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Chicago's preservation blues

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The image was almost too painful: aging blues singer Jimmie Lee Robinson walking to the middle of Maxwell Street to sing "Maxwell Street Blues" as demolition crews tore down a block of buildings that once framed one of the most vibrant places of cultural creativity in America. In the 1940s and '50s, Maxwell Street and its bustling market became, with the arrival of waves of African-American migrants from the South, the birthplace of the urban electric blues; a place where Muddy Waters, Robert Nighthawk, Little Walter, Hound Dog Taylor, and many other musicians got started, and turned an African-American musical form into a foundation stone of modern popular music. Over the past three months, crews have demolished the heart of the Maxwell Street district, paving the way for commercial development.

In a time when Americans are embracing the vibrancy of our great cities, celebrating the contributions of all groups to American culture, and preserving our physical past as never before, how could we allow this bustling urban area where the Chicago blues was born to die an unnatural death?

Ironically, Maxwell Street fell victim to America's historic preservation movement and its failure to break free of its roots in aesthetic elitism. Obsessively focused on great works of architecture, the movement has been slow to broaden its scope to fight for places of cultural importance, even when those places are not perfect specimens of architecture. Despite some promising efforts at broadening the meaning of "preservation" - as in efforts to challenge sprawl as a threat to our national historical and environmental resources - it is the Victorian house, or the grand mansion, that continues to dominate our national, state, and local historic registers. In the face of the imminent destruction of Maxwell Street by the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), the wider preservation movement had virtually nothing to say. The National Trust was silent. The National Register dismissed an application for landmark status because, in its opinion, all the buildings didn't look enough like they did 60 years ago.

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