An Underutilized Asset: Moving Maxwell Street Market

Maxwell Street Market used to be situated in a poor immigrant community serving as a market for those who could barely afford to keep the clothes on their back. It was a market for those rejected by the wealthy and genteel, or those derided by racists. It provided an opportunity for experimental musicians who wouldn't have been able to draw a crowd of paying patrons expecting to hear established music. It provided a means for members of the community to set up shop with very low barriers to entry and attain some income. Most of the benefit to the community, then, is lost when nobody lives in the surrounding area, much less anybody poor.

The community did not change by accident. Not enough attention has been paid to the corruption that allowed Daley and UIC to drive out the poor in the area. UIC threatened eminent domain in order to force neighborhood land owners to sell. They systematically neglected and demolished their new properties, preparing them not for public use but for sale to politically connected developers. The university decided that they did not want working class communities near their campus, so they used the power of the state to expel them. The replacement for the neighborhood that gave birth to Chicago blues? – cheaply built condo schlock that houses trust fund babies, philosophy undergrads, and Jamba Juice.

So in a time when the largest communities in the Market's present neighborhood are Best Buy employees and Whole Foods shoppers, perhaps the Market doesn't serve the purpose it once did. Perhaps fruit and vegetable vendors would do better business and better serve their community if each week they hawked their wares in a location less appropriate for a Whole Foods – namely somewhere where their goods might look pretty good, like near a food desert. Perhaps hardware vendors, sellers of illicit batteries, and booths selling knockoff electronics or knockoff purses might find themselves more profitable, more useful, and less interesting to law enforcement if they were located in an underserved community.

If the market were [deregulated and then] located in a poorer area with high traffic and a high importance to the future of the city, the benefits to the area would read very much like the benefits the original Maxwell Market had on its neighborhood. Bustling commerce would return to the strip on which it is located, likely having something of a positive effect on weekday business activity in the area, as well. Money and traffic from outside the community would be drawn in. Residents would have a weekly market at which to buy all of the most needful goods without leaving their community and spending money elsewhere. Further, these vendors would be serving the community's needs and carrying goods it needs to buy. Residents would have an opportunity to cheaply set up a business of their own, bringing much needed income and economic opportunity to the area. These are benefits which would be felt to a far greater extent in a community with residents who actually need them.

Having established that the market – in its current incarnation and location – is an underutilized asset, let us consider some of the most beneficial locations to which the market could move.

 

63rd/Cottage Grove

This intersection is in my opinion by far the most obvious and beneficial location of all of these. 63rd Street was once the heart of the South Side. While that heart was actually located at Halsted, 63rd/Cottage Grove was arguably the second most important center on the entire South Side. Cottage Grove was once a major racial and socioeconomic dividing line, and it retains a small bit of that legacy to this day. It was once a major outlying business corner, and included banks, major theaters and ballrooms, and dense business corridors. Although the commercial district is currently in a terribly sorry state, it is very recoverable compared to other nearby areas such as its neighbor on Halsted, the nearby 61st/King district, or Washington Park. It enjoys more stable neighbors to the North, East, and South (although to the West lies one of the most violent neighborhoods in the city). It has other crucial assets, such as a location on the Cottage Grove corridor (historically the most important N/S business street in the area, by far), a location within the University of Chicago's sphere of influence and directly adjacent to their South Campus expansion path, a location fairly close to the lake, a status as a critical part of any South side resurgence, and a location on the logical axis of eventual gentrification.

A market here would serve the local community in all the ways mentioned above. It would simultaneously serve UCs student population from the North, the extremely poor community to the West, the underserved community to the immediate East, and the mixed income lakeside community further East. It might also draw from Chatham to the South. There are some ruins left here out of which a new business center might be constructed. The L rumbles overhead and major bus routes intersect here. The most logical option is for the market to run North-South on Cottage Grove from 62nd to 64th, the Northern block symbolically reaching for the university just as the more Southern block reaches out to the Woodlawn community. The university could partner with the market, promote it, help its students get there on shuttles, aid in student entrepreneurship there, and invest in the market and the community. The market could be a powerful agent of cooperation rather than division.

