The Maxwell Street Market, Chicago

Maxwell Street-16I went to The Maxwell Street Market to shoot the food and the faces, but first a bit of history:

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Maxwell Street first appears on a Chicago map in 1847. The earliest housing there was built by and for Irish immigrants who were brought to Chicago to construct the first railroads there. It continued to be a “gateway” neighborhood for immigrants, the largest and most famous of the 19th-century settlement houses was the Hull House, established by Jane Addams to help immigrants transition to their lives in Chicago. Beginning in the 1880s, Eastern European Jews became the dominant ethnic group in the Maxwell Street neighborhood, which remained predominantly Jewish until the 1920s. This was the heyday of the open-air pushcart market for which the neighborhood is most famous. “In need of jobs and quick cash, fledgling entrepreneurs came to Maxwell Street to earn their livelihood. From clothes, to produce, to cars, appliances, tools, and virtually anything anyone might want, Maxwell Street offered discount items to consumers and was an economic hub for poor people looking to get ahead. Merchandise was often considered to have originated from hijacked or pirated rail cars/rail yards and transport rigs for quick resale and dissemination of articles. Few questions were asked about the origin of a vendor’s items for sale, particularly if the price was “right.” wiki

Maxwell Street-3After 1920, most of the residents were African-Americans from the Mississippi Delta. During this period it became famous for its street musicians mostly performing the Blues.  New arrivals from the South produced a new musical genre – electrified, urban blues, later coined, “Chicago Blues.” In the 1980s and 1990s, both the neighborhood and market became predominantly Mexican-American.Maxwell Street-21

In 1994, the Maxwell Street Market was moved by the City of Chicago to accommodate expansion of the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was relocated a few blocks east to Canal Street and renamed the New Maxwell Street Market. It was moved again to 800 S.Des Plaines Avenue in September 2008, where I was today.

The documentary film Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street, details the rise and fall of  Maxwell Street and examines the history of the market, the development of the electric urban blues, the fight to save the market, and the gentrification of the Maxwell Street neighborhood.

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I tried hard to condense this topic, but it’s not possible…

To greatly improve my camera skills, I have given my tripod a long awaited siesta. I am now shooting freestyle … one cannot call themselves a photographer and not hold a camera. The shots you will see, unless otherwise noted, are all shot manually in the grips of my hot little hands, practice will make perfect!


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My experience in Italy, of which I have more to share, spurred me on to street food and people. My limitation for holding and shooting a camera has got me back in business, my disadvantage has taken an upward turn. I find shooting in the streets, the food and the people, inspiring, and just what the professor ordered.

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The above two shots are not of food, but of incense. I couldn’t resist showing you. This was the only vendor that told me to go away, luckily I already had a few snaps under my belt. I love both of these images, I love the color and I love the texture…


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What kind of street market would it be without funnel cakes?


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… and these ribbon fries were to die for, just ask my husband. They also sell them drenched in a blanket of melted cheese.

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….   Maxwell Street again 20   ….   Maxwell Street again 20-2

We ordered our lunch from La Paz. My quesadilla with everything was delicious, but no picture, my stomach took precedence.  No worries, I’m headed back again next week, perhaps a Maxwell Street Polish?  Either way I know my meal will be enticing, just hoping for the same outcome concerning my photo’s, I can only get better.Maxwell Street again 13-2

13 thoughts on “The Maxwell Street Market, Chicago

  1. Great shots Michelle! Although a little chilly, it was a great day for this endeavor. You captured the spirit of the people as well as the nuances of the food and the incense; I can almost smell it. I’m so proud of you gf!!

  2. What an amazing place to visit. Sometimes you just can’t use your tripod and its good to be confident shooting handheld. You did a great job. Love your portraits of people and of course, the food. Very interesting pics of incense. I’ve never seen it sold like that.

  3. Mitch-These are my favorite photos of all. I can’t believe this is Chicago and I would love to meet you there sometime. Great job!!

  4. Quite impressive hand held shoots- love the portrait of the gal with wrapped head, ribbon fries, Lion of Judah and one below that were excellent. I really think you do very well with photographing people (as well as the food). An interesting history and would like to see the documentary Cheat You Fair too.

  5. You are back! Loved Italy but nothing better than US of A. Love the history, the shots, I can ‘feel’ the people and the food. Reconnected.

  6. great piece on Maxwell Street. It brought back memories of when I as a kid. My Dad was a great friend to the street always looking for a bargain. I wish you could capture the sounds and especially the smells of the
    street. They would all shout to drown out their neighbor. The push carts were something else. If asked where they got it , they said “Found it in the street”. More gentrified now. Keep the good work.

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