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Looking for Lucy (in all the wrong places)

I should probably come clean: Years ago, before being ruined by higher education, I set out to save the world. I believed unironically in ideas like “revolution.” My freshman year in high school, I sat down and read the Communist Manifesto — for fun. Then someone played me the Sex Pistols, and after a bit of searching I realized that, while identifying little with the Antichrist, I, like Johnny Rotten, was an anarchist(e). Then: adulthood, consumer debt, the Clinton Administration — you know. But turning thirty does strange things to the head — for example, the belated realization that I could dye my hair whatever color I wanted without fear of being thrown out of the house. And then, there was Chicago — pressing on me with its unique grit, clutching the remains of Emma Goldman and Lucy Parsons in its ground, whispering obliquely of the history it can’t remember and can’t forget. There’s no place like Chicago to make a once and future anarchist feel a part of the great march of history rather than a refugee from the mosh pits of youth.

I’ve lived in cities all my life, yet the ways in which they change over time, glorifying some traces of their history while burying others beneath the slagheap of urban decay and regeneration, never ceases to fascinate me. There’s a little game I play with Chicago, or maybe that Chicago plays with me, that I call “Hunting for Haymarket.” For example, a pole bearing a thin placard of text has stood at 1908 North Mohawk Street — an address of Lucy and Albert Parsons in the years preceding the Haymarket Affair — since the City declared the anarchist couple tribute-worthy in 1997. Today, the block sports an ugly row of modern brick apartment buildings of the kind that can only be called “yuppie housing projects.” This miniature walled complex clashes obstreperously with the restored single-family houses and fin-de-ciecle tenements that otherwise line the charming little streets in the area. I strain to imagine what it must have been like when Lucy gave birth to her children here and supported them working at home as a dressmaker, while helping Albert publish radical papers and organizing women factory workers around the eight-hour workday. Today, this neighborhood sandwiched between DePaul University and what’s left of Cabrini Green is one of the most exclusive and affluent in the city. A century ago, it was where Chicago housed its cheap labor pool of poor immigrants.

What remains of Lucy Parson Park

And then, there’s the plaque. I have always heard about the commemorative plaque that the city had set into the pavement at the site of the Haymarket meeting on its 110<sup>th</sup> anniversary. The whole block of Des Plaines Avenue between Lake and Randolph was actually designated a historical landmark in 1992. Before that, around the Haymarket centennial in 1986, there were even attempts to have a memorial park dedicated on the spot. Every now and then I go looking for the plaque, and it always eludes me. I’ve even embarassed myself trying unsuccessfully to show it off to out-of-town visitors. Part of me has begun to suspect that there is no plaque, or that one needs special powers to see it — and wouldn’t that be just like Chicago, with its ambivalent, dysfunctional, come-here-go-away relationship to its history?

Considering Lucy Parsons’s life as a muckraker, incendiary wordsmith, and all-around thorn in the side of the established order, the Chicago Park District should have expected the flurry of controversy it got when it decided to name a park for her. Like most controversies, this one has made some fairly preposterous bedfellows. The two groups most vociferously opposed to naming a city park after Parsons have been the Fraternal Order of Police, and local anarchists who insist that any government-sanctioned recognition dishonors Parsons’s anarchist legacy.

In tracking this little gush of new blood from an old wound, I’ve gained an even deeper understanding of just how tortured Chicago’s relationship with its radical history is. Lucy Parsons — the anarchist formerly known to the American labor movement as one of its founding mothers, and to the Chicago Police Department as “more dangerous than a thousand rioters” — is barely known to most Chicagoans today, including the city officials who supported the park-naming. In what is surely one of the greatest ironies in the history of Chicago’s civic life, the cops were the only ones who went on record openly acknowledging Parsons’s anarchism, while her supporters both in and out of local government labored to recast her merely as a champion of rights for women and minorities (which she was, but only by extension of her lifelong fight for workers’ revolution).

Speaking on WBEZ on the morning of May 12, mere hours before the Park District Board of Commissioners would vote unanimously in favor of Parsons Park, FOP president Mark Donahue attempted to discredit the proposal by calling Parsons “an anarchist” who “advocated the violent overthrow of the government.” This historical accuracy represented a retreat from Donahue’s earlier statements in the local newsmedia, in which he adopted the position of his Haymarket-era colleagues that Lucy and Albert Parsons and their associates had been responsible for the 1886 bombing. Between Donahue’s March 16 letter opposing the park-naming and his radio interview the day it went through, someone must have let him know that his version of history had been discredited since at least 1893, when Illinois Governor Altgeld pardoned the Haymarket defendants in light of the extensive evidence that their trial had been a gross miscarriage of justice.

