Bughouse Square Debates

Bughouse Square Debates

It is probably no longer politically correct to refer to an institution for people with mental health issues as a bughouse, but the "Bughouse Square" nickname for Washington Square Park was an attempt to capture some of the craziness that came with the eccentrics and expressive orators who took part in debates and other public forums in the park during the early decades of the last century.  Bughouse was then the slang for what later generations would refer to as the looney bin or the Cuckoo's Nest. The crowds that came to listen were often in the hundreds with the Chicago Tribune reporting that the crowd's size once reached 2,000 people.

Given Chicago's reputation as a hotbed of the labor movement, it should come as no surprise that the debates and goings-on leaned left, with the square serving as the MSNBC of its day.  Members of the Industrial Workers of the World were frequent participants.  Eugene Debs was one of the more notable ones.  By the Sixties, the square had fallen in stature, with a June 25, 1964 article in Life magazine reporting that the square was a place where suburban men had "'contact' with one of the homosexuals who drift around the square."  The article includes a quote from a vice-squad sergeant describing the excuses that the suburban gave to their wives for leaving the house.  How times have changed.  In 1970, it became the site of Chicago's first Gay Pride march.

In 1914, Bughouse Square regulars formed the Dill Pickle Club, which served as a bohemian gathering spot that offered jazz, cabaret, and poetry.  It attracted such luminaries as Carl Sandberg, Clarence Darrow, Sherwood Anderson, Ben Hecht, Harriet Monroe, Ben Reitman, and Lucy Parsons.  Beat poet Kenneth Rexroth cut his teeth at the club as a teenager.  Anderson noted that club permitted the professors to mix with prostitutes, hobos, and street car conductors.

Not surprisingly, a young Studs Terkel frequented the square in the Thirties, so he presumably frequented the club.  The club was located at Tooker Alley off Dearborn Street, but it is long gone so don't bother looking for it.

In 1986, the Newberry Library revived the debates as part of an effort to celebrate the First Amendment.  The once-a-year event coincides with the Newberry Library's annual book fair, where some 130,000 used books, records, and related objects are on sale.  This year Chicago newspaper man Rick Kogan served as the master of ceremonies.  According to Kogan, Terkel performed that function until his death in 2008.  

If you visit the park, you can pay your respects to Studs and his wife Ida.  Studs wanted their ashes scattered in the park, a wish which several friends and family members honored in 2008.  In making his request, Terkel said, "Scatter us there. It's against the law.  Let'em sue us."

Today's debates were as lively as ever.  The main debate was between Darryl Holliday, the founder of the City Bureau, and Mary Wisniewski of the Chicago Tribune.  The question up for debate was what constitutes legitimate journalism in a hyper-connected world.  It was more a discussion than a debate--I am not sure the debaters had big disagreements with each other.  It was followed by a series of smaller debates at soapboxes scattered throughout the park.  I went to the open-mike soapbox, where some good-natured folks ranted and raved about whatever came to mind.  Not surprising, Trump was on a few minds.

I was particularly impressed with Environmental Encroachment, a "marching" band that came attired in lively costumes.  Using trombones, saxes, tubas, percussion, and other assorted instruments, the group played only songs that are now out of copyright.  The selections were varied, but had a vaudevillian sensibility.  Later this year they will be performing in Marseille, France at the 11th International Brass Band Contest, although the group's website says that it is part of a new musical genre, known as Honk.


Newspaper Man Rick Kogan Offers Introductory Comments and Context

Paying My Respects to Studs and Ida Terkel

One Speaker at the Open Soapbox

Another Speaker at the Open Soapbox

Each Speaker Had 5 Minutes to Make His or Her Point

A Trombone Player with Environmental Encroachment

A Tuba in the Trees

A Saxophonist on the Steps of the Newberry Library

A Young Trombonist with Environmental Encroachment

Exiting the South Loop

Exiting the South Loop

Washington Square Park

Washington Square Park