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Originally an illegal ghetto market established by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Maxwell Street Market was officially recognized by the city in 1912. In its heyday, the market was home to over 200 vendors, but today the classic Chicago flea market has dwindled to 50 vendors. Perhaps an even larger sign of the market's degeneration is the fact that it no longer exists on Maxwell Street and since the 90's has been moved twice. It now resides on Desplaines street.
Today, the market has been hit with another influx of culture. Less than a European Jewish feeling, you can sense a powerful Hispanic influence at the market these days and with the smell of empanadas mixing with the chatter of all manner of sellers, you can immediately see the patchwork of people and culture on Des Plaines Street.
The Maxwell Street Market might be shrinking, but it sure ain't giving up! Open early every Sunday morning, the market is fighting to maintain its traditions. From its earliest roots, the market was a multicultural forum where Jewish and Eastern European backgrounds clashed with Chicago African American culture. The only color that mattered in those often racially tense days was the green of cash. This explosion of cultures led to a mashup of traditions where potato latkes could be eaten while listening to the blues.
One of the booths that exude the rich smell of roasting meat and glow with the energy of its vendors is Rubi's. The squat tent seems to be able to fit more food and servers than Dr. Who's Tardis. Rubi's is known citywide and has even been visited by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The bustling tent is known for its family-made tacos and its eccentric cook, who likes to yell "Yes!" while sharpening his knives.
Peter Pero, a board member of the Maxwell Street Foundation, is still fighting for the bustling little market and believes that the varied mix of culture will keep the place alive.
Cover photo via Chicago DCASE