In Chicago, the Eccentric and Colorful Get to Dust Off Their Talking Points

By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 30, 2007

CHICAGO -- In its heyday, Chicago's Bughouse Square was a soapbox venue for defense lawyer Clarence Darrow, anarchist labor organizer Lucy Parsons and her controversial lover, physician Ben Reitman.

During the Newberry Library's annual reenactment at the free-speech mecca Saturday, the issues of the day included sex-toy shops, decriminalized prostitution, family farms, the Supreme Court, Jesus and immigration.

From the 1890s to the 1960s, Bughouse Square -- otherwise known as Washington Square Park -- was a freewheeling spot where libertarians, anarchists, preachers, beat poets, antiwar activists and anyone with an ax to grind held forth on soapboxes for tourists and fellow raconteurs. It was one of the country's most famous free-speech zones and was often compared to Speakers' Corner in London's Hyde Park. In 1970, the city's first gay pride march started there.

Saturday's reenactment began with three soapboxes in the park; crowds gathered around each to hear speeches by local intellectuals, journalists and eccentrics.

Health educator Rebecca Steinmetz dressed in a polka-dotted strapless gown and red pumps to convince the crowd that there should be a sex store on every block. More accustomed to opposition on moral or religious grounds, she got a taste of the heckling for which Bughouse Square was notorious.

"What will that do to the produce industry?" asked a bespectacled man. "Why do you want us to buy things from China? Those toys use electricity and batteries -- don't you know about global warming?"

University of Chicago anthropology professor Michael Silverstein called angrily for a popularly elected Supreme Court.

Pet journalist Steve Dale demanded that dogs be allowed in restaurants.

"Epidemiologists will confirm the problem with outdoor patios isn't dogs -- it is that pigeons don't wear diapers," Dale said, his canine companion drooling next to him.

And British world traveler Ian Wright, known as the Globe Trekker, pleaded for Americans to just shut up. "It's always so loud," said Wright, producer of various TV shows and guidebooks. "You should learn from our response to everything, even a mass murder -- stiff upper lip. Don't get involved. Look the other way."

Edwin Yohnka, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, won the Dill Pickle Award for his defense of the Westboro Baptist Church's right to protest at military funerals. The prize, a two-foot-tall, bright-green plastic pickle, was named for a group of Bughouse regulars associated with the Dill Pickle Club, a nearby cabaret and speakeasy popular with writers, radicals, gangsters and socialites in the 1920s.

"I don't think any of us would say we don't support free speech, but the question is, do you actually support it from the people on the margins?" Yohnka said. He added that the event showed "the spirit of reform and progressiveness that still exists in a really passionate way in Chicago."

The event culminated in a sound-bite "slam," a parade of soapboxers who each had 90 seconds to make their point about immigration. American Reform Party spokesman Don Torgersen blamed immigrants for crowded sidewalks and high downtown housing prices; a flag-waving woman in military garb identifying herself only as Patriot called for immigrants to join the military, à la the French Foreign Legion.

Shaun Harkin of Northern Ireland was applauded for saying that people should oppose the war, not immigrants. And Jorge Mujica, a lead organizer of last year's pro-immigrant marches, sarcastically proposed building a wall around Chicago to keep out migrants from Indiana.

"I'm from Indiana," said another man taking the mike. "And I can tell you we're only taking the jobs Chicagoans don't want."

Though participants seemed to make a concerted effort to keep the debates true to their raucous, bawdy and theatrical roots, the heckling appeared forced and awkward, perhaps a sign of the times.

"Everyone spends time watching pundits on TV and reading the conventional wisdom in the papers, but there's very little personal interaction with these kinds of political debates," said Chicago author John K. Wilson, who just finished writing a book about Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). "People end up being voyeurs of politics instead of participants."

He said he wasn't crazy about the Second City improv club comedians who riffed on each speaker. "It's the influence of 'The Daily Show' -- people think the only way you'll be able to pay attention to politics is if there's a punch line."

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