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The Maxwell Street Muddle

Like a frog slowly dying in gradually hotter water, the New Maxwell Street Market has been killed off by City Hall and aldermanic indifference, ineptness, and ignorance. But before being boiled, multitudes of vendors have voted with their feet to go elsewhere, mainly to the Swap-O-Rama Flea Market on 41st and Ashland, where fees are lower and management is more skilled.

Empty vendor spaces abound on Des Plaines Street on Sunday, the new site of the New Maxwell Street Market. And the blues musicians have disappeared, too. The explanation is basic textbook economics: higher fees, stifling regulators, and mismanagement. The Mayor's Office of Special Events now runs the Market with Jam Productions as their highly paid co-conspirators. Neither of them know how to run a grassroots community public market and, it seems, neither of them want to learn.

Maxwell Street is a working-class and immigrant street tradition. It is not Taste of Chicago; it is not a Rolling Stones concert, although the roots of both those events can be historically traced to Maxwell Street. The market is based on freedom and the spontaneous celebration of shared experiences in the common human condition of striving to survive. It is mutual aid and street culture. It is not bureaucracy and social control. A well-run public market promotes friendliness, surprise, and authenticity; not contrivance and conformity.

The higher fees were instigated by Aldermen Walter Burnett Jr. and Issac Carothers to subsidize the Jumping Jacks Program (inflatable bouncy playhouses), a program run by Mayor Daley's three former bodyguards.

"Which do you think our precious youth would learn more from, watching how poor people and immigrants work together to run businesses at the Maxwell Market or jumping wildly in those filthy bubbles," says 82-year-old bluesman Frank "Little Sonny" Scott Jr.

Scott, a blues legend, formerly with Jimmie Lee Robinson, Johnnie Mae Dunson, and Freddie King, tries to come to the Market every Sunday to play his blues percussive house keys, but due to the unfriendly Maxwell Street management, plays outside of the market in front of a nearby store.

There will be a Maxwell Street Town Meeting Tuesday, March 24 at 6 p.m. at the UIC Forum. Aldermen and the Mayor's Office of Special Events say they want to hear from the vendors, but I think it is just cover while they put wood on the fire to boil the frog.

Even while being at the Market, city officials are clueless that the frogs are smarter than they are and have essentially already left.

But I agree with a 2006 report, funded by the Chicago Community Trust and written by University of Wisconsin Urban Planning Professor Alfonso Morales, that the market can be revived by taking it out of City Hall and spinning it to a politically independent non-profit community development organization.

I think Chicago still needs a weekly public market. Swap-O-Rama, while a cool and bustling place, should not be the default. It does not allow independent outdoor restaurants; charges an entrance fee; is not centrally located; and has no spontaneous entertainment. I hope that Chicagoans do not let City Hall continue business as usual and kill off this last remnant of our most historic and integrated neighborhood.


Steve Balkin is a professor at Roosevelt University.


Posted on March 24, 2009

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