Mostly Men and Money on Maxwell Street

By The Obsidian Collection Archives

Maxwell
Street was a “gateway” neighborhood for immigrants and minorities on Chicago’s South
Side. 
Started by the Jewish community in the 1840s, it became very popular for
African-Americans in the 1920s during the Great Migration.   Maxwell
Street was famous for its Black street musicians that who
sang Blues and Gospel music.   Maxwell
Street was a precursor to the flea markets in Chicago.  It was a place
where stores and individuals could sell their wares for a fast buck with low
barriers of entry to the marketplace.    In
1983, adults and children with little money could find clothes and accessories
at Maxwell Street.    It is still branded as the
“longest running open air market in the country” the years before big
development came. This was the last time it had the look and feel of the
original its of Maxwell Street.

Two young men (1983-08) by Shakir Karriem, PhotographerThe Obsidian Collection Archives

Young folks created urban fashion trends with their finds on Maxwell Street. These young men pose for the photographer, looking good while shopping.

Man selling miscellaneous (1983-08) by Shakir Karriem, PhotographerThe Obsidian Collection Archives

Vendors on Maxwell Street sell everything from boom boxes and knives to clocks and hair care products. Those who could not afford regular retail merchandise found what they needed here.

Man selling miscellaneous (1983-08) by Shakir Karriem, PhotographerThe Obsidian Collection Archives

Not everyone had a shop. Many vendors sold items right on the street.

Slotkowski Polish Stand (1983-08) by Shakir Karriem, PhotographerThe Obsidian Collection Archives

The original Maxwell Street Polish (sandwich) is reported to have been created by Jimmy Stefanovic, a Macedonian immigrant.  It is a Chicago-specific variation of kielbasa. What makes it unique is it is more seasoned and made from a combination of both pork and beef.  Many restaurants around the city have added the “Maxwell Street Polish” to their menus.  This venue is one of many that copied the original Polish sausage sandwich and benefited from its reputation.

Man selling shirts (1983-08) by Shakir Karriem, PhotographerThe Obsidian Collection Archives

Setting up a shop on Maxwell Street was far less complicated than other retail spots in the city. Each shop sold a true variety of wares.

Typical Maxwell St. Store (1983-08) by Shakir Karriem, PhotographerThe Obsidian Collection Archives

Maxwell Street Market represented a significant change in American retail and economic history. This small but important segment of commerce recognized the availability and influx of world imports and markets priced much lower than American-produced goods. The market also respected and responded to the spending power of minorities and immigrants; they could take their cash to Maxwell Street, where they were welcome, accepted, and could shop.

Woman and two girls (1983-08) by Shakir Karriem, PhotographerThe Obsidian Collection Archives

You could find women and girls on Maxwell Street, too.

Man looking back (1983-08) by Shakir Karriem, PhotographerThe Obsidian Collection Archives

The "rule" was to look in department stores and magazines for trends and then find a reasonable facsimile on Maxwell Street. Note the woman in the background with the giant plume.

Man selling buttons (1983-08) by Shakir Karriem, PhotographerThe Obsidian Collection Archives

"Temporary" structures attracted as much business as the shops. Trendy items in national chain stores were available on Maxwell Street too.

Two boys with pop (1983-08) by Shakir Karriem, PhotographerThe Obsidian Collection Archives

Young Black boys could hang around Maxwell Street and grab a "pop" (the Chicago word for soda) without concern of harassment. That was not true for all parts of Chicago.

Blind man (1983-08) by Shakir Karriem, PhotographerThe Obsidian Collection Archives

What might be considered "panhandling" in other communities was not uncommon on Maxwell Street. There were many ways to make some money.

Man selling earrings (1983-08) by Shakir Karriem, PhotographerThe Obsidian Collection Archives

Maxwell Street was a small street that intersects Halsted just south of Roosevelt. But the term literally grew to refer to a small series of streets that formed a neighborhood.

Man selling shoes (1983-08) by Shakir Karriem, PhotographerThe Obsidian Collection Archives

Working class laborers often went to Maxwell Street to get boots for their jobs. These shoes often came directly from import merchants and were sold directly to consumers.

Shoeshine man (1983-08) by Shakir Karriem, PhotographerThe Obsidian Collection Archives

Those without merchandise could set up shop to perform services, too. Everyone could make or spend a few dollars on Maxwell Street.

Storefront awning (1983-08) by Shakir Karriem, PhotographerThe Obsidian Collection Archives

The University of Illinois at Chicago established at the outskirts of Maxwell Street in 1965.  By design, they had very little interaction with the local merchants.  The university began slowly acquiring the land in and around Maxwell Street as it came on the market as they decided on expansion in the 1980s.  As the university made its goals public, everyone knew it was the beginning of the end of Maxwell Street. 

Credits: Story

Photographer: Shakir Karriem
Year: 1983
Owned By: THE OBSIDIAN COLLECTION ARCHIVES

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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