For preservationists and Chicagoans of a certain age, the loss of Maxwell Street still smarts. The open-air market—amply documented for decades by photographers, urbanists, writers and historians—took its first hit in 1957 when the construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway shrunk it by half; the expansion of the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2000 wiped out the rest. Yes, the Maxwell Street Market exists in a new location, but gone are the empty lots where one could hear the blues, gone is the spirit of place. What is left in the old location are a few facades, repurposed to form the walls around a parking structure, and you can still get a Polish on a side street near the entrance to the freeway. You might smell the fried onions, one of the pervasive base notes of the area for generations.
Tim Cresswell, an American studies professor from Trinity College in Connecticut, uses Maxwell Street as a case study for many ideas about space and place. (Read the section on “Waste/Smell” for a more complete sense of the market’s perfume.) As a compendium of theories, filled with book excerpts from a range of interdisciplinary sources, it offers fascinating jumping-off points. A passage on African-American writer Willard Motley (nephew of painter Archibald Motley, a fun fact curiously missing from this otherwise tidbit-filled book), a denizen of the market area for a time, sent me running to the online library catalog to order one of his books.
Scattered throughout part one are paragraphs that explain what the writer is after. It’s as if he took his straightforward introduction, then put it and all these quotes into a paragraph scrambler. On page 12, for instance, in between a quoted passage by literary theorist Stanley Fish and one by philosopher Susan Buck-Morss, he writes: “My aim has been to write this book in a way that reflects both the experience of place—and particularly Maxwell Street—and the experience of researching place. My hope is that the structure of the book encourages a different type of reading.”
The structure of the book is intentionally nonlinear, but instead of the smooth, poetic flow one encounters in other works (like the writings of Maggie Nelson or Rebecca Solnit, both of whom are quoted in this book), it’s a bumpy read. But as a quasi-anthology on, to reference the perhaps misplaced subtitle, a “writing and thinking place,” it’s a welcome addition to the vast literature on a storied Chicago place.
Tim Creswell discusses “Maxwell Street” at Bookends & Beginnings, 1712 Sherman Avenue, Alley #1, Evanston, on June 7 at 6pm.
Maxwell Street: Writing and Thinking Place
By Tim Cresswell
University of Chicago Press, 242 pages