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New DVD set shows the magic of Maxwell Street
By Matt Arado | Daily Herald Staff

Shoppers hunt for bargains at the corner of Maxwell and Newberry Streets in Chicago in 1950. A new DVD/CD package that explores the history of the Maxwell Street market is available now.

 

Courtesy Charles W. Cushman Collection, Indiana University

Casey Jones, also known as "The Chicken Man," was a popular fixture of the Maxwell Street market. He's pictured here in 1965.

 

Courtesy Jack Davis

Daddy Stovepipe plays the blues on Maxwell Street in 1959. He is one of the artists featured on the CD of live blues performances from the market.

 

Courtesy Chicago History Museum

Maxwell Street attracts a crowd in this undated photo.

 

Courtesy Mike Shea

Market-goers in 1966 break into an impromptu dance routine as live blues music plays.

 

Courtesy Chicago History Museum

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Published: 7/1/2008 12:09 AM

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Bob Kopka will never forget the chant he heard each weekend from outside his father's shoe store.

"Socks! Socks for a bargain!"

It was the call of a Maxwell Street merchant, one of dozens who hawked their wares in the bustling market on Chicago's Near West Side.

"He was out there all day long, no matter if it was blazing hot or bitterly cold," said Kopka, a Buffalo Grove attorney who used to work in his father's store at Maxwell and Halsted. "It was amazing. But that's what Maxwell Street was about - selling your goods."

For most of the 20th century, the Maxwell Street market was the city's most colorful and vibrant gathering place for merchants, bargain-hunters, blues musicians, hustlers, street preachers and anyone interested in experiencing a unique slice of urban culture (not to mention a tasty Polish sausage). Created by the waves of immigrants who settled in Chicago in the late 19th century, it was the city's version of the bustling open-air markets in Europe.

Technically, the market still exists today - the city moved it to a stretch of Canal Street in the mid-1990s - but its current form bears little resemblance to the roiling, rollicking Maxwell Street of old.

The history of the market isn't lost forever, though. A new DVD/CD package titled "And This is Free: The Life and Times of Chicago's Legendary Maxwell Street" (Shanachie, $29.99) captures the sights and sounds of the street in its glory days. The set includes a series of films about Maxwell Street, a CD of vintage blues recordings and a 38-page booklet with essays and remembrances.

The centerpiece of the DVD is the landmark 1964 film "And This is Free," Mike Shea's 50-minute documentary about the market. The film explores Maxwell Street in true cinema verite fashion, capturing life as it was lived, without the help of a narrator or talking-head interviews.

As Shea's camera prowls the crowded marketplace, we see preachers warn passers-by of eternal damnation. We see legendary blues singers give searing live performances. And of course, we see relentless merchants say and do almost anything to lure customers.

"Ask any old-school sales people, and they'll tell you that Maxwell Street was the best college you could attend," said Bob Kopka's brother David, also a Buffalo Grove resident, who puts what he learned on Maxwell Street to use in his work selling paper today. "The competition there was so tough. I remember how every place had to have a 'puller' - the guy who stands outside and 'pulls' people into the store. If you had a good puller, he was worth his weight in gold."

Downers Grove resident George Paulus got a different kind of education on Maxwell Street. He was entranced by the music.

"What you saw and heard on Maxwell Street was the epitome of the Chicago blues sound," said Paulus, a fanatical blues collector who produced the 17-song companion CD included in the package. Many of the songs were actually recorded on Maxwell Street. "When I saw those guys playing blues live, totally stripped down and raw, it was like God appearing to Moses."

A newer documentary in the set, "Maxwell Street: A Living Memory," looks at the early Jewish settlers of the Maxwell Street area. These immigrants, most of whom arrived in America with nothing, turned Maxwell Street into a thriving marketplace and community in the early part of the 20th century.

"It's a story of survival, of people living the American dream," said Israeli-born filmmaker Shuli Eshel, who moved to the Chicago area in 1989.

Eshel spent three years making "Maxwell Street: A Living Memory," completing it in 2002. When she first screened it at the Chicago Historical Society, the response was overwhelming, she said.

"It really struck a nerve," she said. "People who remember Maxwell Street couldn't stop talking to me about it. Everyone was full of stories. There's something about Maxwell Street that still connects with people."

The facts

• Chicago officials established Maxwell Street as the city's official market in 1912.

• At its height, the market stretched for about seven city blocks.

• Former federal judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, CBS founder Bill Paley and sporting goods king Morrie Mages all got their start on Maxwell Street.

• Robert Nighthawk, Little Walter and Big John Wrencher are among the blues legends who performed on Maxwell Street.

• The city moved the market in 1994 to Canal Street and Roosevelt Road to make way for redevelopment. It's open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Sunday.