MaxWorks
Ann Bell & Peter Maher

I'm not shy: when the women's room is occupied at my favorite coffeehouse, I just use the men's. But hey, being loud (and therefore occasionally obnoxious) has its advantages. When we went to Chicago, for instance, me, Peter and Janette, I called Maxworks, a hippy anarchist squat coop on the Southside and asked if we could crash there. I had to call a couple of times to get through to someone who actually lived there, but in the end they said okay, and we were on our way. I'd been to Max once before in the summer, so I already knew a few things about it, like where it is, sort of, and that there's a teepee in the back yard.

We got out of the early afternoon traffic jam near O'Hare airport and crisscrossed on the street grid south and east. The city pushes down on Maxwell Street from the north and a poor black neighborhood squeezes it from below. It's the line where the black ghetto starts. The buildings are grimy; the streets are potholed and the pavements broken. Fires splutter in trash cans. But despite this, its proximity to the city is making it a target for developers tender gentrifying mercies. And the University of Illinois encroaches, grabbing what it can. Many buildings are vacant, even more have already been demolished, crushed into rubble.

We didn't expect a traffic jam going into Chicago on a Friday afternoon but here we sit, breathing exhaust fumes and shivering in an unheated car on the Interstate 90 parking lot. Map in hand, we take the next exit and drive 20 miles in gathering gloom on suburban streets. We pass rows of near identical brick houses. This is the heartland of America, I say. Looks just like Melbourne, says Peter. Closer to the city, the old ethnic neighborhoods are being invaded by new immigrants: Italian and Greek restaurants oppose a Puerto Rican tortilleria and a Vietnamese grocery store.

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On Sunday mornings the many vacant lots are covered with junk, junk for sale. Chipped crockery, used tapes, thousands of dismantled cars, cheap toys, furniture, electronics. In the rain, it's a depressing sight. There are many different peoples buying and selling --Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Greeks. Even Whites. The street market was started by pre-WWII eastern European immigrants. In towns all over the Midwest, its spawn survive, when for one or two days, fine middle class merchants bring their shiny plastic wrapped goods into the streets and declare "Wheee! Maxwell St. Days."

We get back on the highway past the traffic jam and speed into Chicago's black and grey downtown. We're near the river: railroad tracks, low overpasses, potholes, bad dream deserted streets. Fires in trash cans burn into the night; a pair of homeless old men have no existence except as details in the night's cityscape. We spy the teepee from across a huge empty parking lot enclosed by cyclone fence. Pulling into the back of Max there's the teepee, of course, piles of scavenged lumber, furniture and bikes all covered in snow, a school bus full of junk that has SEEDS OF PEACE spray painted on the side, and a tree with bald plastic mannequin heads skewered on it's branches. We knock on the door, wait, walk around to the boarded up storefront. It has a sign on it--please use back door. We let ourselves in the back door. Furious loud barking convinces us to head upstairs quickly.

The house we were looking for wasn't deserted--the junk was in ordered heaps--wood, metal, bikes, glass, broken cars stuffed with material. Inside were more collections of stuff waiting to be recycled (or maybe the purpose was just to sort it into piles?) On the ground floor, shelves up to the ceiling held boxes of metal things--tops, bolts and the like; the first and second stories overflowed with paper in all forms. The walls aren't dressed, the bricks and beams exposed. That night sleeping nearest to the wall, the bricks radiate cold. No bedrooms, people sleep in lofts that run like shelves around the single large rooms and the 2nd & 3rd floors. There are straight lines, but no right angles in this makeshift architecture.

A woman with a large crocheted beret and a space between her front teeth shows us around. Here's the lofts where people live, here's where it's warm, here's where it's cold, here's where you can stay. Bob usually stays there but just push the stuff aside. Louisa points out the wood stove and jokes with a straight face about having a Maxworks board meeting to decide whether or not they should bring the wood they got yesterday and put it in the stove. Consensus decision making? I ask. No, says Lou, they'd have to start burning the furniture long before they reached consensus.

They're going out to dinner at a Mexican place nearby, open 24 hours, do we want to go? Sure, why not. We hang around with various Maxworkers. Rudner, a clean looking hippy type with a beard and a red and white khaffiya, tells us how microwave radiation from increased sunspot activity causes and will keep on causing computers to go kaflooey and eventually change the earth's polarity. I don't believe it, so it's hard being polite and making conversation at the same time. Peter's a physicist so he believes in the powers of microwave radiation. A young rough looking guy wrestles with a pair of shears and yells out ILLEGAL FUCKING WIRING and I don't care EVERYTHING I DO IS ILLEGAL. Piles of dirty blankets stir, people emerge, stretch, wander off. A dog comes up and does its dead rat imitation. A very convincing dead rat imitation, especially when Lou pulls his lip back to show his teeth and the dog was completely passive. Peter is not amused. He doesn't like dogs.

