An Attempt to Exhaust a Place in Chicago

I have been working hard on the Maxwell Street Book. I am planning short little amusements between chapters – the first might be this – derived from Perec’s lovely little book – An Attempt to Exhaust a Place in Paris. Another kind of list.

Corner of Maxwell and Halsted Street, 11.50am – 12.50pm, 21 October 2012

(the 100th Anniversary of the Maxwell Street Market).


I sit in Caribou Coffee, on the southwest corner of Maxwell and Halsted.


Large man in a lumberjack shirt with a thin woman wearing shades sit on a black metal bench (fake cast iron) with small Jack Russell.


A white Toyota Prius parks outside in the one remaining spot.


Opposite – “Morgans – on Maxwell Street, Bar and Grill”


The other corners of the intersection are “Jumbo Juice” and “Sheikh Shoes.”


I have a small vanilla latte!


Cars passing in a steady stream, mostly black, white or silver.


Hipster with goatee and cap – black trousers with white lightning strikes down the side, red jacket.


A woman with dog (black).


Black and orange cab with ‘Stay Hydrated Chicago” sign on top – stops – opposite.


“I have a medium decaff coffee!”


Black man in a Bogart hat enters Morgan’s.


Cyclists with helmets.


Jogger in black with beanie hat.


Woman on cell phone.


A man staring at the screen of his phone walking slowly, doesn’t look up.


Canvas signs on lampposts – “University Village” – picture of a woman of uncertain ethnicity, white? Asian? Latina?


“Your village in the City!”


School bus painted black – “Untouchable Tours”.


The street lamps look old and have been painted black – they’re meant to look like gas-lamps.


The surface of Maxwell Street is made from what look like red bricks.


A variety of hoodies with various college logos.


“I have medium skimmed latte!”


8 – Halsted bus pulls up advertising Burger King – original chicken sandwich, buy one, get one free.


Man and woman hand in hand – him with Blacksox jacket.


Briefly can’t see anyone – 2-5 people on average, visible at any one time.


Thin jogger, grey top, shades, luminous running shoes.


Hardly a cloud.


Still a steady stream of cars.


Window frames painted matt green or terracotta – tasteful.


Red brick, sandstone  – “Maxwell Street” inscription above the second floor windows.


18 bus – 16th/Cicero.


Plentiful sporting attire, shades, phones out.


Hispanic group of three (dad? granddad?).


18 bus with “are you curious” written on the side.


“Small, iced, berry mocha, no whip – enjoy your stay!”


African-American family, three kids, one being carried.


Man in North Face jacket, camera.


“Two men and a truck – movers who care.”


A kid on dad’s shoulders – mum looks at Morgan’s menu.


African-American family with a teenage boy (14?) in a fancy suit. Church getting out?


Backpacks, baseball caps.


U-haul truck – “still as low as $19.95”.


Long yellow truck – “expert driving school, Spanish spoken, student driver”.


Red ‘Rose’ paving company pick-up truck towing tar vat.


Cars look new but economy sized on the whole.


Hispanic women running with pram.


Church has definitely finished.


More cyclists, less dogs.


UIC sweatshirt, red on black.


Some people in shorts, others in wool hats and coats.


Three men at bus stop. Two white students (?) with short hair, athletic tops, backpacks, one older guy with a hoodie.


Girl in purple in a pushchair playing with beads.


African-American woman, red streak in hair, grey sweats, sits in bench with friend holding an iPad.


Red pick-up truck.


Blue station wagon parking badly, well-built black driver with Hawaiian shirt and baseball cap.


Greyhound bus with blue greyhound on its side.


A sudden profusion of red cars.


More children now. Church?


Silver Macs outnumber PCs in this café.


Kid (4?) in blue sweater plays with fire hydrant.


8 bus – Halsted/76th.


I guess that 30% of people are looking at phones.


Man in green tracksuit with brown and white dog (medium).


“Two percent, skimmed or soy?”


Large (tall) guy in white basketball vest with large X on front crosses the intersection.


18 bus – Roosevelt.


The Prius leaves.


Some of the ‘gaslights’ are on – it’s a sunny day.


More people in shorts now.


Black population seems specially dressed up today – it must be church.


Police car with blue lights flashing – its passage blocked at intersection.


“I have a medium skimmed latte!”


More sports team regalia.


“El Milagro” tortilla truck.


“Medium iced Americano  – you’re welcome!”


18 bus to 16th/Cicero.


Traffic is lining up now at the stop sign.


“Large chai latte!”


Shoe shop filling up.


“I have a large, extra shot, latte!”


8 bus with American Apparel sign.


Fewer people, more cars.



I am writing a book about the area of Chicago surrounding the Maxwell Street Market – for most of the last century this was the largest open air market in North America before it was forcibly displaced in the 1990s by the University of Illinois at Chicago. I always start books with the intention of writing differently – combining my interests in the creative process with my academic pursuits

As I write I cannot help but be impressed by the number of lists that I have encountered. These lists might be inventories of catalogues (associated with archives and attempting some form of completeness) or they turn up in the writings of journalists or visiting novelists and philosophers who try and capture the place that is a market. Lists, its seems to me, are integral to place in some way. This is especially true in markets. While considering lists I am reminded of the foundational role of lists in the history of literature – the Old Testament, the Iliad, early English poetry. I think of the mundane and surreal lists of Perec in his attempt to exhaust a place in Paris. I have begun to attempt to write this through and thought it might, in draft form, be worth sharing.

The following is an extract from a draft of my book MarketPlace.

