City Needs New Policy for the New Maxwell Street Market: an Open Letter to Mayor Elect Emanuel

by Steve Balkin, Professor of Economics,
Roosevelt University, Email:

March 8, 2011

Dear Mayor Elect Emanuel,

Congratulations on your election victory.

I write this letter because I hope you are sincere about making positive change for Chicago.


But if you want positive change for the city, you need to know that a world class city is more than neatness, corporate headquarters, and big box stores.   A world class city also includes social harmony, quality conversations across race and class, preserving the historical fabric, authenticity, and vibrancy in public places.

I expect you know about this, having lived in Washington D.C. , and then  visiting  places like New York City and Paris; and Manny’s Delicatessen and Valois Cafeteria.

I want to suggest how some simple changes in public policy can make the City money, create businesses and jobs, and enhance the reputation of Chicago as a world class city.


In Chicago there is a great economic, social, and job creation asset, The New Maxwell Street Market, that is wasted by extraordinary high vendor fees, bad management, empty spaces, a decline in customers, lack of administrative friendliness to Bluesmen and other entertainers, lack of parking for customers, and highly aggressive prowling city tow trucks.

The New Maxwell Street Market is Chicago’s official public market, operated by the City, it seems, to run it into the ground.  It is located on Desplaines St. between Roosevelt Rd. and Harrison, just east of UIC, and is open on Sundays from 7AM to 3PM.  One of the vendors, Bossman, sold some stuff a few years ago to your former employer, President Barack Obama.


The Market was originally created to provide a working class shopping district away from the Loop to prevent low income shoppers and discount immigrant merchants from infiltrating into the Loop.   But it also served a very positive purpose for the low income and discriminated people of Chicago.  It gave them a safety net, a source of jobs, a low cost way to start a business, a low risk way to test market new products and services, a source of discount shopping, and a social gathering spot.  Chicago’s regional music, Urban Electric Blues and one of  its regional cuisines, the Maxwell Street Polish, were created there.  It provided a place for people to get a foothold on the first rung of the economic ladder.  It was an incubator that allowed people to learn a business from watching others, expand social networks that enabled people to gain information and connections unattainable in race and class segregated neighborhoods, and it allowed for money capital to flow to people as they learned who was trustworthy and could make loans and business deals with.

Owing to City policy, the Market has been distressed since the retirement of Consumer Affairs Commissioner Caroline Shoenberger in 2004.  She was a hand-on supervisor of the Market (then on Canal Street) who came there every weekend and was able to fluently speak to the Mexican vendors.   She knew how to fight for the interests of the Market.  While I did not agree with her on every policy, she made a sincere attempt to listen to the pulse of the market and learn, by trial and error, how to best manage it.

The need for a Maxwell Street Market is greater than ever.  Immigration to Chicago is still high, the nation is still in a period of high unemployment, and unemployment in the poor neighborhoods is about three times as high as the national average.  Chicago is still a segregated city.   It needs places where people can socially mingle across race and class and share their cultures.  It needs a place where people can, in a real world hands-on way, create businesses and jobs; and Chicago needs an authentic place to celebrate its soul.


The first priority for change is to dramatically lower the vendor fees in line with rates charged at other markets.  This is basic Econ 101: lower the price and increase the quantity demanded.

This will bring more fee-paying vendors, less empty spaces, and more customers.  It should also bring more revenue to the city, since it is likely that vendor fee revenues will increase if the fee price elasticity is high, which it likely is.

This will be even more revenue enhancing if free diagonal parking on Sunday mornings is again allowed on Jefferson and Clinton Streets, the City tow trucks are told to be less aggressive, and an advisory board is created for the market made up of vendors, local neighborhood store owners, academics, community activists, and aldermen who do not view the Market as a zero sum game.   The Board of Advisors should be people who embrace diversity, social justice, working class culture, and a commitment to making Chicago work for ALL people.

Even more revenue will flow to the City if the market is appropriately branded and corporate sponsorships are sought.  Preservationist Bill Lavicka, along with sculptor Richard Hunt, have created a design for a monument to the Market called the March of the Immigrants.  That could be funded by donations and foundations and bring another element to the Market to make it a destination place.  The Maxwell Street Foundation wants to create a museum in the area to memorialize the immigrant history of Maxwell Street emphasizing its Jewish, Hispanic, and African-American roots, and especially its connections to boot strap entrepreneurship and Urban Blues, the root music for rock n’ roll.  Chicago is the northern terminus of the Blues trail, from New Orleans, through Mississippi, to Memphis, and on to Chicago —  The French Quarter to Beale Street to Maxwell Street.

