916 to 1919, about 500,000 blacks traveled north, and in the 20s one million more followed.
Of all northern destinations, Chicago became the most popular for African-Americans leaving the South. The Chicago Defender, the city's black-owned newspaper, was the most widely read paper in the black South, and it afforded prospective migrants a vision of an exciting city with a vibrant and assertive black community. Stories from family members and friends also added to a growing anticipation among many southerners about hitting the big city.
There can be little doubt that the black migrants were influenced heavily by urban centers like Chicago, but they worked very hard at preserving a lifestyle similar to that of the South. Places like Maxwell Street provided the equivalent of the front porch at dusk, or the turn-row at noon, for the urban black population to continue the highly social life they were accustomed to. The Chicago Defender keenly observed the stubborn nature of black southern culture when an editorialist remarked, "It is no difficult task to get people out of the South, but you have a job on your hands when you attempt to get the South out of them".
As a result of the black migration to the area, black "blues culture" sprang up in the neighborhood and established it as a place where blues could be heard, especially at the Sunday marketplace. Berkow (1977:387-394) writes, "The blacks have been playing music to entertain—and some to 'sanctify' souls—from the time they arrived in Chicago."
During this period, Mexicans also began to move into the area, with St. Francis of Assisi Church becoming an institutional mainstay of the community. In 1927 George Cardinal Mundelein designated St. Francis of Assisi as a Spanish-speaking parish (Pacyga 1986:215). Italians, who had originally settled in the area decades before, continued to live to the immediate north of the Maxwell Street area and farther north was a Greek settlement which also dated back to the early part of the 20th century.
These ethnic enclaves had their distinctive religious, educational, and cultural institutions. Jane Addams’ Hull House, one of the earliest and most famous of the American settlement houses, worked very closely with the Greek immigrants who settled nearby, and these efforts were among the most successful in winning community support and involvement in Hull House’s program of acculturation. Hull House also reached out—less successfully—to the Italians, although their immigrant clubs did use the Hull House facilities.
Culture: The African-American Migration and the Development of the Blues
The influential Chicago bluesman Robert Nighthawk once said,
As the Maxwell Street neighborhood and marketgoers increasingly became African-American, starting in the 1920s, blues music became an important component of the overall culture of the area. African-American musicians would come there knowing that they could join with other musicians in singing on the street, and make sizable amounts of money. They sang the music they brought with them from the South, the melancholy-tinged laments known as "blues." Although the definitive history of Chicago blues music is still being written, popular accounts and oral histories taken from the recollections of blues musicians recognize the Maxwell Street area as a key area in the development of Chicago blues.
If a musician was unknown to the established artists and record companies, then he turned to the life of a street singer. This was a familiar position for most southern bluesmen who ‘hoboed’ all around the South trying to make a buck. When his travels carried him to Chicago, the unknown bluesman had to find an audience, and the largest audience he could reach was found at the Maxwell Street market (Way 1997).
As the demographics of the area surrounding Maxwell Street changed to African-American, "the bazaar atmosphere at the market on weekends took on a new life with makeshift stands catering to the new black population and the sounds of blues musicians, songsters, medicine show entertainers, and southern gospel hymns entertaining patrons. Known as 'Jewtown' to the musicians, Maxwell Street became the center for all unknown musicians looking for a recording break." (Way 1997)
Famous Blues Performers on Maxwell Street
One of the earliest blues singers known to perform along Maxwell Street was Papa Charlie Jackson, who became popular in the 1920s as the first self-accompanied solo male blues singer to be a recording star. Born in 1890 in New Orleans, Jackson was one of the first male country blues artists to achieve significant commercial success. In 1924, he cut "Papa's Lawdy Blues" and "Airy Man Blues" for the Paramount label, ending the domination of recorded blues by female artists, which had begun in 1920 with Mamie Smith. In 1925, Jackson recorded his "Maxwell Street Blues," the first known mention of the street on a blues recording. Unlike other bluesmen, who accompanied themselves on guitar or piano, Jackson played a unique six-stringed banjo-guitar. His bawdy and humorous tunes were early versions of what became known as hokum blues.
It is difficult to know exactly how many established bluesmen started their careers on Maxwell Street. There are many comments from street musicians referring to artists like Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters playing on the street, but few citations from the musicians themselves. Those who made a national impact on the music scene sometimes considered their former roles as street musicians an embarrassment. Others, like Muddy Waters, claimed that they played the street not for tips (a practice known as "busking"), but to promote their record releases.
Before World War II, record companies relied on the established sounds of Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson and a handful of others, who also dominated the local club scene in nearby Bronzeville and other African-American neighborhoods. In 1942, concerned about the competition jukeboxes were giving his members, J.C. Petrillo, President of the American Federation of Musicians, Chicago chapter, ordered a complete ban on commercial recording. The studios stayed closed for two years.
