Newberry Library (the Newberry) hosted an interactive, family-friendly event, "Bughouse Square: A History in Song and Story," on Aug. 27 in Washington Square Park, located directly in front of the library.
The event featured actor Alma Washington portraying U.S. labor organizer and Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) co-founder Lucy Parsons; Chicago Gay Alliance Co-Founder and LGBTQ activist/icon Gary Chichester; and Chicago newspaper writer, After Hours radio host and author Rick Kogan recalling and re-enacting important milestones in Bughouse Square's history. Washington Square Park Advisory Council President Kit Barbaro also spoke. Newberry Library Public Engagement Director Karen Christianson emceed the event.
Washington Square Park is also famously known as Bughouse Square and was once a cow path. Over time, the square turned into a gathering place that featured soapboxers, poets, artists and activists. Since the late 1980s, the Newberry has hosted the Bughouse Square Debates in the park.
Last summer, the Newberry held an event, "Out of the Closets and Into the Streets," that was virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That discussion focused on Chicago's Pride Parade origins and its connection to Bughouse Square and the history of LGBTQ+ culture in 1970s Chicago.
"In 2022, the Newberry was selected by the Pattis Family Foundation to begin a new book award: The Pattis Family Foundation Chicago Book Award, which is given to a book with a Chicago-centric theme," Newberry Library Public Programs Manager Emily Ponchelle told Windy City Times. "With this opportunity, the Newberry thought that it was the right moment to pivot away from debates and celebrate Chicago stories instead. On July 30, 'Chicago Storytelling in Bughouse Square' was the inaugural event, that gave attendees the chance to hear a diverse offering of stories from Chicagoans, and to create their own stories at storytelling circle activities in the park. The day of activities and performances culminated in the presentation of The Pattis Family Foundation Chicago Book Award to Dawn Turner, for Three Girls from Bronzeville.
"The Newberry had been given a grant from the Free for All Fund with the Chicago Community Trust, which enabled us to do this second summer program, 'Bughouse Square: A History in Song and Story.' Since 'Chicago Storytelling' gave us the opportunity to do something new, we thought that the next program should celebrate the past, specifically the activist history of the park."
Christianson welcomed the attendees and introduced Barbaro, who spoke about the work the all-volunteer Washington Square Park Advisory Council has done during its 10 years of existence. She also called on attendees to become volunteers for the council, which has four committees: programs, landscape, fundraising and communications..
Christianson said when Chicago was incorporated into a city in 1837, the park was just a grassy space with a well for farmers to bring their cows to graze and drink from while they traded gossip and other news. In 1842, three real-estate developers ceded the land to Chicago to become an official park; in the ensuing years, many affluent people, including the Ogden brothers (Mahlon and Williamthe latter who became Chicago's first mayor) began to move to the neighborhood. Christianson spoke about the changes that happened to the area after the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, including the Newberry moving across the street in 1893 and, a few years later, the park becoming known as Bughouse Square. This is when a variety of people started to come to the park to get up on a soapbox to speak about various topics. Christianson said one of the many notable Bughouse Square speakers was Parsons.
As Christianson finished her remarks, Washington came up to the podium as Parsons in 1905 fresh off her speech at the inaugural IWW convention.
Washington regaled the audience with part of Parsons IWW convention afternoon session speech: "I have taken the floor because no other woman has responded, and I feel that it would not be out of place for me to say in my poor way a few words about this movement. We, the women of this country, have no ballot even if we wished to use it, and the only way that we can be represented is to take a man to represent us. You men have made such a mess of it in representing us that we have not much confidence in asking you; and I for one feel very backward in asking the men to represent me. We have no ballot, but we have our labor … We are the slave of slaves. We are exploited more ruthlessly than men. Wherever wages are to be reduced the capitalist class use women to reduce them."
Additionally, Washington, as Parsons, spoke about voting rights and the Haymarket Riots.
Christianson continued telling the park's history including how the neighborhood began to decay in the 1950s and beyond. She added that, among other things, the soapbox speakers dwindled and the center fountain in the park was removed. Then on June 27, 1970, Christianson said, the Chicago Gay Liberation movement held a rally to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising in New York City, and about 150 people attended. The attendees heard speeches and then marched to what is now known as the Daley Center in the Loop. This event became Chicago's first Pride Parade.
Chichester took the attendees back to that first rally and march, where he and others that constituted "a group of rag-tag hippies and self-proclaimed freaking fag revolutionaries" gathered. He added that this first rally was a way to celebrate gay power and Washington Square Park was chosen because no permit was needed to give speeches there. Chichester said the rally and march was their way of "breaking out of the closets and getting into the streets" to Daley Center. He also spoke about the neighborhood's LGBTQ+ history that, at the time, was known as Towertown. Chichester also asked attendees to chant "Gay Power to Gay People." He also said that, next year, this first march might be replicated and to stay tuned for future announcements.
Christianson continued telling the park's history including a committee that was formed in 1975 to re-open Bughouse Square and over the next ten years two other groups rejuvenated the park with a new fountain and other vintage design elements. She added that in 1986, the Newberry held an all-day Bughouse Square debate inspired by Studs Terkel, who was the unofficial mayor of the square. This event was so successful, said Christianson, that it was held in-person every summer until 2019 and then virtually in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kogan, the current mayor of Bughouse Square, entertained the audience with some of Terkel's poems and other writings, whom he said should never be forgotten. He also told the story of how Terkel's and his wife's ashes came to be buried in the park.
Following their remarks, the Newberry gave each speaker a blow-up pickle as an homage to the now-defunct, debate-related Dill Pickle Club Award.
Attendees were also treated to DJ Dan Maloney spinning Chicago music from different eras before each speaker came up to the podium; games such as Bubble Works, Baggo Bean Bag, Bocce Ball and Balloon Twister; and free popcorn and make-your-own cotton candy. Paletas Michoacana also sold frozen treats. There was also a historical photo-op set-up for attendees to take their pictures.
Sponsors included the Washington Park Advisory Council and the Free For All Fund at the Chicago Community Trust.