Reviving and Gentrifying Bughouse

Tomorrow is the annual Bughouse Square Debates.  And so I end my series of historical documents with a few snippets from early efforts to revive the square’s free speech tradition.

The Soapboxes of Yesteryear, June 27, 1971, Chicago Tribune, p. A4.

Jimmy Sheridan, a veteran orator of Bughouse Square [alias Washington Square Park, on the Near North Side], stopped addressing his audience of two long enough the other day to talk to one of our Metro reporters, Carolyn Toll, about the decline of his profession.

For years, as he recalled, just about every tree in the square sheltered an orator on a soapbox, each with his own attentive, if not always respectful, audience.  And it wasn’t just Chicago.  London had its Hyde Park Corner, and San Francisco its Union Square.  Anybody who had a few minutes to kill, or wanted mental stimulation, could wander by and listen to “Jesus screamers,” atheists, Socialists, or even peanut vendors.

But today the outdoor forums are almost deserted.  The soapbox are gone.  Some say that World War II brought the change.  Some say television.  Some blame the fear of crime.  But Mr. Sheridan put his finger on another possible reason when Miss Toll asked if he missed the old days.

“Don’t need to,” he said.  “The whole world has become Bughouse Square.”  Sometimes we think he may be right.


Pat Colander, Fun to Do:  Step on the soap box, May 2, 1975, Chicago Tribune, p. B1.

Friday night, Bughouse Square–bounded by Dearborn, Clark, Delaware, and Walton Streets and officially known as Washington Square Park–will rise and ring with oratory again.  The Committee to Re-Open Bughouse Square is sponsoring a free speech celebration from about 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.  In addition to newcomers to the public forum, some veteran speechmakers will be on hand.


Pat Colander, Fun to Do: A hard times picnic, August 29, 1975, Chicago Tribune, p. B2.

A “Hard Times Picnic and Forum” will be held from 2 p.m. ’til nightfall Monday in Washington Square Park.  The park, familiarly called “Bughouse Square,” is bounded by Clark, Dearborn, Delaware, and Walton Streets.  Besides the speakers and debaters for which Bughouse Square is famous, there will be music, theatrical performances, food, clowns, and games.  Those who can afford it are asked to bring pot-luck.  Folk singers scheduled include Jo Mapes, Art Theime, and Nick Scott.


Jean Latz Griffin, Bughouse Square clean-up driving out “undesirables,” July 8, 1982, Chicago Tribune, p. N1. [excerpted by TH]

A bush planted by Mayor Jane Byrne in Washington Park, formerly known as Bughouse Square, will be a symbol of the area’s “reflowering,” according to the mayor.

In the 1960s and ’70s the area around the square fell on hard times.  Prostitutes roamed the park, pornographic movie houses and adult book stores moved close by and people were afraid to walk the streets or use the park any longer.

Within the last five years neighborhood civic groups, nonprofit agencies and the police have worked together to turn the climate around.

When she put in the bush, the mayor was also celebrating the groundbreaking of a 30-story, 280-unit apartment building at 100 W. Chestnut St., a block southwest of the the square.

Lawrence Dillehay represents the Salvation Army in the Washington Square consortium.  Dillehay was asked how the Salvation Army can help “down-and-outers” on the one hand and try to push them out of the neighborhood on the other.

“There are still some down-and-outers in the area, and we’re not trying to run them out,” he answered.  “Just because somebody doesn’t have on a coat and tie, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t belong in Washington Park.

“It’s the male and female hookers we want to get rid of.  It was so bad that a man couldn’t walk home from work at night without being propositioned.  That’s better now, but we’re still working on it.”


Events: Walking Tour of Washington Park, October 28, 1984, Chicago Tribune, p. M24.

Chicago’s oldest park, Washington Square, is the focal point of a Chicago Architecture Foundation walking tour from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. today.

The tour begins at the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton St., and includes interiors of the library and the George Dunlap mansion.  CAF guides will explore the literary, labor and Bohemian movements that earned Washington Park its nickname “Bughouse Square.”

Cost for the tour is $3; CAF members free.


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