Hanging out in Rockford: South Water Market to India House, Part One
By Mike Leifheit
The South Water Market is closing. Mayor Daley in his wisdom is shutting it down and moving it to make more room for the University of Illinois at Chicago and some developers dream called University Village (Chicagos great new neighborhood). The project must be in the hundreds of millions of dollars; the political payoffs have to be magnificent.
The first portion of this renewal took out Maxwell Street and the open-air market that had existed there for eons. As a little boy, I became separated from my parents there. I just took off on my own. My mother was worried to death. When they found me, I had no idea I had done anything out of the ordinary. I was about five. I still have a pretty clear recollection of the Maxwell Street Market that day. Perhaps that is augmented by more recent memories, but, in my mind, it doesnt seem so. My vision of that day is clear.
They tried to move the Maxwell Street Market, but it pretty much failed. They didnt really want to move it, anyway. What they wanted to do was to get rid of it, and they seem to have succeeded. Gone are the Jewish clothiers. Gone is Jims Original Hot Dog Stand. Gone is its imitator across the street. (At 3 oclock in the morning, there would be a line 30 deep in front of Jims Original. It was featured in Playboy. What you ate at Jims Original was a Polish with mustard and fried onions, rolled up in an order of french fries. There was nothing so delicious after a night on the town.)
All are replaced by a bunch of Yuppie high rises. Gone, too, is Salvage One, moved to Hubbard Street (where a few imitators have sprung up around it), including Gabriels Trumpet, a commission reseller of antique and used items in the collectible genre. I love to stop there now on my way to Wabash Seafood. The change doesnt seem to have hurt Salvage One. Perhaps it has even reinvigorated it. Lets hope it does the same for the world-famous Chicago Market. Lets hope.
In recent years, the produce market has become more of a restaurant and small grocery market, catering in large part to the ethnic communities. In addition, partially due to the effort of my friend Tom Cornille, it has become where the burgeoning Chicago restaurant scene buys its exotic produce. Toms market is the picture on the first page of Charlie Trotters book on vegetables.
Tom is his exclusive produce supplier. Tom was recently named one of the 15 most important people in Chicago food by the Tribune.
Actually, when it comes to exotic ingredients, one feeds the other. Southeast Asian long beans show up at Navillo, an Italian concern. Strube, a mainline green grocer, carries a whole line of Asian vegetables. Oriental people go to S & M for the finger-hot chilies, available nowhere else. The prices are incredibly low. That is the purpose of a market, to set prices. That is what keeps the Chicago chain grocers honest, the fact that some little ethnic fruit market can often undersell them. That is part of what we are losing.
But that isnt all. The new market is expensive. So expensive that approximately half the market isnt moving with the biggest concerns. The centralization will be gone. Some of the competition will erode. Even some of the largest concerns (like Morano) have decided to give up on a market location and go it on their own. My friend, Tom Cornille, isnt going to the new market, either. He hasnt said yet exactly where he is going to be, but it will be within a mile of the market.
It was in the light of all this that on the way back from the market, I placed a call to WTTW, the Chicago educational television station. I pitched them on the fact that the world-famous Chicago produce market was moving, and they ought to do something on it. A few weeks later, I received a call from Alex Sillets, a producer for WTTW. At her request, I sent her footage I had of the market. They especially liked Bob Strube, owner of Strubes Produce (perhaps the largest green grocer in Chicago). They thought he was a character and want to do an interview live on the new Bob Sirott show, Chicago Tonight.
I will let you know what happens with the interview, if it pans out. Next week, I will take you on a visit to the market with my friend Jenny Geiger and her mother Janet.
Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Irish Rose North (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheits Hanging Out In Rockford reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are also available on his website: IrishRoseRockford.com and featured on the Chris Bowman Show, WNTA talk radio AM 1330.