Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Stockyard Athens

“The Rise and Fall of the Dil Pickle Club – Chicago’s Wild ‘20s!” edited by Franklin Rosemont, Intro by Paul Durika, 2013

Time passes, and things change, or end.  Buildings are destroyed, neighborhoods are destroyed, and in some locations – corporations take over.  This book is a collection of powerful reminiscences of a unique place and time – Chicago’s near-north Bohemia in the teens and twenties.   Now it is a center of upscale shopping, skyscrapers and condos.  But at the time, H.L. Menken in 1920 called Chicago, ‘The intellectual capital of the U.S.”  Like Paris’ Montmartre, the Latin Quarter or New York’s Greenwich Village, Chicago provided a place of political, cultural and intellectual fermentation – once again proving that ‘places’ can serve as more than just a ‘place.’  That period in Chicago has been referred to as the “Chicago Renaissance’ – though the bourgeois critics like to bury the proletarian and bohemian side of that revival.  This book does no such thing.  While it focuses on the key place and people through which so many things happened, the near north “Dil Pickle Club” – it really gives you a whole picture of the hopeful intellectual ferment generated by the Russian revolution, the labor, women’s and black movements – and also by modernism itself – in regard to theatre, painting, sexuality, religion and science. 

The “Hobohemian” sector, "Towertown,” was in the blocks between Grand & North, Lake Michigan to LaSalle.  The “Dil Pickle” was in this area, founded sometime around 1915 by a group of IWW agitators who needed a larger place to meet other than someone’s living room or the nearby Radical Book Shop on North Clark Street.  (Sound familiar, May Day Bookstore goers?)  The Dil Pickle was first on Pierson Street near Bughouse / Washington Square, then moved closer to the park, to a barn in Tooker Alley off of Dearborn. (Nowadays, this ‘might’ be called Tooker Place.)  People would squeeze through a tiny gap between two buildings on State, or enter from Dearborn past a bunch of garbage cans in a narrow alley, and come to a very small orange door with a green light, telling them to, “Step High, Stoop Low, and Leave Your Dignity Outside.” 
Started by Wobbly agitator Jack Jones, Irish Revolutionist Jim Larkin and Anarchist doctor Ben Reitman, they founded a place where the political soap-boxers on Bughouse Square could come inside and continue their trade.  The Dil Pickle had sandwiches, soft-drinks, coffee, a stage and a ‘little’ theatre, a printing press, art rooms and even people lounging on the roof.  It could hold 700 people and normally 60-70 were in attendance.  Later in Prohibition time, you could bring your own booze or, it seems, get some special ‘ginger ale’ from under the counter.  Jones, a burly man with long black hair and a black tie, became the impresario, and would put up hobos and radicals who needed a place to stay for a bit.  He was a showman and drummed up business for the Dil Pickle, so it could charge from $.25 to $1.00 to attend. 

So who frequented this Barn in the Wall?  Labor radicals, hobos, criminals, prostitutes, professors, proletarians, college and high-school kids, bourgeois slummers, soap-boxers, artists, newspapermen, even an occasional cop – just about every class and fragment of a class.  One commentator mentioned that many women crowded the club - he called it a 'women's place.  Over time it went from being a place of anarcho-syndicalism to a place where artistic types were also present.  Who spoke?  What plays were put on?  What bands played?  What artists decorated the walls?  Much is obscure.  Rosemont, the Surrealist, has attempted to patch it together.

Chicago was in a high political and artistic ferment at the time. Some of the top socialist and anarcho-syndicalist radicals, the unknown – “Red” Martha Biegler, Trip-Hammer Johnson, Chief Soapboxer John Loughman, Hobo Queen Lizzie Davis, Slim Brundage; and the known – Big Bill Haywood, Lucy Parsons, Nina Spies, Charles H Kerr, Dorothy Day, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Clarence Darrow -  all attended.  Some of the top names in literature visited or spoke or read – Sherwood Anderson, Ben Hecht, James O’Farrell, Carl Sandberg, Kenneth Rexroth, William Carlos Williams, even John Reed.  Writers like Nelson Algren and Jack Conroy contributed their reminiscences about the scene.  It was even the home of Chicago Dada.  

Sophisticated lectures about politics, literature, science, philosophy, religion, women’s rights, sex, homosexuality and birth control were Sunday night features, some by prominent professors from Northwestern and the University of Chicago.  Heckling and argument were arts here – this was not a church where everyone meekly agreed.  The first play every written by Ben Hecht –about a hobo who sees an image in the window, thinks it is Jesus, only to realize it is his own reflection - premiered here.  Hecht later became one of the best Hollywood screenwriters.  Early plays by Eugene O’Neil were first put on at the Pickle.  For the one-acts, Jones made up the set, wrote scripts and got the actors.  It was part of the origination of the ‘little theater’ movement.  Black agitators from the Wobblies, black trade unions and the African Blood Brotherhood spoke.  One woman talked about the men she had sex with.  Mae West appeared. Even con men like Yellow Kid Weil gave talks. 

It was an education, a ‘stockyard Athens,” a place to dance, to hear Dixieland jazz and folk guitar, many poetry readings and odd declamations.  Modern art was on the walls, as well as scrawls and graffiti, newspaper clippings and even sculpture.  It became a forerunner for every artsy-place in the U.S.

The Pickle died when mobsters started to crowd the club in the ‘30s, because they could smell money.  Jones couldn’t keep them or the next door New England Congregational Church out, and had to close it in 1933.  By then it had become a tourist trap, and had lost its originality.  Institutions like this do not return, as they are unique to their times.  In spite of many attempts to bring back the “Pickle’ – it will not happen. 

Rosemont also prints some negative comments about the Pickle from across the board, from fascists, Communists and bourgeois art critics.  One odd one from James Cannon, the leader of the American Trotskyists, threatened members who were lazy 'Picklers' with expulsion. 

What can we learn from the Pickle, and the environment surrounding it?  One, a changing political climate does not limit itself to politics, but affects everything.  People who think revolution will be made solely by political action - without cultural action - will not be able to mobilize enough people.  Two, oral skills are very useful, and only in public gatherings can people hone them.  Three, Minnesotans are too polite.  Forums here at Mayday or at other venues are held and most everyone agrees.  If anyone does disagree, it is ‘unpleasant,’ and sometimes the speakers even avoid the point of questions.  Disagreements are muted, or stifled.  There are no actual debates between factions or varying points of view on almost any topic – vegetarianism, environmentalism, anarchism, the Democratic Party, culture, economics, Islam, Stalinism, you name it.  As a result, there is no growth in the intellectual level of the left. It is a culture of repetition.  It is un-dialectical.  A living left will actually not be afraid of useful conflict.  And in Chicago, in the teens and 20s, the clash of ideas is what brought out the folks - useful and not. 

And I bought it at MayDay Books!
Red Frog
Former Chicagoan
August 18, 2013

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