47th/Somewhere between King and State

This is another location that could benefit from proximity to the university. This market location also has the advantage of proximity to the improving Bronzeville community. This area was once the heart of the Bronzeville community. It is adjacent to the L and is in the path of eventual reinvestment. The market could provide economic activity and opportunity in an underserved community in the meantime.

Blue Island between 18th and Cermak

This is a natural location for a street market. The street rather lamely and illogically dead ends before Cermak. The area already has plenty of local business activity, but the residents could definitely benefit from the Maxwell Market. On the other hand, there is a lot of dead space around, with the river to the South and eminent domained wastelands to the North.  But, for its part, this is a location to which the market might me more likely to agree to move.

Kedzie between 26th and Cermak

This location is an interesting possibility, but it does have the disadvantage of being in a gang borderland. There isn't much to the South, but the neighborhood around here and to the North would definitely benefit from the market.

Kedzie/Madison

Here we have a location near Garfield Park. The population is a little bombed out and dispersed, but it would certainly benefit. It is near the L and could draw people from outside of the area, particularly from Lawndale and from Humboldt Park. Madison/Pulaski might be an even more successful option since there are more residents in the vicinity and since it has a history as a more prominent business corner than Kedzie/Madison.

Madison/Western

This is a location that could draw more people from other places in the city. It is near the L, adjacent to United Center, across that stadiums parking lots but not beyond the second psychological barrier – the nearby rail viaduct. The location is intriguing except for the fact that there isn't much here anymore. It's so bombed out that it's hard to tell that there was ever any neighborhood there at all.

 

It seems obvious that the two Southside locations are the most convincing, but maybe there could be a second market at Madison/Pulaski or Madison/Austin. It will come down to which Alderman is the most enthusiastic about the potential benefits.  In any of these cases, the best idea is to build a small police station (not one that takes up two blocks but perhaps one that takes three lots and therefore doesn't occupy land that will hopefully be used for future businesses) so as to discourage any crime that might have a tendency to precipitate at street markets.

I would really like to see the market at 63rd/Cottage Grove, but the main point is that it is moved to a community that could use the working community oriented commerce it brings. Move Maxwell Street Market TODAY!! Call your alderman, especially if you live in one of these areas and would like to see the market near you!

Filed under: Chicago, reform

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  • I remember visiting Maxwell Street during its heyday. So, I get that it's a waste in the current location replete with upscale condos created from the old food markets. The U of I did indeed force people out. Some people claim their homes were burned out to get them to move. Point is if you think U of I was brutal, you don't know U of C, the home of Chicago School Economics and one of the most ruthless ideologies associated with capitalism. There is no way U of C is going to sponsor "Maxwell Street" on their turf.
    I was born and continue to live in Bronzeville. Our organization, Bronzeville Urban Development, is working hard to keep the "Bronze" part in the equation and we're not even as close to the site as the one you recommend but still feeling the "pinch" of some folks thinking Walmart is a solution to community business.

    If you want to research a possible site try talking to Sandra Bevins at the 51st Street Business Association. That may be far enough away from U of C growing on 55th Street and IIT to the north.

  • In reply to Danie:

    Well, although UofC is home to the Chicago School of Economics, in all fairness it's hard to call any university a "Capitalist Institution" nowadays; they're flush with federal higher education subsidies. It's the reason tuition is so high and it's the reason universities are among the only entities building anything nowadays.

    Although I don't agree with all or even most of what UofC has done in their area, I don't know that they've tried to use eminent domain. Their scorched earth policy has in many cases been enormously destructive, but I do think they have good intentions and want to see their area prosperous.

    You might be right that they wouldn't sponsor Maxwell St at 63rd/Cottage Grove, but they might be willing to partner to promote it to their students and provide transportation down there for them. I think they already run a shuttle to the L, so it might not be that much of a stretch. I think they're pretty far from trying to 'occupy,' so to speak, that part of Woodlawn. And their policies might be changing -- improved attitudes may be seen in their work with that building on 55th in Washington Park near the L there.

    Thank you for your comment!

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