The union also had an impact on Maxwell Street. Hammie Nixon recalled, "most of our fooling around was on the street—till we hit that union. We hit that union in the early part, too. Well, they stopped that street business. Their records stopped it, too. They didn't want you on the street." (Living Blues, Jan./Feb. 1975)
Of the union, Johnny Williams remembered, "if you could play, you was gonna play with somebody on Maxwell Street. They wasn't snooty. When you joined the union, you wasn't allowed to do that. That's what broke us up." (Sutherland, Blues Unlimited, Feb./Mar. 1973)
While the union did not halt street playing for the uninitiated, they did prohibit members from playing on Maxwell Street, and nonmembers must have felt pressure to conform. Many simply ignored the union's stance on street playing. The lifting of the recording ban in 1944 ushered in a new era of recording activity and the breaking-up of the monopoly enjoyed by major record companies. "There was a vast pool of undiscovered talent and the smaller companies dipped into it, partly because they were forced to since the majors had a monopoly on the established artists. This undiscovered talent was largely to be found roaming the Maxwell Street market." (Way 1997)
One of the smaller record labels that discovered its talent on Maxwell Street was Ora-Nelle, which had the advantage of a Maxwell Street address. Ora-Nelle was the label of the Maxwell Radio Record Company, founded by Bernard Isaac Abrams and operated out of his radio store on Maxwell Street. Born on Maxwell Street, Abrams in 1945 converted his family's residence at 831-833 Maxwell Street into Maxwell Radio, TV, and Record Mart. There he sold and repaired radios and other appliances, sold records, and had a small booth where musicians could record demo disks. Muddy Waters, Johnny Young, Jimmy Rogers, and Little Walter all recorded there.
Despite the many demo records made in his shop, Abrams’ Ora-Nelle label only managed two releases, but both are significant. "I Just Keep Loving Her" was the first release by Little Walter Jacobs, one of the biggest stars of Chicago Blues and the definitive blues harmonica player. He was accompanied on that record by guitarist Othum Brown. The other Ora-Nelle release was by the mandolin-guitar duo of Johnny Young and Johnny Williams.
The Maxwell Street School of Blues
During the forties, Maxwell Street regulars included bluesmen like Daddy Stovepipe, Floyd and Moody Jones, Snooky Pryor, Johnny Young, Uncle Johnny Williams, Othum Brown, and Little Walter Jacobs. The music performed by these artists has come to be known as the "Maxwell Street School" of blues. Unlike the older, established recording artists, these musicians did not live a stable, sedentary lifestyle. They were ramblers, and that spirit showed in the music they played.¼
On the recording, Nighthawk talks about the importance of Maxwell Street to his music and that of countless other musicians:
The modern Delta style took root in Chicago because of the vast influx of Mississippi migrants during the 40’s—out of the total net migration to Chicago for these years it’s probable that one half came from Mississippi alone. (Rowe 1973)
Ultimately, the updated Delta blues style that originated on Maxwell Street and was recorded on Chess, Vee Jay and many other labels, found an eager audience in an unlikely place: England. There it was discovered and absorbed by teenagers with names like Lennon, McCartney, Jagger, Richards, Jones, Page, Clapton and dozens of others, who transformed it into a new and even more successful brand of rock-and-roll, and through which elements of its innovations can be heard in virtually all modern popular music today.
The Maxwell Street Market was a major marketplace and commercial district in Chicago. For the diverse ethnic groups that worked, lived, shopped and socialized in the market and the surrounding neighborhood, it was a great bazaar with roots in the Old World. For these groups, it was also an introduction to the unfamiliar abundance of goods, and new styles of consumption, dress, and entrepreneurial activity that characterized American urban society. These features make it distinctive in the history of Chicago.
Many buildings in the Maxwell Street district have been demolished, mostly by the University of Illinois at Chicago, and many of those remaining need rehabilitation. Nonetheless, these buildings provide many examples of the kinds of commerce and residential use that characterized the area in its peak periods. The remaining streetscapes still convey a sense of the lively ambiance of the market and the excitement conveyed by the new urban blues music created there.
In January 2000, the Blues Foundation, a national organization dedicated to the promotion and preservation of blues music, awarded the Maxwell Street Historic Preservation Coalition the Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Historical Preservation, in recognition of that group’s efforts to preserve the heritage (through oral history, video recordings, and preservation of buildings) of the Maxwell Street neighborhood. Blues fans all over the world regard Maxwell Street as a key landmark in the history of the music they love.
Examination of the remaining buildings in the area by experts familiar with preservation techniques (architects and structural engineers) indicates that most are still salvageable. Some have been reasonably well maintained for years, and viable businesses are still conducted in them. With a real effort to preserve and restore this unique part of Chicago, the Maxwell Street Historic District could become a major historical site in the Midwest, attracting tourists from around the world.
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