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Maxwell Street shines on the big screen — but it’s now ‘Anytown U.S.A.,’ critics say

The once-vibrant scene, home of Nate’s Deli and impromptu blues jams, has had a makeover since the filming of “The Blues Brothers.’

In this 2005 photo, blues musicians Willie Smith (left) and Bobby Davis stand at Maxwell and Halsted where Nate’s Deli once stood. The restaurant, which was featured in “The Blues Brothers,” is long gone.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on June 22, 2005, as part of a weeklong series to commemorate the 25th anniversary of “The Blues Brothers.” The Sun-Times is republishing the stories to mark the 40th anniversary of the movie in 2020.

There was Nate’s Deli, Jim’s Original and a store known as “Cheat You Fair.” Today there’s a Caribou Coffee, Jamba Juice and a sports bar.

The intersection of Halsted and Maxwell was once the center of a home-grown street market that thrived for well over a century. It’s also where scores of blues greats, from Junior Wells to Bo Diddley, and some also-rans cut their teeth,

But today, you won’t hear any blues music there. Nor will you find Nate’s Deli, which was forced to close in 1995 after 70 years (including nearly 50 years as Lyon’s Deli) when the University of Illinois at Chicago expanded.

Nate’s, formerly at 807 W. Maxwell, was backdrop for a scene in “The Blues Brothers” where John Lee Hooker sings a soulful version of “Boom, Boom” smack in the middle of the street. He was backed up by musicians including Pinetop Perkins and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. Muddy Waters was supposed to appear but was sick the day of shooting.

The inside of Nate’s was loosely replicated on a Hollywood set and used as the location for Aretha Franklin’s memorable rendition of “Think.”

“It was good,” owner Nate Duncan, 75, recalls. “We used to have thousands of people there over the weekend. My deli was always so packed you couldn’t get in.”

John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd outside Nate’s Deli on Maxwell Street in a photo taken during filming of “The Blues Brothers” in 1979.
Sun-Times files
John Lee Hooker plays “Boom, Boom, Boom” during “The Blues Brothers.”
Blues Brothers/Sun-Times files

A foothold

Those who worked on the street said it offered poor migrants and immigrants a chance to make a living, either through sales or through music.

“So many people from around the country came here to get a foothold,” said Bobby Davis, 73, a blues musician who made enough in tips to get by playing the old Maxwell Street.

But in a well-publicized battle that raged in the 1990s, UIC demolished most of the largely dilapidated structures in the area and put up dorms, condos, town houses and academic buildings.

Steve Balkin, director of the Maxwell Street Foundation, said the street’s heritage is now but a memory.

“They took something that was culturally rich and authentic and they wiped that out,” said Balkin, a Roosevelt University economics professor. “They replaced it with something very corporate and culturally homogenous. It has the look of ‘Anytown, U.S.A.’ “

Other corporate chains in the area include American Mattress, Great Clips and Foot Locker.

There are strict rules dictating the look of nearly everything in the new University Village, from signage to lighting. Although two longtime Polish sausage stands were initially going to return to Halsted, traffic concerns have permanently pushed those stands — including the 66-year-old Jim’s Original, which was featured in the movie — off the main drag.

Some streets signs from the old Maxwell Street as they appeared in the movie.
Sun-Times file photo.

A work in progress

University officials said they sought a mix of established national and regional chains along with local businesses to ensure long-term economic success.

Some locals include Barbara’s Bookstore, Lalo’s and Morgan’s Bar and Grill.

Spokesman Mark Rosati emphasized the university’s efforts to preserve some of the old buildings and facades and its plans to honor the area’s history in a street display. But he said the street’s remake was still a work in progress.

“The university has worked very hard to capture the history of the area while pointing the way to a vibrant future,” Rosati said.

UIC student Ricky McCallum, who moved into a dorm on Halsted from far northwest suburban Cary, said he likes the business mix because it’s geared toward college students. Eight hundred students live in the residence halls, including one at the site of Nate’s, although it was closed last year because of water and mold damage.

Meanwhile, the city’s new weekly outdoor street market, which has moved to Canal, is thriving in its own right, but it is now largely dominated by Latino culture.

James Wheeler, who performs under the stage name Piano Red, plays blues weekly at the south end of the market at 16th and Canal.

But unlike the old market, his band is inaudible in most parts of the new market. Even an animated performance on a recent Sunday only attracted a couple dozen onlookers.

“The blues traveled from Maxwell Street and Halsted all over the world,” said Wheeler, 71. “It’s a tougher crowd over here. I wish it was still on Maxwell.”