I have read you like to go to go to museums.  While still only a sliver of the old Maxwell Street Market, it is a museum, a living museum.  What a thrill it would be to visit a bricks and mortar museum to learn about the past and then see that past embodied in the present, in a living thriving marketplace.   You can make that happen – not with money but with a change in policy.

Please note that the New Maxwell Street Market is a community public street market;  not  “Taste of Chicago” and it should not become another “Taste of Chicago.”  The Maxwell Street Market, in its heyday, was far superior to “Taste of Chicago”.  Old Maxwell Street had better food and better entertainment; was more spontaneous and more affordable to the customers, vendors, and the City.   The New Maxwell Street Market can never regain the glory of Old Maxwell Street but an attempt can be made to better recapture more of its spirit.


I invite you to go on a tour of the Market with me to meet the vendors and shoppers there who can tell you, better than I, about it.   They are proud of you winning the Mayoral election, hoping you will bring positive change to the city.  They are from all over the world and came to Chicago seeking a better life for themselves and their family.

You can meet:

Mr. Norris from Greenville Mississippi who sells antiques and rummage;

Celio Gerero from the Bronx  who sells collectibles and bric a brack;

Monica at Manolo’s Taqueria Stand from Iguala Mexico who wants to open up a restaurant and employ Chicagoans;

Salvatore Augusta from Palermo Sicily who sells used uniforms;

Mr. Brunius from Louisiana who sells Vacuum Cleaners;

Merlin who sells hats and was known as the Mayor of old Maxwell Street for his volunteer work to keep the streets clean;

Samuel Porek from Vilna Guberna who was liberated from the concentration camps and fled to Chicago to sell on old Maxwell Street – he sells shoes with his son Avrumela;

Daniel Carbajel who sells produce and whose mother Alicia Luna was one of the early Mexican produce sellers in the old Market;

Anna Campusana from Michoican who sells children’s clothing and whose son is missing for two years now — kidnapped by the cartels;

Clarence ‘Lil Scotty’ Scott who is a civil rights activist from South Carolina and still sings Blues (just outside the Market) using a pen to cover his trac hole to help him breathe; he sang with Screamin Jay Hawkins.

Frank ‘Little Sonny’ Scott Jr. who is from Scott Plantation, Texas and is 82 years old and plays the Blues Percussive House Keys (just outside of the Market); he got Freddie King started.

and Charley Joe who sells framed poetry about his remembrances growing up in Flovilla Georgia.


The Market has plenty of fans who would be glad to help and advise you about how to best run the Market.  Foremost among these is, of course, the vendors and shoppers of the Market.  Other good helpers would include Urban Planning Professor Alfonso Morales at University of Wisconsin who, with assistance from UIC trained Urbanologist Alan Mammoser, wrote a report, New Maxwell Street Market: Present and Future. ; former Commissioner of Consumer Affairs Caroline Shoenberger, Anthropologist Carolyn Eastwood, Real Estate Researcher and public markets consultant Larry Lund, food scholars Bruce Kraig and Rick Bayless, architects Bill Lavicka and Alan Johnson, Blues impresarios Lowreen Lewis and Tony Mangiullo, and the Board of the Maxwell Street Foundation.

Writers Carl Sandburg, Nelson Algren, and Studs Terkel were fans of the Market; and so were civic leaders Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, Saul Alinsky, and Supreme Court Judge Arthur Goldberg; and so were entertainment personalities The Chess Brothers, Pervis Spann, and Bo Diddley.   You can be a fan too.

I leave you with this quote from Kevin Chess, Phil’s son.

“Blues musicians found Maxwell Street’s wall outlets friendly, and found Maxwell Street’s citizens, shoppers and passersby friendly, receptive and supportive of their art. Maxwell Street is proven to be a springboard for rock and roll – and part of the musical history of the world.  When everybody’s great-grandparents and grandparents are gone, who will tell the stories of Maxwell Street history?”

With hopes for a new beginning,

Steve Balkin

Professor of Economics
Roosevelt University


Related Links

Blog Post, similar to the above, in the Beachwood Reporter

Also cited in Progress Illinois – Around the Horn section,  Wed. March 9, 2011

“Writing in the Beachwood Reporter, Roosevelt University professor Steve Balkin suggests that Chicago Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel take a look at the Maxwell Street Market to learn what must be done to get the city back on solid footing.”

Youtube Video of Bill Lavicka’s design (along with others) for the March of the Immigrants Memorial Sculpture to be at the New Maxwell St. Market