Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Chicagoans Aim to Save Outdoor Market

Activists say the Maxwell Street Market offers the city diversity, a sense of history, and a catalyst for economic development

IN the shadow of downtown Chicago, Betty Poole hawks her goods in the numbing morning cold.

Seven years ago, she was without a job and about to lose her apartment when a friend loaned her $18 to start vending on Sundays at the Maxwell Street Market. Now, rain, snow, or shine, she sells clothes, detergent, pens, pet supplies, and whatever else she can find to make ends meet.

About these ads

``Without this place, I'd be homeless,'' Ms. Poole says.

Starting with Jewish peddlers in the 1870s, this market has offered a leg up on the economic ladder for waves of immigrants and other low-income Chicagoans.

But the future of the market - one of the nation's largest and oldest - is in doubt. The University of Illinois at Chicago, whose campus rises just north of Maxwell Street, wants to expand over the market to make more room for its 25,000 students and research programs.

Last Tuesday, the Community Development Commission recommended selling about 12 acres of city land to the university for $4.2 million. The deal now goes to the City Council for approval; a decision is expected this week. Even if the city balks, the university could use its power of eminent domain to swallow up the land. Markets experience boom

Around the country, markets are becoming popular as people look to escape suburban-mall and chain-store sterility. A 1989 study found that almost 90 percent of markets stayed steady or were growing, says Kent Schuette, a Purdue University professor specializing in urban markets.

Some cities have formed not-for-profit corporations to help markets, recognizing that they can stabilize neighborhoods, promote entrepreneurs, and bring together people of different backgrounds. ``[They] are looking at these as catalysts for economic development,'' says Larry Lund, a community planner who has worked with markets nationwide.

For example, city officials have worked with vendors to redevelop Seattle's Pike Place and Philadelphia's Reading Terminal markets into thriving commercial and tourist centers. In cities like Cincinnati and Indianapolis, leaders are figuring out ways to promote markets, Dr. Schuette says.

About these ads

While most specialize in crafts, fresh food, wholesale items, or secondhand goods, Maxwell Street combines them all. On a recent Sunday, choices included computers, hubcaps, pickled pigs' feet, African masks, textbooks, a car, and Doberman pinschers. The market is also known for blues concerts and tempting offerings of sausages, ribs, and hot tamales.

``Maxwell Street is one of the few places left in the city where I can mix with black people, Hispanic people, white people, Asian people, and Mideastern people,'' observes Sharon Wolfe, a frequent market shopper.

The number of market vendors ranges from 340 in the winter to 850 in the summer, says Alfonso Morales, a University of Arizona sociology professor who studied the market for three years. If the weather is good, more than 20,000 shoppers pack the 10 or so square blocks, he says.

``The working man can't afford the stores,'' explains Tom Heil of suburban New Lenox, who has shopped there since his grandfather took him 30-plus years ago. ``Everything I have on, I bought at Maxwell Street.''

But he may not shop there much longer. The University of Illinois at Chicago has bought about half the 34 acres around the market and is trying to buy the rest, most of it city-owned.

City officials promise to find a new home for the market, but so far they haven't found one that satisfies vendors. In October, the Department of Planning and Development proposed moving the market to Canal Street, an industrial area about a half-mile away. But vendors said the site was too small, while businesses around Canal Street said they didn't want market mess or traffic.

Steve Balkin, a Roosevelt University economics professor who is in a coalition trying to save the market, says a new location would lack Maxwell Street's history, accessibility, and ties with surrounding businesses.

The university says it needs more land to serve students living on campus, boost graduate programs, and climb the ranks of major research institutions. Hemmed in by expressways and the gentrifying Taylor Street neighborhood, the university has no choice but to expand into the Maxwell Street neighborhood, says Jim Foerster, an urban planning professor in charge of school expansion plans.

Initially, the university wants to use the land for a new police station, park, vehicle-maintenance facility, parking lot, and ball fields. Eventually, it wants to add a field house, shops, and a major research complex for joint ventures with private industry, Mr. Foerster says.

If the Illinois legislature approves enough money, land acquisition could be concluded by the end of 1994, and new buildings could be started in 1995, Foerster says. The university estimates that expansion would create 1,000 jobs, generate $155 million in wages from construction alone, and attract $30 million a year in research grants.

But Maxwell Street's supporters counter that the market itself is valuable economically. Its elimination would cost vendors, customers, and nearby businesses $49.3 million over seven years, according to a study done by Mr. Morales, Mr. Balkin, and Joseph Persky, an economics professor at the university.

Start-up role

The market also plays a key role for start-up entrepreneurs, says Arturo Vazquez, executive director of the 18th Street Development Corp., a not-for-profit agency in the adjacent, mostly Hispanic Pilsen neighborhood. Moreover, a nearby strip of stores catering to low-income shoppers will have little hope to survive if the market moves, he says.

University officials and some nearby residents say the market is a grubby fragment of its old self, a place where stolen goods are now sold and taxes rarely paid. While it is a bustling bazaar on Sundays, on other days it is mostly abandoned, a wasteland of vacant lots piled high with trash.

But market partisans blame the city for much of the neighborhood's decay. In the 1950s and '60s, the area around the market became an urban renewal zone and most buildings were razed. The university was built to its north, an expressway to its east.But nothing went up to replace the dense tangle of shops and tenements that once lined the market. In the 1980s, the city decided to stop providing essential services - like toilets and trash removal - to the market, saying vendors should take care of sanitation themselves.

``The real issue is that the city has simply failed to maintain its own public market for a long time, '' says George Hemmens, an urban planning and policy professor at the university.

Market supporters suggest that the university could share land with the market, using it as a living laboratory for study of history, sociology, and business.

But Foerster says the design of the expansion makes cohabitation with vendors impossible. Also, the university doesn't want to be responsible for cleaning up after the market, he says.

He blames ideological posturing for much criticism aimed at the university. ``It's good theater to say the university is the big, bad, 1,000-pound gorilla,'' he says. ``But the university does an awful lot of community service.''

The vendors, meanwhile, vow to fight the market's removal, even if they lack money and political clout. Mr. Lund is confident the vendors will somehow find a way to keep selling their goods, whether on Maxwell Street or at a new location.

``The university doesn't want to see, smell, or hear the market,'' he says. ``But the market has been very resilient over the years. It has survived many attempts to destroy it.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.