Open Forums and the Working-Class Public Sphere
You could hardly miss the talk in the working-class neighborhoods of North American cities during the early twentieth century. Barkers stood in front of theaters, grocery stores, and bars; drivers yelled to, and at, one another; and newsies called out the headlines several times a day. In the parks and on the busy corners of working-class districts, especially on warm summer nights, voices exhorted passersby to come to Jesus, fight capitalism, embrace free love, or demand the single tax. Every large American city hosted at least one center of public speech and debate. Union Square, Washington Square, and Rutgers Square in New York City were in constant use for organized and impromptu protests, as were Pioneer Square in Seattle, Pershing Square and La Plaza in Los Angeles, and Boston Commons, among others. Chicagoans knew their city’s two most prominent open-air speaking forums as “the Bugs,” reflecting a common association between heterodox ideas and insanity. Washington Square Park on the city’s North Side—known as Bughouse Square—and weekly meetings of the South Side Washington Park Forum—known as the Bug Club—drew the curious, the bored, and the committed to listen, debate, and relay ideas about the emerging social order.
“There was a great deal of ‘bull’ at Bughouse Square … and to me, at least, as a young boy it was a very colorful and very rich area.”
The very wildness of speakers’ claims and the variety of topics addressed captured the imagination of many young people, judging from their vivid memories recorded decades later. The poet Kenneth Rexroth, who spent his weekends as a teenager at Bughouse Square, described the park as a venue for “every variety of radical sect, lunatic religion, and crackpot health panacea.” Studs Terkel, whose family ran a residential hotel in the neighborhood, recalled, “There was a great deal of ‘bull’ at Bughouse Square. There was a great deal of all sorts of wild, impassioned talk and conversation of all variety, from all strata of our thought, and to me, at least, as a young boy it was a very colorful and very rich area.”