Our city hasn’t seen the value in People’s History

The Roar of Irony Is Deafening

Professor Balkin’s Statement on “This is Not My Beautiful House” –  February 10, 2012 Colloquium on Historic Preservation held on the campus of University of Illinois at Chicago

 By Steve Balkin, Professor of Economics at Roosevelt University, February 9, 2012,

Email: sbalkin@roosevelt.edu

(I am on the Board of Advisors of the Maxwell Street Foundation but these comments are entirely my own.)

 I want to thank the National Public Housing Museum and the Jane Addams Hull House Museum for hosting a Colloquium on the topic: “historic preservation and the people’s History.”  http://www.uic.edu/jaddams/hull/_programsevents/_upcomingevents/_2012/_2_February/preservationsymposium/feb10.html

 They have brought together good panelists and are asking good questions: “How do we prevent historical amnesia? Who gets to decide what is historically significant? When is historic preservation a force for gentrification and social displacement and when is it a force for equality?”   Bravo to you!!

 I issue this statement because the roar of irony is deafening, that this Colloquium is held on the UIC Campus. It was this University, along with Mayor Richard M. Daley’s City of Chicago, that destroyed one of Chicago’s most culturally rich and historically important communities. The old Maxwell Street neighborhood was right next door to UIC and this destruction is well documented in Phil Ranstrom’s documentary Cheat You Fair; and in Carolyn Eastwood’s book Near West Side Stories.  Letters were sent from all over the world pleading with UIC not to destroy this neighborhood.  See: http://oaarchive.jeo.net/maxwell/plet.html

Here are excerpts from two of these letters.

Over fifty years ago, in the South, I recorded for the first time some of the musicians who would come to Maxwell Street and eventually achieve worldwide influence and renown. Put quite simply, the Maxwell Street district is a living monument to American creativity, the site of some of the most profound social and cultural transformations of this century.  – Alan Lomax

It deserves to be recognized by UIC and given respect. A grassroots avenue for survival got created there for masses of immigrants and poor people. It preserved old world culture, whether from the Ukraine, Mexico, or Mississippi and mixed it with the new, creating art forms such as urban electrified blues. The people to be remembered by those old buildings are the ancestors of many of us. Maxwell Street was influential in making us who we are. Its existence, though old and weary, gives meaning to our daily living and working in Chicago.  –Studs Terkel

Instead of repentance and restitution, UIC continues to brag about what it did, holding seminars around the world on how to revitalize neighborhoods surrounding urban college campuses.

 Not only was the University of Illinois Board of Trustees and Administration complicit but so were its faculty, with some notable exceptions such as Professor Joseph Persky (Economics), George Hemmens (Urban Planning), and Sterling Plumpp (African-American Studies), heroes for history. 

 Decisions regarding historic preservation are rife with elitism, classism, and conflict of interest.   It is clear this was rampant in the case of Maxwell Street, but they still occur at other sites with too great a frequency.

 Elitism was evident with UIC’s continued claim that the needs of a great urban research university were more important than a scruffy market area and neighborhood.   UIC made the case that using the land for research labs was more important than a working class place for shopping, living, and socializing. But those research labs never appeared.  What did appear were dorms, chain stores, parking lots, and condos – lots of condos, and under-used ball fields for land banking.   Ironically, UIC’s replacement for the old Maxwell Street neighborhood, University Village, copied the mixed use Maxwell Street model of integrated living, shopping, and socializing.  But the living was in expensive condos, the shopping was in chain stores, and socializing was at wine bars and coffee shops.   Low income visitors were made to feel not welcome.  Another big difference is that old Maxwell Street was an exciting destination place which attracted people to it from all over the country and all over the world.  Songs, books, films, and poetry have been written about it.  University Village is ugly — just another large scale attempt at monotonous urban conformity.   

 Dean Stanley Fish dismissed the struggle to save Maxwell Street as a wish to retard time.  But saving Maxwell Street was not about traveling back into time; it was about enriching the future.  What we preserve says what we think is important. It influences the minds of the future and provides a lens for interpreting the world. Maxwell Street was a daily celebration of diversity and multiculturalism; not in abstract theory that only elites can understand, but embedded in bricks and mortar, hot dogs, and Blues, that are accessible to ordinary people.  President Stukel and Mayor Daley could never understand that preservation of living authentic folk places are assets for the city – for the world. It was too difficult to grasp for their bourgeois tastes and short run tax-base maximizing class segregating mindsets. 

 UIC could not conceive or did not want to know that a working class neighborhood could be like a university in many ways, a significant place for generating upward mobility, great art and music, and cultural transmission.  UIC did not want to consider that the music created on the street in the old Maxwell Street neighborhood, from Blues musicians like Papa Charlie Jackson, David Honeyboy Edwards, Robert Nighthawk, and Marion ‘Little Walter’ Jacobs, were impactful on contemporary world culture — more influential than the composers and singers of the Lyric Opera House. 

