Maxwell Street: A History of Racial and Cultural Integration
Author: Albus Gao
Program of Study: SSD MAPSS
I have been a blues fan for years. It didn’t take long before I discovered that Chicago is essentially the birthplace of urban blues in postwar America. When I was browsing through the list of legendary blues artists in Chicago hoping to find some new music inspirations, a street in Chicago called Maxwell Street caught my attention. It is said to be the origin of the Chicago blues, where those young legends started their careers as street artists. After doing some exploratory searching on Maxwell Street, I found its past with immigrants very fascinating. The history of Maxwell street, starting from its outset at the turn of the 20th century to its demise in the 1990s, is almost a representation of how racial and cultural integration can contribute to the development of a city. By looking back at and, perhaps more importantly, remembering the history of Maxwell Street, one may better grasp the history of the movement of people in and around Chicago.
In the very early history of Maxwell Street, it was known for being the melting pot of immigrants from all over the world. Some of the earliest inhabitants of the Maxwell Street, an east-west street in the area of the Near West Side, were Jewish people who came to America to escape Antisemitism in Eastern Europe and Russia during the turn of the 20th century (Ranstrom 2006). In addition to Jewish immigrants, Greeks, Bohemians, Russians, Germans, Italians, and Mexicans also started moving into the neighborhood thanks to the establishment of Hull House, Chicago’s first settlement house for immigrants located in the Near West Side, in 1889 (Bryan & Davis 1990). It was estimated that about 16,000 immigrants had moved into the Maxwell Street area, the “cheapest part of town with synagogues and kosher delis, where they lived in tenement housing (Tepper 2018, para. 8),” before 1924 when the John-Reed Act was passed, an act which had basically prohibited Jewish immigrants from entering the country.
As the community started to grow in size, a harmonious and multicultural environment was created in Maxwell Street. Due to the discrimination toward Jews at the time, these new settlers started selling household items and running small businesses on Maxwell Street. Even though Jewish merchants were the first and dominant ethnic group at the time, their attitude toward other racial groups was more than tolerant: “We Jews ought to be the last ones to hold a prejudice against another race, after all that we have been through,” a Jewish merchant said at the time (Wirth 1828). Gradually, this open-air street market run by mixed ethnic groups had expanded and become a crowded, nationally renowned bazaar known as the Maxwell Street Market.
In the heyday of the Maxwell Street Market, it not only succeeded in integrating different races in the area and served as a destination for countless visitors and shoppers, it also promoted the development of blues music in Chicago. In the 1930s and 1940s, African Americans from the segregated south started pouring into Chicago for better housing and working opportunities as well as to avoid the southern Jim Crow laws. Many eventually ended up in the Maxwell Street area (Balshaw et al. 2000). Thanks to the healthy interracial environment in the Maxwell Street area, those newcomers from the south were quickly integrated into the community (Balshaw et al. 2000). Many black musicians from the south soon discovered the Maxwell Street Market after they arrived in Chicago and became street artists who performed for the visitors of the Market. The earlier settlers, mainly Jewish merchants, of the Maxwell Street quickly realized that those out-door performers could help boost the popularity of their businesses. As a result, blues musicians were allowed, sometimes even invited, to play on the street every Sunday.
However, when Black musicians first came to Chicago, they were playing the southern style blues known as the Delta blues. But after they had packed into the Maxwell Street Market, they realized that the acoustic sound from their guitars and harmonicas was not loud enough to be heard, and the songs about country life did not fit in the environment of Maxwell Street Market in which bargaining, shouting, and joy were really the theme. Kevin Moore, a Chicago blues singer and guitarist once said, “You have to put some new life into it, new blood, new perspectives. You can’t keep talking about mules, working on the levee (Frey 2004).” Gradually, the country blues shifted to urban blues, played through guitar amplifiers, and accompanied by drum and bass in the busy Maxwell Street Market. As the blues music was slowly woven into the vibe of Maxwell Street, black musicians like Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Bo Diddley (Smith 2014) who had played in this music community went on and brought their music to the general public and forever changed the landscape of American Blues music and Rock & Roll.
Unfortunately, the legacy of Maxwell Street was practically lost in time when the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) acquired most of the land in the area and razed the whole area for its athletic fields (Berkow 1977). The ongoing gentrification process in the area now has also rendered the immigrants in Maxwell Street vulnerable (Tepper 2018). During my research on the topic, I learned that the spirit of Maxwell Street Market is somehow preserved and continued at the New Maxwell Street Market locates on S Desplaines Street. Some argue that the market on Desplaines Street has none of the flavor of the old Street. However, I believe the spirit of Maxwell Street has never dispersed. The idea of racial and cultural integration has already become what makes Chicago Chicago. As long as people still have faith in racial and cultural integration, the old Maxwell Street spirit will live on.
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Chicago Detours. 2019. Street musicians plying their trade on the curb in the Maxwell Street Market.Image. https://www.chicagodetours.com/musicians-maxwell-street-market/.
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Maxwell Street Foundation. 2020. “The Market”. Maxwell Street Foundation. http://maxwellstreetfoundation.org/history/the-market/.
Ranstrom, Phil. 2006. Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street. Film. Chicago.
Smith, Tom. 2015. “Maxwell Street: The Birthplace of Chicago Blues”. Chicago Blues Guide. http://www.chicagobluesguide.com/features/maxwell-street-visit/maxwell_street_birthplace_of_blues_page.html.
Wirth, Louis. 1828. The Ghetto. Chicago: The University of Chicago.
Tepper, Nona. 2018. “Immigrants Are the Lifeblood of Maxwell Street Market”. Chicago Magazine. https://www.chicagomag.com/city-life/September-2018/Immigrants-are-the-Lifeblood-of-Maxwell-Street-Market/.