The Jewish Market in Chicago (1932)

by Paul Mattick

The Maxwell Street ghetto in Chicago has become a household name. If a Chagallian Jew twirls his thin red beard, if a silk caftan rustles through the streets, the Chicagoan thinks of Maxwell Street. If his friend wears a suit that doesn’t fit, or a hat that was fashionable five years ago, he knows: Aha, from Maxwell Street. If someone wants to sell something that he is ashamed to give away, Maxwell Street is recommended. The stock exchange for ragpickers who search garbage cans at five o’clock in the morning, the junk store of the bankrupt masses, paradise for small-time fences, and the county fair for beggars—that is Maxwell Street.

Chicago’s ghetto is filled with Negroes and Mexicans. The Negroes are the wage labourers of the Jewish merchants, for whom Maxwell Street is only the first step along the way to a hundred-percent American middle-class existence. Their goal is Roosevelt Road, their dream Forest Park. Roosevelt Road, that means a secure petty bourgeois existence – Forest Park, the Jewish aristocracy.

Employees in the Jewish market have only one longing: slavery! So terrible is their situation: with too much to die from, but too little to live on.

The concept of “business”, expressed abstractly, results in a Maxwell Street. Without the principle of “business is business,” this street would be a huge condemned district. Low, crumbling, filthy brick houses, rotten shacks, and dwellings about which no one knows how and with what they were built, stretch for 500 metres and are separated by alleys filled with mountains of trash that interrupt the smooth, monotonous lines of the masonry. Between these piles of garbage, entire Negro families set up camp at night. The property that the police watch over consists of a lice-infested mattress that, when rolled up, serves as table and chairs during the day.

This slum is nevertheless the liveliest street in Chicago; everything is always in motion. Not even the merchants stand still. Catching and pursuing customers, demands all the agility of the Semitic race. Pedestrians must move quickly to avoid becoming a customer. Otherwise, you are forcefully dragged into a store, undressed and dressed, from which there is no salvation: you must buy.

For wealthy Americans, these sidewalk markets are the unpleasant vestiges of European immigrants, even though you will find many non-Europeans among the regular customers of the Jewish market. All languages are spoken here in a type of chaotic Esperanto that everyone immediately understands. Only the Negroes speak pure slang.

Stores alongside other stores, bakeries next to fishmongers, fruit and underwear in the same shop. In front of the stores, stalls; in front of the stalls, ladies’ stockings, tin buckets, or other goods spread out on the pavement, and behind them handcarts, boxes, and further booths and stores. Cars and trucks slowly and patiently squeeze their way through these vast displays, the remains of which are crushed under their wheels. Slip on a banana peel, and you will find yourself in the midst of a swarm of flies circling a dumped cow’s brain.

The street is being resurfaced piece by piece. A few stalls at a time are cleared, with their goods packed into boxes. The merchants wait until the new asphalt has been hosed down and become reasonably hard, then their stands are reassembled so that business can continue. There is no time to lose! Business hours are always open-ended, without closing times or holidays, not even Shabbos. Sundays are the busiest. Full beards are missing only on the Shabbos, even though young Jews think of Roosevelt Road and shout hoarsely: “Come here, boys, cold lemonade, hot sausages!” Kosher? Who’s asking?!

If a woman foregoes the purchase of shoes because they were too expensive, she’ll be chased as far as the next corner, where a moment’s hesitation finds her confronted again by the merchant, who has forgotten the reduced price but instead is interested in whether the woman realises the good deal that was offered to her. Whether she understands is more important to him than the sale itself; after all, he sells below cost and loses in the process, sinking further and further back to Roosevelt Road, where the Shabbos is still holy.

Nothing is worthless here; there’s nothing that can’t be bought—a bent and rusted nail, a Persian rug, all loosely based on Morgenstern’s ‘Picket Fence’ of “fringes, without anything around.”1 Legless plaster mannequins that must be taught to stand on their heads,2 are unwrapped and re-wrapped for years on end, rising and falling alongside stock prices. Burned out light bulbs, cracked chamber pots, and umbrellas without fabric become the goods that determine people’s existence. Ever optimistic, they believe that even after ten hours without a sale, the eleventh will bring a huge one. They hope for it from one day to the next with a patience that stands in the sharpest contrast to their physical agility. The six-year-old black boys, with their almost total devotion to their tasks, these “violators” of the child labour laws, sometimes spend two hours shining the shoes of a bored and leisurely gentleman. After all, business looks better when it keeps them busy, an advertisement in itself. Maxwell Street optimism manifests itself calmly in the ability with which Papa Cohen handles every problem. If a customer asks for a green suit, which Mr. Cohen does not carry, he’ll simply tell his daughter: “Miriam, turn on the green light, the gentleman wants a green suit!”


Originally published in: Urania, Jg. 8, 1931/32, Heft 12, S. 353-355, (Pseudonym: Gerhard Tramp): Der Judenmarkt in Chikago.