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
(high heels: bent ankles)
An apple-green 2CV
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.