COVID-19 has stripped Chicago of an important part of its cultural history. The city on Thursday informed vendors that Maxwell Street Market will not reopen in 2020. The move is part of a larger action to cancel all special events through the end of the year as a safety precaution. The original market dates back to the late 19th Century. It’s since moved to 800 S. Desplaines Street where it welcomes visitors every Sunday from March through December.
Maxwell Street is part of Chicago’s fabric, a place where immigrants from a variety of countries earn money and introduced Chicagoans to international food, fashion, and more. Last year, Marz Community Brewing released a lager in honor of the market, with Marz co-owner Ed Marszewski giving the market a modern label, calling it an incubator for small businesses.
This year, the market opened on March 1 and March 8. But it’s stayed closed since preventing vendors like Rubi’s Tacos from setting up in their customary spaces. Rubi’s has been at the market for 23 years and the family-owned business churns out some of the city’s best tacos. Evelyn Ramirez grew up in the business since the market was at 14th and Canal streets. This year has kept the family busy, even without the market. Seven months ago, she gave birth to a baby girl. In April, her younger sister— Rubi — gave birth to her own baby. Rubi’s was founded by Ramirez’s parents, Gilberto Ramirez and Maria Landa.
In March, city officials told Ramirez and her family that they were hopeful the market could reopen around Labor Day. With September fast approaching, and the city’s novel coronavirus numbers on the rise, Chicago decided to keep the market closed. The closure is still a surprise for Ramirez.
“We understand there’s a pandemic, of course we want to be safe,” she says. “But that’s our livelihood.”
The family has burned through its savings, money that — in theory — could be used to open a taqueria. Ramirez mentions that “Tamale Guy” Claudio Velez was able to achieve his dream, but her family isn’t in the same position: “There’s no money,” she says.
About two years ago, the family began selling tacos out of their Albany Park home (they’ve even set up the same comale used at the market in the back of the home). It gave the family some money during the winter when the market wasn’t open. Customers could text their order in and pick them — they’d receive the address upon ordering. They’ve leaned on text orders since March, posting a menu on Thursday and selling tacos from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday. As winter approaches, they’ll start selling pozole on Thursdays.
They’ve tried to keep their prices down — Ramirez says that don’t want an increase because they realize the pandemic has made times tough for everyone. But at the same time, the cost of ingredients — like meat — have soared. Ramirez says price spikes have prevented them from selling beef tacos. It’s too expensive for the menu.
Though customers have visited from as far as suburban Bolingbrook and Indiana, sales aren’t as brisk as what they were at the market, Ramirez says. A busy Sunday at Maxwell Street would bring in about $5,000. On top of that, Rubi’s isn’t able to sell tacos at the Hyde Park farmers market.
Ramirez says the family is torn over whether to set up a GoFundMe, a popular practice for restaurant during the pandemic. There’s a pride factor as Ramirez says “we don’t want people to think we’re just sitting at home” and collecting donations. There’s a racial stereotype about laziness that comes into play, one that white-owned businesses don’t have to worry about.
There’s also frustration from Rubi’s when Ramirez see other restaurants in other areas getting lifelines in the forms of street dining and patios. Maxwell Street vendors don’t have deep-pocketed chambers with clout to advocate on their behalves. The city is working with neighborhood chambers to secure patio permits and to close down streets so restaurants can set up tables and chairs to bolster customer capacity limits. Most of Maxwell Street’s vendors at Black and Latinx. Ramirez says she sometimes feels like an afterthought with a focus on downtown businesses.
“We see so many businesses setting up outside areas with their space that I would think [the city] could make something work,” she says.
Hopefully Rubi’s can return to the market next year, Ramirez says. But she would like the city to at least give them a couple weeks notice. She knows the city won’t have all the answers during the pandemic. But, still she says they could communicate better.
A landing page for the market on the city’s site reads: “Regrettably, since the City of Chicago has cancelled all permitted special events through the end of 2020, Maxwell Street Market will remain closed.”
Meanwhile, Rubi’s could use support. Customers who want to order tacos can check out the taqueria’s Facebook page for the menu, usually posted on Thursday evenings. They can text orders to (773) 318-9526. Rubi’s pickup point is near Wilson and Springfield avenues in Albany Park. Ramirez will pass along details about a potential GoFundMe page if plans materialize.
And in other news...
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