A Long Way from Maxwell Street

I noticed the stains on the carpet and the cigarette burn on the arm of my chair as I waited for Uncle Leo in the lobby of the Edgewater Beach Hotel. It was late August, 1965, and the pink-hued hotel on the Lakefront had seen better days. In fact, this American Sociological Association annual meeting which Leo was attending turned out to be one of the last major functions at the hotel before closing its doors two years later.

My father’s youngest brother, Leo Reeder, played a prominent role in organizing this event. A professor of public health and sociology at UCLA, Leo was a preeminent medical sociologist and editor of the leading medical sociology textbook. His colleague and friend from Harvard University, Pitirim Sorokin, was to assume the presidency of the association that year and Leo had the responsibility of coordinating the inaugural ceremony.

Leo knew that I was majoring in sociology at Roosevelt University and he thought that it might be useful for my future if I were to meet some of the nation’s most prestigious sociologists. When he warmly greeted me in the hotel lobby, he whisked me away to a reception where he proceeded to introduce me to what seemed to be every significant sociologist in America. Leo was truly in his element.

It had been a long road to success for Uncle Leo. He was the youngest of six children born to poor Jewish immigrant parents from Eastern Europe. My grandfather Max’s family name in Europe had been Raizes, changed to Reider on Ellis Island, and modified to Reeder upon arriving in Chicago where they lived in the Maxwell Street neighborhood.

When his wife, my grandmother Anna, died of cancer in Cook County Hospital during the Depression, the older boys, my father Jack and his brother Manny, were already on their own, working and sharing an apartment. Their sister Shirley had just married.  Max, who only worked sporadically as a peddler, did not have the financial resources or emotional stability to raise the three younger boys, Leo and his brothers Frank and Abe.  They were sent to the Marks Nathan Orphan Home across the street from Douglas Park.

After a short stay at Marks Nathan, the boys were taken in as foster children by a childless Humboldt Park couple, the Cohens. Mr. Cohen worked as a house painter and the couple had the means to provide a safe and secure home for the younger Reeder boys, who all eventually graduated from Tuley High School.

During the Second World War, Frank, Abe and Leo joined the Armed Forces. Leo served as an infantry soldier in the Army. When the war ended, Leo took advantage of the GI Bill and enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he became the first in his family to earn a BA. Leo then continued on at the University of Chicago to earn his PhD in Sociology in 1951.  Leo was appointed a joint professor at UCLA in 1958 and served as director of the University’s Survey Research Center from 1969-75.

I always enjoyed when Leo visited Chicago. He always took an interest in my studies and work. When I saw him at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, I was in the midst of my student radical days and we argued vehemently about America’s involvement in Vietnam. Leo, once a socialist, who voted for Norman Thomas as President in 1948, supported Johnson’s aggressive war policy in Vietnam citing the necessity for Communist containment.

Our heated disagreement on this issue continued for some time. The following summer I showed up uninvited at his new house in Pacific Palisades on a spontaneous road trip to California. He didn’t appreciate my unexpected presence and my confrontational manner on the Vietnam War, and after a few days of incessant arguing, he drove me back to the highway to begin hitchhiking back home.

A few years later, Leo telephoned me and told me he was planning to visit my parents and would I like to come and perhaps the two of us could take a walk together. After dinner, Leo and I walked from my parents’ apartment at Lunt and California, a few blocks down to the path along the North Branch of the Chicago River, near the Winston Towers housing complex. He told me that my opposition to the Vietnam War reminded him of his own political idealism at the University of Chicago when he was a student there. He admitted that his earlier position on the war was a mistake, and we apologized to each other for letting politics get in the way of our otherwise close bond.

That walk along the North Branch was in late 1971. Leo and I tried to see each other every time he came to Chicago, even if he had just a few hours of layover time at the airport. He still took a great interest in my life and budding career in social services.

One day in late September, 1978, I got a call from Uncle Frank telling me that Leo’s passenger jet had collided with a small plane over San Diego. Leo was fifty-seven at the time of his death and in the prime of his life and career. He left behind, at that time, his wife Sharon and a young son, Andrew and two adult children, Glenn and Susan. I had seen Leo earlier that year, little knowing that seeing him then would be my last time with him.

In 1980, the American Sociological Association established the Leo G. Reeder Annual Award for Distinguished Contributions to Medical Sociology which now has had thirty-two recipients. Quite a legacy for the son of a Maxwell Street peddler!

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Deli Man

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.