Maxwell Street documentary: Cheat You Fair

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For many immigrants flowing into Chicago, Maxwell Street was their port of entry — a place where they could score a quick job or work an honest hustle. Some people considered it the largest open air market in the country, but more than that it was Chicago's cultural melting pot. Maxwell Street as we know it closed up for good in 1994, replaced by condos and chain restaurants.

Phil Ranstrom, who lives in Evanston, put produced Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street that premiered at the Chicago International Documentary Film Festival in April.

It's narrated by Chicago native Joe Mantegna, Cheat You Fair: And you can check out a preview here and give us your thoughts on it here.

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I remember going down to "Jewtown" (as my elders called it) when I was in grade school back in the late '80s. Of course, my mom didn't let my brother and me wander around too much without her. Besides, we were too young to understand the significance of the market and the culture surrounding it. However, I'm sure it was a great vibe and definitely more eclectic and soulful than the cookie cutter condos/townhomes and corporate America sho[ps & restaurants that have overrun the area. Although redevelopment there has raised property values and the prestige of UIC, it sure would be nice to go somewhere like the Old Maxwell Street to experience a different culture and life as it was during a bygone era.

I remember Jewtown from the 60's and 70's. Jewtown was a place where you could " jew " down the prices marked and spend about a fourth of what you would normally spend at any store outside of jewtown. The smell of the polish and porkchop sandwichs would stay with you for the rest of your life. I don't remember too much of the music but the old Hill Street Blues station just around the corner and all the street vendors with stolen merchandise along with legit vendors will always stay with me.

I'll take the new Maxwell Street, thank you. Instead of a rotting carcass of a former neighborhood, it is now a living neighborhood with a thriving commercial district.

People forget that the market was once a real economic entity located in a real neighborhood. It operated six days per week, and was a destination for people throughout the city.

The old market was not done in by UIC. It was done in by the proliferation of big box bargain stores in auto-friendly suburban style shopping malls in the 1950's, long before UIC ever entered the equation.

The neighborhood was not done in by UIC, either. It was done in by the near-total neglect of the buildings that followed the decline of the market, a trend that accelerated following the MLK riots in 1968. The truth is that by the 1990's, there was little of the physical neighborhood left. By then the neighborhood WAS the market, dead 6 days a week, only coming back to life on Sundays.

Given this reality, the city did the logical thing: relocate the market, and redevelop the neighborhood.

As a result of those actions, both the neighborhood and the market are once again economically viable entities. Both are thriving, and are well-positioned to continue to do so for the forseeable future.

So while I agree that neither the current neighborhood nor the current market are as colorful as the ones I remember from my childhood, we need to accept the fact that the day of the puller and the pitchman is gone, just like bleacher seats for $1.50 on game day at Wrigley Field. Its a different world, and they aren't coming back.

I would be somewhat sympathetic to Ranstrom if he had portrayed the final demise of the market and neighborhood honestly. But instead of presenting the facts, he opted for slander, accusations so ridiculous they were not even aired publicly during the controversy. So much of what is contained in this "documentary" is so factually challenged that in the end the only thing he documents is the paranoid, delusional mentality of the people who opposed the redevelopment. In that sense, the documentary IS instructive, and illustrates why the anti-gentrification crowd lost so much of their credibility on Maxwell Street.

And while I'm debunking urban legends, the ACTUAL count of chain vs non-chain restaurants at Maxwell/Halsted is as follows:

Wow Wingery - chain
Junior's - original
Lalo's - chain
Kohan - original
HashBrowns - original
Morgan's - only one other
Franconello's (soon to open) - original
Reggio's - only one other
Joy Yee - only one other
Quiznos - chain
Jim's Original - original
Express Grill - original
Massa - original

As you can see, the ACTUAL restaurant score is 3 chains, 7 originals, and 3 only one others.

That hardly qualifies it as a place of "chain restaurants".

As far as the condos, the buildings at Maxwell/Halsted are University offices (east side of Halsted) and student residences halls (west side of Haalsted), so you got that wrong, too.

I understand Ranstrom is on mission from God, but whay are YOU getting the facts wrong?

I like how, on one hand, people complain that "the man" is keeping people down with the ghetto and poor neighborhoods that are gang and crime infested, yet on the other when years later they actually do take steps to rebuild a neighborhood, people suddenly miss it and complain about it because affluent job holding people actually move in.

after reading others coments I don't think most get it maxwell street was not about the look if was a feeling you got there. I just saw a picture of my uncle with a group of his church members on a web site and it made feel so bad because it said they were playing the blues. My uncle always came to Maxwell on Sunday after church to sing and preach about God. HE did this from the late 40's until the 70's so he could get out of the storefront church and buy a real church. Some time me and my cousins would stand out in the hot sun and sing to help raise money. We saw the good and bad, we were not raised in the area, we had nice homes but we gave back when we recivied. I am now 60 years old and my uncle has been dead for over 20 years. When I was a teen ager I could come down to maxwell street and my mother didn't have to worry like I would if my child went to nice coffee shop today and met someone with a mask on. On maxwell street what you saw is what you got. I have live in condos, homes in the burbs and I feel like I am living with Rod Sterling in the Zone, most people are not who they want you to belived they are. Its not about were you live but how you live. An as far as shopping who really cares about how much you pay for what because so much is a rip-off, but a fool and his money is soon parted. I have traveled quite a bit over this United States by car and train and I can really say every town and city is being to look the same. When they say chain we are a chain with no key or clue.

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Mark Konkol

Mark Konkol covers city neighborhoods for the Chicago Sun-Times. You can e-mail him or call (312) 321-2146.

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This page contains a single entry by Mark Konkol published on June 5, 2007 3:44 PM.

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