Whenever circumstances took me around the Maxwell Street area in the late eighties and early nineties, I always tried to stop at Nate’s. Located at 807 Maxwell Street, this deli had been around seemingly forever. The owner, an imposing black man six feet, five inches tall, named Nate Duncan, worked as a counterman for Lyon’s Deli, slicing corned beef and dishing out chopped liver, for many years. When the family sold the business in 1973, Nate became the new owner. I got to know him pretty well since his cousin Eddie Long was a colleague of mine at the City.
As part of my job as an administrator for the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training, I travelled extensively throughout the city visiting agencies in just about every community. I loved the diverse aromas emanating from the restaurants in these neighborhoods. My favorites were El Milagro in Little Village, the Parthenon in Greek Town, and of course Nate’s Deli on Maxwell Street.
The Maxwell Street area, from Roosevelt Road on the north to the 16th Street viaduct on the South, from Halsted Street on the east and Racine on the west, always evoked powerful memories for me. As a child, my father use to bring me to the Maxwell Street market looking for bargains and schmoozing with the guys that he knew that worked there. He grew up right around the corner from Nate’s, on the 1300 block of South Green. All the houses and stores on that block fell to the bulldozer, to make way for a new field for the UIC baseball team.
From about 1890 until 1920, thousands of poor Eastern European Jewish families called the Maxwell Street area their first home in America. After the Jews left and moved to other neighborhoods to live, the market remained as a colorful and vibrant outdoor and indoor bazaar. The Jewish merchant presence in the area persisted until 1994, when the University of Illinois, with the encouragement of city government and the power of eminent domain, bought out all the remaining businesses in order to raze the buildings for redevelopment.
Nate Duncan resisted the inevitable as long as he could. His whole life centered on that small deli, essentially a deli counter with four or five tables to sit diners. He took so much pride in his business. He loved it when the Aretha Franklin scene from The Blues Brothers was shot in the deli, which they called “Soul Food Café,” for the movie. Nate’s mother and granddaughter were cast as extras in that scene.
In 1994, Nate had to shut his doors. The whole experience with the city and the university embittered him until he passed away in 2006. He could never get over the shattering of his lifetime dream. In his final years, Eddie told me that Nate loved to bring his deli slicer to church events where he dished out the corned beef and pastrami that he lovingly prepared. After all, once a deli man, always a deli man.