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Immigrants Are the Lifeblood of Maxwell Street Market

The vendors of the storied open-air market have long reflected the city’s changing demographics.

Above: Mary Tone at her booth at Maxwell Street MarketPhoto: ALEXA ROGALS

Every Sunday, Mary Tone arrives at Polk Street at 3:30 a.m. She parks her white van, takes out a tent and tarp, and sets up store. Tone, 67, is proud of her merchandise — clothes, shoes, purses, and perfumes — most of which she handpicks from Nordstrom Rack or the outlets near O’Hare. She takes hours to carefully organize everything; by 7 a.m., people are swarming to her designer goods.

“I pay $65, I give it to you for $8,” she says to a woman admiring a shoe with a peeling heel. “You could glue it — it’s nothing … I pay $65 at Carson’s for it, believe me. I can’t give this for free.”

Tone, known to customers as the “hustler woman” for her tough haggling skills, is a veteran vendor at Maxwell Street Market, the longest running open-air flea market in the country. Today, some 120 hawkers sit table to table in the bazaar year-round — rain, snow, or shine, every Sunday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. — selling trinkets like brooches and watches; apparel from Levi jeans to Victoria’s Secret bras; and household supplies including toothbrushes and deodorant.

Tone, who drives school buses during the week, remembers when she’d earn hundreds of dollars every Sunday selling with her son at Maxwell. Now, she’s lucky if she pockets even a hundred. “Twenty years ago it was very, very nice and so much people buying stuff.” Tone says. “Before I tell them $20, they give me $20. I tell them $40, they give me $40. But now it is hard to make a living.”

She remembers when undercover cops offered security; a few weeks ago, a thief on a bike rode off with a bundle of her jeans. Theft is not her only concern. As property values rise in the South Loop neighborhood, where the market runs for a few blocks along Des Plaines Avenue, Tone has long heard rumors that the city’s going to close the bazaar, although officials have continuously said otherwise.

The Israeli immigrant longs for the good old days, when she first established her stall in the original market — then on Maxwell Street, when it was known to many as “Jew Town.” Over the decades, as goods for sale (and their prices) have changed, so have the Maxwell Street vendors, whose demographic makeup has reflected the city’s immigration trends.

Patrons walk past a stand selling shoes and clothing. Photo: ALEXA ROGALS

The hubbub of Maxwell Street Market began in the 1870s. Eastern European Jewish immigrants were coming to Chicago en masse to escape the murderous pogroms in czarist Russia, Poland, and Romania. Some 16,000 eventually crowded into the Maxwell Street area, the cheapest part of town with synagogues and kosher delis, where they lived in tenement housing. Facing discrimination from the city’s English, Irish, and German populations — and unable to secure traditional jobs in department stores or banks — many took to selling household items from pushcarts down Maxwell Street.

Business boomed, and by 1916 — four years after the city formally recognized the market — much of this Jewish population had moved to the city’s West Side, able to afford higher standards of living. But they continued to commute to the market by cable car. Then came the passage of the infamous 1924 John-Reed Act, which essentially shut the country’s door to Jewish immigrants. Taking their place in tenement housing were black migrants from the first wave of the Great Migration.

Among them was the uncle of James Hollis, who is now a 60-year-old vendor at Maxwell Street Market. “I’ve been down here ever since I was a little boy,” Hollis says. “When I was 10 years old, I used to buy my All Stars here. That was back here on Halsted. Mostly it was Jewish lawyers, as well as black people.” While he doesn’t quite remember when he started selling antiques at the market, he recalls when black bluesmen like John Lee Hooker would wail for the crowd, their wires and cords plugged into outlets in nearby apartments. Today, Hollis and a group of other longtime sellers refer to themselves as “the incorporated”; the label serves to acknowledge the strong ties among their diverse community.

“We try to help one another out, look out for each other’s tables,” Hollis says. He points to his friend Celio Gerana’s white folding stand and adds: “If I see a strange character over here, by his table, and he’s gone for a second, got his back turned, I say, ‘Hey man, he’s ripping you off.’”

Vendor Celio Gerena Photo: ALEXA ROGALS

Gerena, 60, identifies as Nuyorican — a Brooklynite whose family came to the mainland United States from Puerto Rico. He has been selling tchotchkes at the market since about 2006, and his arrival to Maxwell Street coincided with a demographic shift in the city. Nine years later, Latinx families came to comprise Chicago’s second-largest ethnic population. The bazaar is now largely filled with Latinx vendors, with bargaining done in a mix of Spanish and English between people of all backgrounds looking for a good deal.

