History of the Maxwell Street Market

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 Maxwell Street Market (Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune historical photo)

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Maxwell Street first appeared on a Chicago map in 1847. The street was named after Philip Maxwell (1799 – 1859), an Army surgeon who went on to become the State of Treasurer of Illinois.

The Original Maxwell Street Market, centered at Maxwell and Halsted Streets and stretching from Roosevelt Road to 16th Street, was an impromptu market established in the late 19th century by newly arrived Jewish residents from Eastern Europe. A Sunday-only affair, it was a precursor to the flea market scene in Chicago. Maxwell Street Market was officially recognized by the City of Chicago in October 1912.

Many fledgling entrepreneurs came to Maxwell Street to earn their livelihood. Peddlers sold goods from sidewalk stands and pushcarts, offering items from clothes and produce to cars and appliances. Shoppers could find anything and everything at the Maxwell Street Market! The Market offered discount items to consumers and was an economic hub for enterprising people looking to get ahead.

In an era of civil unrest and political change, Maxwell Street Market thrived as a multicultural phenomenon and was even called the “Ellis Island of the Midwest”.

The streets were initially filled with Klezmer music, brought from Eastern Europe by Jewish immigrants. As the neighborhood changed, so did the music. When economic decline in the American South after World War I caused many Delta Blues and Jazz musicians – notably Louis Armstrong – to migrate north to Chicago, the first economically secure class willing to help them was the mostly Jewish merchants of the area around Maxwell Street, who by that time were able to rent or own store buildings. In the 1930s and 1940s, Maxwell Street became known as a place where many black musicians, who migrated to Chicago from the segregated South, could be heard by the greatest number of people. The musicians quickly realized that they needed amplifiers or electrical instruments in order to be heard over the barking vendors and noisy crowds. The merchants encouraged blues players to set up near their storefronts and provided them with electricity and extension cords to run the new high-tech instruments. That exciting sound, along with the chemistry between city musicians such as Big Bill Broonzy and new arrivals from the South, produced a new musical of genre – electrified, urban blues, later coined, "Chicago Blues."

"Chicago Blues" was different from the acoustic country blues played in the South. It was popularized by blues giants such as Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Bo Diddley and Howlin' Wolf and evolved into rock & roll. One of the regular performers was the self-styled Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis, who played in the area for over 40 years.

In 1994, the Maxwell Street Market was moved by the City of Chicago to accommodate expansion of the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was relocated a few blocks east to Canal Street and renamed the New Maxwell Street Market. It was moved again to its current location on Desplaines Street in Fall 2008.

Maxwell Street Market is still open on Sundays, from March through December, as a nod to its historic beginnings…complete with the Blues.