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The Legacy of Maxwell Street

Posted by Cardell Phillips on 22nd May 2013

Before State Street was great, there was Maxwell Street. Located on the Near West side of the city near the trains, factories, warehouses and slaughterhouses, the Maxwell Street area became a gateway community for the early immigrants who settled in Chicago. It was where you could find work, cheap rent, a thriving outdoor market and a myriad of social organizations to show you the ropes. Everything you needed to get started in a new country. The old Maxwell Street area is known as the “Ellis Island”of the Midwest.

The Germans and the Irish were the first people to settle in the area around the mid nineteenth century. Other European immigrants soon followed and in the 1880’s Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe began arriving in Chicago. And that’s when things got interesting. The Jewish immigrants brought with them the entrepreneurial skills and market economy they developed by necessity in the small villages or “Shetls” of their homelands.

Freed from the shackles of the repressive, anti-Semitic governments of Eastern Europe and Russia, The new immigrant’s entrepreneurial genius flourished and they transformed the Maxwell Street area market into an economic engine for the city. In 1912, the city fathers recognized the value of a thriving central market place and designated Maxwell Street an official, New York style, push cart market.

‘In the old days,’ Chicago Sun-times columnist Mike Royko once wrote, ‘they didn’t stand outside and coax you into the store. They hauled you in if you weren’t big enough to resist. The only reasons they stopped was because an ordinance was passed prohibiting the ‘kidnapping of customers.’

At Maxwell Street area, the Jewish immigrants recreated their Shetls where they nurtured the values of sacrifice, hard work and community. Values perfectly suited to America, a country where an ambitious young man could move up in the world.

Burt Weinstein,the owner of a successful clothing business on Maxwell Street, describes how those values played out. “The lessons we learned as kids going down Maxwell Street,” stressed Burt, “were lessons of life about how to treat people, how people treated you, how to get along with people, how to treat them no matter what because you wanted to make a customer out of them with respect.”

The Maxwell street entrepreneurs all had a similar business plan. They would start out with a push cart or sold items from a table on the street and worked from dawn to dusk seven days a week selling their wares. If they were good at it, they raised enough capital to eventually move their business into a storefront on Maxwell Street. If they were especially enterprising, they followed that up with a move to Halsted Street. It’s what the sons of the push cart vendors dreamed about. A store on Halsted Street was reserved for the best of the best .

By the time a business reached Halsted Street, the owner was probably past his prime, but the next generation was standing in the wings waiting for their cue to step on stage.

The story of Smoky Joe’s Clothing illustrates the Maxwell Street business model in action. Joe Bublick started selling pants on a table inside his friend’s (Jacob Weinstein) store. Bublick turned that humble beginning into a successful business, Smoky Joe’s, a clothing store that was a fixture on Halsted Street for many years. When Bublick’s two sons, Max and Morry, took over things only got better.

That’s because Joe Bublick had the good fortune to have two sons who not only loved the business, but also made a great team. Max was a number cruncher and Morry was the artist; a perfect cast of talents to take Smoky Joe’s to the top and that’s exactly what happened.

Under the guidance of Max and Morry, Smoky Joe’s Clothing evolved into the store where you could find the hippest, flashiest, sharpestoutfits in town. According to Max Bublick, his brother Morry designed the Zoot Suit. When you needed something special for the big dance come Saturday night, you hopped the trolley and headed straight for Smoky Joe’s Clothing.

In an interview for the Chicago Sun-Times, in 1966, Morry Bublick said, “When the unusually high style dresser comes here with the query in his mind, ‘What is new, Smoky Joe?’ we show him what we hope is the next New Look of clothing.”

Smoky Joe’s became a legend in the clothing industry and a clothier of choice for the black entertainment stars of the 60’s and 70’s including the Jackson Five, Sammy Davis, Jr., Smokey Robinson, the Chi-Lites and many others.

The rise of Smoky Joe’s is the story of Maxwell Street; the great American story. The Bublicks went from Maxwell Street to Halsted Street and eventually to State Street. Today, there is little left of the old Maxwell Street market. It was torn down in the name of progress and urban renewal in 1994 to make way for the University of Illinois Chicago campus. But, the legacy of genius, hard work, community and spirit of those early Jewish immigrants is still alive.

Steve Omans, the grandson of Morry Bublick and Beth Stern, a Chicago area business woman, have brought back Smoky Joe’s Clothing with an innovative line of retro fashions; including smoking jackets, sunglasses and top hats. The new Smoky Joe’s Clothing has set up shop on the Internet, the 21 st century’s version of the old Maxwell Street market. Somewhere, Joe Bublick has to be smiling.