“This is like a gateway,” Gerena says. “You come to Chicago, this is what we got. You got great Mexican food, you got people selling different things, and also you got the creatives showing their works. Before you know it, you got a Nuyorican flea in Chicago.”

Latinx people have been coming to Chicago since 1910, many trading the blood of the Mexican revolution for work in the city’s steel mills. Once they arrived, the Hull House and St. Francis of Assisi Church helped immigrants settle into their new city. Many chose to stay near these institutions, living in the Maxwell Street area where rents were cheap and they could attend mass conducted in Spanish.

Immigration accelerated after the U.S. government instituted the Bracero Program in 1942 as a way to combat a labor shortage during the war. In the following years, Mexicans continued to travel across the border for work, with rumors of railroad jobs and a better life driving immigration to Chicago.

Humberto Gilberto Ramirez of Rubi’s food stand shouts his menu to patrons. Photo: ALEXA ROGALS

Pascuala Arroyo started coming to Maxwell Street in 1979, after traveling at age 17 to Chicago from Iguala, a city located in the Guerrero state of southwestern Mexico. Once settled in Humboldt Park with her mother and aunt, she started shopping at the bazaar before deciding to sell her homemade gorditas there.

“This comes all the way from Mexico, you know,” says Arroyo’s son, Gerardo Cruz, 34, who now works with his siblings to run the family business. “Like I say, good business has been in the family for years.”

Selling at the market gave Arroyo more time to spend with her three children than she would have had if she worked 10-hour days at a factory, she says. When they were younger, they also joined her in business at Maxwell, selling tamales out of buckets. Every Sunday, cops tried citing them, saying that the city prohibited the sale of prepared foods. The children worked with other vendors to guard their business, yelling to those in charge to run and hide at the sight of police.

In 1994, city officials moved the market north to Canal Street, after selling the land to the University of Illinois at Chicago. The city cracked down on vendors, but that’s when Arroyo’s business really ramped up. Every vendor had to apply for permits, and her family finally set up an official stand where they sold tacos, tamales, and gorditas.

Business thrived until 2008, when the city moved the market once more, to Des Plaines Avenue. That year, seeking solace from high fines and displacement by the city, the family decided to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Cragin. Tacqueria La Paz does still operate a stand at the market every Sunday, returning out of tradition, rather than financial necessity. “My mom will go in depression if she don’t go to Maxwell Street,” daughter Noralba Cruz says.

“We still have attachments to the flea market,” her brother adds. “We don’t want it to die, either.”

Patron Vidmantas Staskunas browses through antiques. Photo: ALEXA ROGALS

In a city quickly gentrifying and sanitizing its streets, rumors have been swirling among vendors for at least two years that there are plans to close the market. Officials have alerted sellers about opportunities to sell at other markets, such as the farmer’s market in Daley Plaza, which has made Tone and other vendors suspicious. Most agree that if the market does close, they’ll take their wares to the nearby Swap-O-Rama.

“The market is close to downtown. I don’t know if they just want to move it because they’ve been over the years pushing us more and more,” Gerardo Cruz says. “Maybe it’s the environment, or the community, maybe they don’t want us anymore. They don’t want to close it, but just to move it.”

City officials deny the claim. “We believe there is a bright future for Chicago’s oldest open-air market and are committed to recruiting new vendors and providing programming to attract more visitors and customers,” Mary May, a Department of Cultural Affairs representative, says via email. Officials seem to recognize the economic opportunity the market presents new immigrants and young businesses. They at least understand the historic bazaar’s tourist appeal, and continue to invest in Maxwell Street. On certain days, officials sponsor special events from live performances to Zumba classes.

But history points to a more fractious relationship: For the last 106 years, city officials have often frowned on the frowzy market, moving it twice and charging what vendors say are high fees for parking and permits. Noralba Cruz remembers receiving a $500 fine when the market first moved to Des Plaines Avenue for packing up La Paz slightly past Maxwell Street’s 3 p.m. closure.

While civic attempts have alternated between supporting and thwarting the market, the sellers have held out — even thrived. Perhaps as long as there is immigration to the city, there will be a Maxwell Street Market. New and old residents continue to come to the bazaar, sweating, haggling, and hustling as they always have, looking for a better life.

“It’s our home,” Arroyo says.

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