Cheat You Fair (Maxwell Street Documentary, NR)

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cheatyourfair.jpgYou could fill a hall of fame with the blues musicians who lived in the Maxwell Street area, including Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Little Walter to name just a few. Cheat You Fair is narrated by former Chicagoan Joe Mantegna and features interviews with a wide cast of citizens from Studs Terkel to Buddy Guy to Dan Ackroyd.

Urban renewal is one of those terms which sounds good in principle but in practice often delivers the very opposite of what was promised. Instead of rehabilitating blighted neighborhoods it can destroy vital and well-functioning ones, and rather than benefiting society's most vulnerable citizens it may sacrifice their interests and favor those of the rich and powerful.

The bad kind of urban renewal describes what happened to Chicago's Maxwell Street, according to the documentary Cheat You Fair which debuted at the Chicago International Documentary Film Festival and is now available on DVD. In its heyday Maxwell Street was a vital neighborhood with a legendary open-air market centered at the intersection of Halsted and Maxwell Streets, about a mile south of the Loop in Chicago's Near West Side. It was known as "Chicago's Ellis Island" because the neighborhood was home to so many recent arrivals to the city: Reportedly in the 1920s you could walk down Maxwell Street and hear 50 different languages being spoken. Maxwell Street was also the birthplace of electronic blues: African-American musicians who moved there from the South found that they couldn't be heard in the outdoor market without amplification, and a new style of music was born.

But the University of Illinois at Chicago wanted to expand into Maxwell Street and was granted powers of eminent domain to seize and destroy a number of buildings. Then the area was declared to be "blighted" and, despite community efforts to obtain landmark status, the market was closed in 1994.Today Maxwell Street is part university campus and part upscale housing developments indistinguishable from many other neighborhoods in the city or in other U.S. cities for that matter—director Phil Ranstrom refers to the area today as "Anytown, U.S.A."

Ranstrom began work on Cheat You Fair during the last days of the market in 1994, interviewing a number of people who worked there as well as neighborhood residents, academics and community activists. He's angry, they're angry, and you will be too after you watch this documentary. But if you're not from Chicago and don't already have a particular interest in the subject, the political discussion can go on a bit too long. Dirty politics, conflicts of interests, backroom deals—OK, we get it. And we especially love the fact that Mayor Richard Daley presided over the beginning of Maxwell Street's destruction while his son, Mayor Richard Daley, completed the job.

On the other hand, I would have liked to hear more about the history of Maxwell Street and the market (maybe that's material for another film). Maxwell Street had the good fortune to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and became known as "Jewtown" (which several interviewees state is meant descriptively, not pejoratively) because of the large number of Jewish families who settled there in the late-19th century, as well as the fact that Jewish merchants were common on Maxwell Street long after they moved their families to the suburbs; that name is still used today.

African-Americans arrived at Maxwell Street as migrants of the internal rather than external variety: They moved to Chicago in large numbers in the Great Migration from the South, which began around 1910. You could fill a hall of fame with the blues musicians who lived in the Maxwell Street area, including Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Little Walter to name just a few. Mexicans, Greeks and Italians were also strongly represented in the surrounding neighborhoods, making for the kind of cultural interchange which is the particular province of cities.

Cheat You Fair is narrated by former Chicagoan Joe Mantegna and features interviews with a wide cast of citizens from Studs Terkel to Buddy Guy to Dan Ackroyd. The title sums up the irony of the whole enterprise: It was the name of a now-vanished store and also exemplifies the spirit of bargaining prevailing at the market in which buyer and seller each tried to gain an advantage (fixed price? maybe you'd be happier shopping at Marshall Fields?) but were playing on the same field and following an understood set of rules. In the case of the city's destruction of Maxwell Street one side had all the advantages, beginning with the ability to change the rules to suit themselves. You can learn more about Cheat You Fair and order copies online. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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