A No. 1

“Chicago is the greatest railway center in the United States. No one knows these facts better than the hobo. It is a fact that trains from all points of the compass are constantly entering and leaving the city over its 39 different railways. According to the Chicago City Manual, there are 2,840 miles of steam railways within the city limits. The mileage of steam railroad track in Chicago is equal to the entire railroad mileage in Switzerland and Belgium, and is greater than the steam railroad mileage found in each of the kingdoms of Denmark, Holland, Norway, and Portugal. Twenty-five through package cars leave Chicago every day for 18,000 shipping points in 44 states.”

On Hobos and Homelessness— Nels Anderson

A No. 1

Given that Chicago was the hub of the American railroad system, it’s not a surprise that the largest ‘”hobo jungles” were here. The area around North Dearborn Street, (Washington Square–better known as Bughouse Square) was one of the safe harbors for itinerant men and women.  In the years between 1900 and 1920, much was changing in American life and this part of the city, known then as “Tower Town,” because of its proximity to the water tower.  It was known as a neighborhood of bars like the Dill Pickle Club, brothels and gambling dens.  It was also the center of the avant garde in Chicago.  The nascent American art form of jazz could be found here, although mostly on the South side.  It also had devotees among this crown of free thinkers.

The historian, Bill Savage, informs me that all manner of thinkers inhabited Bughouse Square; a place that Sandburg had read his poetry, Dr. Ben Reitman treated hobos and hookers for the clap, and where other luminaries like James Joyce, Yeats, Emma Goldman and John Reed had spoken there in favor of unionization.  So Bughouse Square was more than a platform for political cranks, crack-pots and whack-jobs.  It was a plain air marketplace for American ideas.  Socialists, liberals, America-firsters, anarchists, and those hung for the Haymarket bombings were all habitue’s of Bughouse Square.  It is where the term “soapbox” actually started; named for the platform whichever whack-job or organizer stood upon while addressing his “constituency.”

It was a fascinating place where people of all beliefs workshopped ideas about freedom and democracy, and every idealistic faction was represented. When I was a kid, there was a nutjob named Lar Daly who ran for everything from mayor to President in every election.  He dressed up like Uncle Sam and was known as Lar “America First” Daly.  He was the right-wing whackjob of his day and, well into the late 60’s, railed about everything from repealing civil rights bills to outlawing mini-skirts.  He was as entertaining as hell, though.  He had a bullhorn and an Uncle Sam hat and a sandwich board.  It is no accident that his brand of politics had its roots in Bughouse Square.

Almost every hobo jungle had an “A No.1”. . .a top dog. . .a mayor of sorts.  His responsibility was to adjudicate disputes between hobos and provide a plan.  He would also act as a mouthpiece for the community in dealing with cops, bulls railyard dicks and other aggrieved parties.

Published in: on April 25, 2009 at 3:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Hudson King

Hudson King

There was no shortage of hobos in New York City during The Depression.  Along the Hudson River, there were were hobo jungles almost the full length of Manhattan.  These were some of the nation’s most dangerous camps, though not just because of hobos.  The waterfront harbored any number of criminal enterprises, of which hobos were the least menacing.  In Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York, the template for the Scorsese film, but far better and more historically accurate, he describes gangs, hobos and off-the-boat Irish, being conscripted to the Union Army before their legs had even adjusted to dry land.  The resentment of the Irish at being sent to war to “ostensibly” free the slaves, iginited a racial hatred so virulent it gave way to the “Draft Riots,” where drunken Irish idiots lynched Blacks all over New York City.  It is a shameful chapter in the Irish-American story.

The first hobos were  byproduct of The Civil War.  At the war’s bloody end, an estimated 300,000 men were without work and took to the rails and boats to find jobs to feed themselves.  We often think of “migrant workers” as Mexican or Latin Americans when, in fact, most of our ancestors were migrant workers, coming by boat or train, and even on foot, to find more opportunity.

A movie I saw recently (and was in) kind of summed this up.  In Steven Conrad’s wonderful, The Promotion, an eager-beaver assistant store manager, played by Sean William Scott, and a Canadian goofball, played by John C. Reilly, are competeing for the same job as manager of a new grocery store.  They undercut and connive in order to best one another for the postion.  At one point, they are sitting together, somewhat contrite over the lengths they went to in order to get this job, and Reilly looks at his co-worker and says, “We’re all just out here, trying to get some food.”   It’s that simple. . .and it’s that complicated.  What we will do in order to keep eating isn not always our better selves. It is a lesson so old, it feels new.  In this economy, we hear the echoes of hungry people from The Civil War, The Great Depression and The Dust Bowl.  Of course, we are not enduring anything like these events, but we are seeing hungry people in our cities and towns.  And in America, this is shameful.

The Night Table (Safe Camp)

Safe CampHey–

A re-reading of Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory gives vivid descriptions of “hobo jungles.”  They were actually camps, and from camp to camp there were hierarchies and power structures (meaning somebody was in charge; as hap-hazard as they looked.   Hobo societies were like any other; there were rules and order to preserve.  Part of the function of the hobo alphabet was to warn other fellow travelers as to what they could expect; it was a silent whistle, of sorts.   The most welcome symbol was this one, depicted in the new piece which meant “safe camp,” which meant everything.

When the police would raid hobo jungles (they thought nothing of unleashing dogs and using clubs), these raids were brutal affairs and the killing of hobos was commonplace.  Hobo jungles were thought to be warrens of criminals and it’d be naive to think that there were not criminal elements hiding among the itinerant populations.   Still, the police would come in great numbers and inflict violence with impunity.  It brings to mind something the writer Andre Gide once wrote:  “There is nothing one man will not do to another.”


Published in: on February 8, 2009 at 7:06 pm  Comments (1)  
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