 “Tearing down Maxwell Street is like taking opera from Milan” – protest poster

 “As one who has researched blues for over thirty years, I can testify to the fact that little of the physical evidence for this music’s history remains beyond historical recordings. It was a music born in rural poverty and usually performed in flimsy structures and ephemeral venues, often even outdoors, yet it has profoundly influenced popular music throughout the world during the twentieth century.”  – David Evans  

 I beg you to change the direction of this urban renewal, for the sake of those who fought to overcome racial prejudice so their music could be heard all over the world. Blues music and the people who made it are the history, and so are the sidewalks they walked on. – Ken B. (Moose) Larocque

 The culture of old Maxwell Street continued right up until the UIC destruction, with sounds from Blues jams at the Johnny Dollar Catfish stand, the backyard of Nate’s Delicatessen, and next to the abandoned yellow school bus off of Newberry St..   UIC and the City called it a slum.  Others, more in touch with the place and its people, called it a weekly community celebration, a street academy of music, a showcase for grassroots sustainable economics, a business incubator, a social safety net, and a living museum.  

 UIC Urban Planning Professor John J. Betancur writes in a 2005 report about the Pilsen neighborhood:

  “The University Village project effectively leveled the Maxwell Street neighborhood, a vibrant and bustling commercial district known as the Maxwell Street Market area that once existed at its site. The Market never threatened to gentrify the Pilsen community; in fact it was quite an asset because it provided local jobs and business opportunities for residents and was easily accessible and highly affordable.”

Almost all UIC administrators and faculty could not see this because to do so would create too much dissonance. Their salaries, raises, and travel allowances, were tied to embellishing the finances of UIC.  “Go along with the Mayor Daley-President Stukel South Campus vision” were the sensibilities of the UIC administration, the City of Chicago policy makers, and their intellegencia.  The tongue-tied approach was used by most preservationists in Chicago as well.  If you had a preservation non-profit organization, you needed funding from foundations and corporations friendly to the Mayor; so you kept quiet.  If you were a consultant, you needed contracts from the City; so you kept quiet.  If you were a private business in the city, you might need zoning changes or inspectors to go away and so you would keep quiet too. 

 To be sure, there were plenty of people in Chicago with tastes for historic preservation but who felt no conflict of interest — who whole-heartedly agreed with the Daley-Stukel classist vision.  I heard from affluent Blacks who were ashamed that members of their race played Blues outside on the street, as if music should only blossom from a music conservatory or concert hall.  I heard from Jews who were ashamed that it might get known that some of their ancestors engaged in the act of bargaining to make a sale.  I heard suburbanites tell me that is was unsightly that people sold goods outside on the streets and sidewalks. Never mind that Blues is one of America’s few indigenous art forms, or that bargaining is at the heart of competitive capitalism, or that the foundations of Western Civilization occurred in market places. They could not understand beauty of place versus beauty of buildings by famous architects.  They saw no beauty in a peddler shed or an old hot dog stand or a blind caller or people on street corners getting the opportunity to learn how to play Blues from watching the old masters.  They, therefore, did not understand the importance of old Maxwell Street, past and future.

When preservationists have some insulation from money and politics, they can act with integrity. This was the case with the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council who twice voted unanimously for Maxwell Street to be placed on the National Register for Historic Places.  In contrast, agencies with political and financial conflicts of interest are likely to act against the very preservation for which they are supposed to stand. At the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (which makes final recommendations to the U.S. Department of Interior), the vote was for denial to the Register.  Two members on the board of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency were wives of two of the private developer partners with UIC to build University Village.   Maxwell Street was also turned down from the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, part of the City of Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development. 

 What can be done?

 Accountants, economists, and medical doctors are asking how to bring ethics and integrity back to their profession.  Those involved with preservation decisions should ask that too, and historic preservation professionals should speak out more.  

 Universities should try to improve the communities they are in; not to destroy and replace them, while professors and staff should not turn a blind eye to harmful actions taken by their institutions.  All should learn the difference between real estate development and community development.  They should become aware that learning does not just take place in classrooms, that poor people can be as creative and talented as higher income and college educated people, and that making decisions on the basis of maximizing revenue or tax base in the short run may not be the best one for social harmony and well being in the long run. 


Photo, Aug. 29, Junior’s Lounge: Piano C. Red, Prof. Steve Balkin, Johnny Harper, Little Scotty (red hat, who just passed this week, Feb. 2012), Carolyn, Ivory and ___.

UIC should admit its transgressions against old Maxwell Street.  It should work with the Jane Addams Hull House Museum and other organizations to create a Maxwell Street Museum of Folk Life and Ethnic Entrepreneurship. It should allow street vending back on Maxwell Street, let Blues musicians play by the polish sausage stands and on Maxwell Street, and work with Mayor Emanuel to provide assistance to the New Maxwell Street Market, which needs improvement in its financial structure, marketing, and management.  Working to undo some of the harm to old Maxwell Street would go a long way towards restoring the reputation of UIC and the City of Chicago.  

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