University Expansion in Chicago Sparks Protest by Bluesman

Chicago's Maxwell Street district is considered by many to be the birthplace of Chicago blues. But the old neighborhood is in danger of permanently losing some of its historic buildings, thanks to expansion plans by the University of Illinois at Chicago. The potential loss of the neighborhood has sparked protests by a coalition of blues musicians, including a hunger strike by 69-year-old APO Records artist Jimmie Lee Robinson.

Robinson began his fast Friday, August 18, to draw attention to threats posed by the expansion of the university's south campus into the area. The expansion will add "academic facilities, student housing, market rate residential housing, as well as new retail and parking facilities to the area," according to University public-affairs official Mark Rosati. The plan has long been publicly discussed, has plenty of "community support," and will benefit both the university and the neighborhood, according to Rosati.

That's not the way Jimmie Lee Robinson and his allies see it. "Maxwell Street was my home and where my first morality battles began, and there was no one with me but my God," Robinson said. His supporters include the Maxwell Street Historic Preservation Coalition, a group that includes Chicago blues greats B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Bo Diddley, and Charlie Musselwhite, as well as Blues Foundation executive director Howard Stovall. The group applied in 1994 to have the district accepted by the National Register of Historic Places, but the application was rejected by every appropriate agency at the city, state, and federal levels.

"None of the buildings in the area were deemed to be historic," Rosati stated. The Coalition filed a second application this year, and it was unanimously endorsed by the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council in June. William Wheeler, an Illinois State Historical Preservation official, issued a statement opposing the endorsement in July. The conflict will be settled by a decision expected September 1 from Carol Shull, keeper of the National Register. Shull rejected the first application to spare Maxwell Street.

This coming weekend, August 25–27, Maxwell Street will host a 48-hour Blues Vigil to boost public support for the preservation effort.