For a time I was the “Mayor of Bughouse Square” and last weekend that place, which is the oldest park in the city, was filled with people and dogs. That is often the case and has been the case for generations, ever since some cagey real estate developers in the area thought that having a park would spur sales of their buildings and donated the three-acre plot to the city in 1842.
It sits across from the Newberry Library, between Dearborn and Clark Streets and Walton Street and Delaware Place. Its formal name is Washington Square Park, but it has long been more commonly known as Bughouse Square. “Bughouse” is a slang term for a mental health facility and for a long time that is what this place often resembled, a sort of outdoor madhouse.
From the 1880s roughly into the 1930s people came to the park and stood on soapboxes or crates and spouted their passions, theories, lunacies and philosophies to anyone who would listen. Some were famous and smart (Carl Sandburg, Emma Goldman, Eugene V. Debs). Many others were anonymous goofs, anarchists, dreamers, poets and preachers. Some of them were insane.
In the mid-1980s an event was created to “honor” those times. The “Bughouse Square Debates” was conceived by the social historian and author Arthur Weinberg and his wife, Lila, a historian, author and teacher.
Arthur served as the event’s emcee, the “mayor,” and after his death in 1989, others filled that role, most dramatically author and activist Studs Terkel, who had spent some of his early years listening to the soapbox orators. As he wrote in his book “Touch and Go”: “I doubt whether I learned very much (at the park). One thing I know: I delighted in it. Perhaps none of it made any sense, save one kind: sense of life.”
After Terkel’s death in 2008, I filled in as “mayor” and have heard some stirring and remarkable and, yes, seriously nutty orations and arguments.
That’s over and the reason for the change is a good reason.
“We are living in a time when there is a lot of screaming at one another and very little listening,” says Newberry President and Librarian Daniel Greene.
He is right, of course. One need only turn on a television set or radio or talk to the person next to you on the bus or tavern to realize that there are more than enough heated debates and nasty talk in our everyday lives.
But the Newberry has a very creative staff, so rather than just dump the debates, they have chosen to replace them with what they are calling “Chicago Storytelling in Bughouse Square.”
The first takes place Saturday afternoon and will include — and the public can participate in some of it — such things as spoken word and poetry from such people as the city’s first Youth Poet Laureate, E’mon Lauren; main stage storytellers, such as author/professor Bill Savage; music; food and drink; and, on the library’s front steps, performance artist Tim Youd retyping Nelson Algren’s “Man With the Golden Arm,” and talking about his intriguing, ongoing “100 Novels Project.”
The centerpiece of the afternoon will be the presentation of the first Pattis Foundation Chicago Book Award, presented by this Highland Park-based nonprofit organization.
“Lisa Pattis is a member of our board and she and her husband Mark created this award,” says Greene. “They wanted to promote the Newberry and more specifically the notion of reading about Chicago in Chicago.”
The small committee read 47 books and in April “got in a room and hashed it out,” says Greene.
The winner that emerged is my former Tribune colleague Dawn Turner for her magnificent book, “Three Girls in Bronzeville.” It comes with an eye-poppingly substantial monetary gift, $25,000, and others will also be honored: Elly Fishman for her “Refugee High: Coming of Age in America;” Tim Samuelson’s “Louis Sullivan’s Idea;” William Sites’ “Sun Ra’s Chicago: Afrofuturism and the City;” and Carl Smith’s “Chicago’s Great Fire.”
They each receive $2,500, which is more than enough to indulge their literary desires at the annual Newberry Book Fair. Now deep into its third decade, having been on “vacation” for two pandemic years, the sale takes place Friday through Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm
It is a feast. Inside the library, spread in a number of rooms, you will find something in the neighborhood of 40,000 used books. They are arranged in more than 70 categories such as thrillers, cookbooks, children’s books, mysteries, histories, dance, theater and everything in between, as well as maps, records, CDs, DVDs and postcards. It’s a cashless event so only debit and credit cards can be used but there is no admission and many books — all of them donated throughout the year and all proceeds going to the library — can be had for as low as $3.
“There are treasures to be found,” says Greene.
Born before vast numbers of people started reading books on electronic gizmos, this sale has always been an affirmation of the power of ink on paper, pages between covers.
“The Newberry is a place for people who love books,” says Greene.
This is an all-volunteer effort. It was run for many years by Dan Crawford, who was the book fair manager. He sorted the books that were donated, organized and priced them.
Years ago, he told me, charmingly, “I get to play with books all the time. People drop off boxes or bags and I never know what will be in them. Always surprises. That is also, I think, what attracts people to the fair. At our prices, people can try authors they have never heard of before.”
If this weekend is not enough for you, “Bughouse Square: A History in Song and Story,” comes on Aug. 27. It is to feature food and music and some people talking about the colorful history of the park. I have been asked to say a few words.
Perhaps I will recall the soapbox orator whose topic was “Is it OK to punch a Nazi?” and he was himself punched or maybe I will point out the spot where Studs Terkel and his wife Ida are buried. Yes, this place was so important to him that he chose it for eternity.