Over a hundred year period observers of the market were astounded by the range of things they encountered at Maxwell Street just as much as the range of people and their practices. Consider just three examples:


Shoes, clothing, fish, oranges, kettles, glassware, candy, jewelry, vegetables, crates of live poultry, hats, caps, pretzels, hot-dogs, ice cream cones, beads and beans, hardware and soft drinks, lipsticks and garlic are massed together in glorious ensemble of confusion

Maxwell Street Heart of Ghetto – Chicago Daily News April 28 1928 p 14


Clucking white pullets, geese, pigeons, rabbits and pet pups. New straw hats and vintage bird cages. Musical instruments, fresh strawberries, crockery, ladies’ hats in the latest cuckoo designs and kerosene lamps.

(Maxwell Street to Have Face-Lifting Operation Chicago Daily News , Gene Morgan, May 24 1939, p1)


Wire-fencing in various size rolls; lighted compasses; a bench drill press; spices in industrial-sized containers; refrigerator/freezers; glazed ceramic tiles in boxes; a telephone-answering machine; long-stemmed glasses and crystal goblets; gloves (ski and regular); automobile wheels and tires; underwear; jeans; jackets and jump suits; battery chargers; a snow blower; notebooks and paper for school; baseball trophies; skates (ice and roller); and comforters. (Tribune 30/10/1981 npn)


It is impossible to properly account for Maxwell Street without noting the array of lists that it has inspired. This was a market after all. Markets are sites for lists. When we go shopping we take lists with us. When we are running any but the most meagre stall we have an inventory.  Selling, shopping, consuming and list-making are intimately related practices.

“Lists narrate practice and desire. They serve as a fulcrum between consumption and destruction, two processes that are so often seen as oppositional. For the list, this seemingly humble and transitory fragment holds clues about objects and possessions, about love and loss, about meaning and memory, Lists can be both ordering and chaotic, trivial and monumental, transitory and haunting, Most significantly, they reveal the power of the mundane and how seemingly ordinary objects can be freighted with huge and unexpected significance.” (Crewe 2011: 30)

Umberto Eco has suggested that there are two kinds of list that pepper the history of representation. One kind of list is the kind that asserts order and presents a sense of completeness. These lists (such as library catalogues, stock inventories and the like) announce their ability to account for everything. The other kind of list, however, is the list that points towards its inevitable incompleteness and suggests the possibility that it could keep going forever. These are the lists that suggest infinity (Eco 2009). I have encountered both kinds of lists in my explorations of Maxwell Street. But it is the latter that predominate. These are the kinds of list that humanity has frequently made when confronted with the chaotic. Lists may be the first kind of writing – a series of nouns mapped on to things in the world. It is certainly the case that much early literature features seemingly endless lists of names or places. This is true in the Old Testament, in Greek verse such as the Iliad and in old English poetry. One set of lists that is remarkable for its very unremarkable contents is provided by George Perec in his attempt to provide an account of place. In An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris Perec observes the Place Saint-Suplice from a number of café windows and notes, in list form, the things he sees outside of the window.

A 63 [a bus] passes by

Six sewer workers (hard hats and high boots) take rue des Canettes.

Two free taxis at the taxi stand

An 87 passes by

A blind man coming from rue des Canettes passes by in front of the café; he’s a young man, with a rather confident way of walking.

An 86 passes by

Two men with pipes and black satchels

A man with a black satchel and no pipe

A woman in a wool jacket, smiling

A 96

Another 96

(high heels: bent ankles)

An apple-green 2CV

A 63

A 70

(Perec 2010: 11-12)


Such list making is one way of approaching place but it is quite obviously also futile and exhausting. Perec’s experiment has a sense of failure mixed with melancholy about it. It is an attempt to capture, even exhaust, a place. It is a mundane mirror of the heroic lists in the Old Testament or the Iliad. But it does not come even close to its stated aim of exhausting a place. This little book is indicative of Perec’s wider project. In Species of Spaces Perec asks us (readers, writers) to account of our own places through the construction of lists. Such list making, he argues, will be dull and mundane but will eventually provide a spark – a moment where we are teleported to a different place and the extraordinary will emerge.  In his essay on the street he urges us to make lists endlessly “You must set about it more slowly, almost stupidly. Force yourself to write down what is of no interest, what is most obvious, most common, most colourless.” His instructions become quite precise

“The street: try to describe the street, what it’s made of, what it’s used for. The people in the street. The cars. What sort of cars? The buildings: note that they’re on the comfortable, well heeled side. Distinguish residential from official buildings.

The shops. What do they sell in the shops? There are not food shops, Oh yes, there’s a baker’s. Ask yourself where the locals do their shopping.

The cafés. How many cafés are there? One, two, three, four. Why did you choose this one? Because you know it, because it’s in the sun, because it sells cigarettes. The other shops; antique shops, clothes, hi-fi, etc. Don’t say, don’t write ‘etc.’. Make an effort to exhaust the subject, even if that seems grotesque, or pointless, or stupid. You still haven’t looked at anything, you’ve merely picked out what you’ve long ago picked out.

Force yourself to see more flatly.” (Perec 1997: 50-51)


“Carry on,” (making lists), he writes,  “until the scene becomes improbable, until you have the impression, for the briefest of moments, that you are in a strange town or, better still, until you can no longer understand what is happening or what is not happening, until the whole place becomes strange, and you no longer even know that this is what is called a town, a street, buildings, pavements” (Perec 1997: 53) . While not being experimental writers of creative non-fiction, journalists also found themselves using the list as a strategy for capturing the flavour of Maxwell Street.