Louisa takes us downstairs to meet the whole pack. Rainbows, Ossifer, Muckluck, Peanut and a few assorted cats. Rainbows, (the dead rat dog), is the big granddaddy watchdog. So when you come in and the dogs start to bark call out "Rainbows" because if you're a friend of Rainbows that's good enough, Lou says. We try it out later when we're bringing stuff in from the car. Peter makes it to the door up to the second floor just ahead of the barking dogs.We check out the kitchen, wood stove and a few boxes of slightly rotting vegetables and apples from a dumpster. There's a case of date expired Pillsbury Pop 'n' Fresh dough. Lou says, help yourself but I tell her no thanks, I have a pathological fear of the Pillsbury Dough Boy.

Rudner says there's a Thai restaurant in Chinatown. Louisa argues for the Thai diner she and Wes always go to. The discussion continues on the way out to Wes's car. Rudner says he sure there's a Thai restaurant in Chinatown, he just doesn't remember the exact name of the street. Wes's car is a taxi, a real live licensed taxi with a meter and all. I ask Wes when he drives the cab. He doesn't answer. Wes's shirt is untucked, hair uncombed. He looks a little scary and I have a hard time talking to him at all. Later eating dinner at the Thai diner he asks me a question about politics. I try to tell him something about the International Socialist Organization and end up discussing the Revolutionary Communist Party with Louisa across the table. Janette is talking to Rudner and our conversations form an imaginary X above the table. We talk more about dumpsters and the things you can find in them. Maxworks gets crates of date-expired tortillas and burns them in the kitchen stove. I drag stuff out of the trash all the time, but never food. Dumpster diving has an odd attraction, living on the edge, in the margins and cracks of the city. Then again, dumpstering as a means of survival is one thing, and middle class slumming another.

On the way back to Max, Lou is our tour guide once again pointing out the river flowing dirty between cement walls and an overgrown lot beneath an overpass where she saw a rabbit once. Rudner starts talking about computer viruses. We joke about the importance of putting one of those little rubber things over your disk before inserting it in a computer that you don't know very well. I start to wonder if Rudner was serious about the sunspots after all.

More piles of stuff, some bookshelves and their books, a small stand of guitars and a drumkit share the 2nd floor with the wood stove and the water heater that provides heat for the rest of the building. (Outside it's sunny but about freezing; at night it drops down to -10 C) The third floor holds the unifying purpose of the house. Here they lay out their own newspaper--Things Green. I recognize their names at the foot of the articles. Even taciturn , incoherent Wes has a couple of pieces. The articles talk about recycling, rainforests, housing, nuclear waste from Chicago's power plants.

After dinner we hang out upstairs and I talk to Louisa about Green-Greens versus Red-Greens versus plain old Reds and to Wing about coming to Madison and the Rainbow Family newspaper. I hit my sleeping bag an hour later, fuzzy-headed and congested, knowing that it's my turn to get the disease that Peter had last week and Janette has this week. Inside my bag, on top of a flattened cardboard box, I stare at the ceiling/floor only four feet above my head. Upstairs Max is just starting into an all night worksession on the paper.

Everything is perfectly clear, the radio, the talk, exaggerated footsteps around the huge worktable and back and forth to the woodstove. I try to imagine myself working amidst the plumbing and wood. Upstairs, Lou and Rudner have a loud discussion of the what should go into the paper. They hope the paper will go to press tomorrow; Lou has an appointment for computer time from midnight to 4am.

By middle class standards, Maxworks just isn't inhabitable. It's more like camping. If a building inspector ever gets inside, they'll all be back on the streets, saved from illegal electrical wiring , poor sanitation and a firetrap. We make jokes about our housing coops being the "Yuppie Coop", the "Bourgeois Coop", or the "Electric Appliance Coop". Maxworks makes these jokes the truth. Our coops provide mainly for students, secure in their expectations of success. But for the people who live there, Maxworks is success: a roof and a house for activism.

I feel like a tired child in my sleeping bag as Max works into the night. We walk down an abandoned city streets, through haunted shadows and incriminating remnants of industrial society. I see money lying on the ground. I know it's as a trick. I call out, but still the shadows of approaching figures loom up from an alley. We wake up to the radio playing golden oldies from the seventies at 8:30am.

"Maxworks is a small, hands-on planetary caretaking project, diving into issues of social ecology in this urban setting, Chicago. It is a lively and ever evolving grass-roots experiment in fair and environmentally sound economics as well as a support community, networking center, and work space for the politically active, artistically impassioned, and the mechanically and scientifically inquisitive. Presently our main work is in recycling, environmental (green) networking, publishing and education, bicycle fixing, and appropriate-technologically experimenting and promoting."

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postscript: the residents of maxwell st., historic preservation advocates, and fans of the maxwell st. sound, the original chigago blues, have fought a long battle against the destruction of maxwell st. victories, unfortunately, seem to have been relatively rare. in 1994 the city closed the maxwell st. market, "relocating" it to canal st. on sunday mornings only. the university of illinois has destroyed many of the historic buildings, including some that they had promised to preserve in an agreement with the city planning commission, and replaced them with "university village."

after a long battle the residents of Maxworks were evicted in march of 2002.

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this essay was originally appeared in farrago, a publication of the university of melbourne, in 1992.