Among “official” expressions of support for Parsons Park, a resolution passed by the Chicago General Membership Branch of the Industrial Workers of the World — the radical labor union, once thousands strong, that Parsons helped found in Chicago in 1905 — came closest to describing her politics and history accurately: “Lucy Parsons helped strengthen the radical tradition in America by contributing meaningfully to the Communist, Socialist, Anarchist, and Revolutionary Syndicalist movements.” The IWW lobbied the Park District with a letter and postcard campaign that, according to PD planning supervisor and historian Julia Bachrach, figured significantly in the adoption of the proposal.

Meanwhile, true to form, Parsons’s intellectual descendants were busy arguing amongst themselves about whether to withhold support for the city’s attempts to honor her, or to create alternative ways to pay their respects. In a café restroom a few weeks ago, I came across a flyer for the annual Chicago Critical Mass May Day ride, which this year consisted of a ride to and group clean-up of the proposed park site at 4712 West Belmont. Scrawled on the flyer in red permanent marker was the following missive: “Are you fucking mad?! Why would Lucy P. want to be recognized by the Man? Remember Haymarket!” This was followed by the “circle-A” symbol for anarchy. Swept up by the spirit of public discourse, I took out my own pen and wrote on the flyer, “That’s not the point. It’s about Chicago — not just anarchists — finally recognizing its history. Besides, the Fraternal Order of Police agrees with you!”

But the red marker-wielder does have a point, though a more complicated one than perhaps she had in mind. The city’s support (including an endorsement from Mayor Daly) for Parsons Park, part of an effort to name more parks after women and people of color, seems to smack of tokenism. Official mention of Parsons has tended to emphasize her African American, Mexican, and American Indian ancestry, even though Parsons herself always made a point of refusing to use her ethnicity as leverage even as she fought adamantly for civil rights. Even more historically suspect is the use of Lucy Ella Gonzales Parsons as the long form of her name. Throughout her life she went publicly, and usually signed her name, as Lucy E. Parsons. But according to Gale Ahrens, editor of a recent collection of Parsons’s writings and speeches, she also — true to anarchist strategies of evasion — at various points used the surnames Gaithings, Carter, Hull, and Diaz, and used the middle names Ella and Eldine interchangably.

Particularly since the FOP raised its objections, the city has further rushed to obscure and downplay Parsons’s radicalism. Speaking at the May 12 Board of Commissioners hearing, Bachrach even went so far as to claim, amazingly, that Parsons had been a Suffragette! When I questioned Bachrach about her historical claims after the hearing, she referred to the biographical dictionary Women Building Chicago, apparently the only source she’d consulted. When, later that afternoon, I found this book in the library, I was surprised to find that its entry on Parsons is unequivocal about her anarchism, her advocacy of violence as a means of self-defense on the part of workers against the violent attacks of police and bosses, and her lack of interest “in what she understood as the bourgeois woman suffrage movement.”

The ideological battle over the meaning of Haymarket and the uses of its history is not new, and has tended to flare whenever the question of public commemoration comes up. In 1986, anarchists protested observances of the Haymarket centennial on the grounds that they erased the revolutionary stance of the Martyrs, attempting to make them over in a benign, liberal image. A sculpture in memory of the police officers who died in the bombing was famously evacuated from its Randolph Street location after repeated acts of vandalism. What does seem new — and overlooked in all the media and partisan scrutiny — in the Parsons Park go-round is the question of location. Is it mere coincidence, one is tempted to ask, that the visible monuments to the figures of the Haymarket era (most notably, amidst their graves in Forest Home Cemetery in the western suburbs) are located on the far fringes of the city?

The intersection of Belmont and Kilpatrick — a tranquil residential street lined with typical blue-collar bungalows — sports a retirement home, a scrap yard, and a couple of nondescript apartment buildings with a travel agency and a copy shop in their storefronts. The signs are mostly in Polish; a few are in Spanish. Two blocks shy of Cicero Avenue, this utterly unremarkable spot is so far west of the frontier-line of gentrification that the concept of “urban blight” hasn’t even hit here yet. It is here — in what is now an abandoned parking lot quickly giving way to weeds, renegade shrubs, and the garbage tangled in them — that the Park District plans to put Parsons Park.

Charged with finding notable Chicago women after whom to name parks and the parks to name for them, and bound by a self-imposed rule that a park must be within three miles of where its namesake lived or worked, Bachrach happened upon Parsons as a fitting candidate. For the last half of her life, Parsons lived at 3130 North Troy, a little over a mile east of the park site. It was here that an aged and infirm Parsons and her longtime companion George Markstall died in a woodstove fire in 1942. This address, like Haymarket Square itself, is today a section of the Kennedy Expressway.

The neighborhood of Portage Park was annexed to the city of Chicago in 1889, two years after the hangings and massive public funeral that concluded the Haymarket Affair. After the turn of the century German and Polish immigrants began to flock to the area, which probably explains why Parsons, who had always lived among the city’s immigrant workers, moved there. Yet of all her addresses — at least eight are documented, almost all of them around Lincoln Park and Ukranian Village — this surely bears the least relation to the history that makes Parsons worth naming a park for.

Why not a park in or near the West Loop, site of Haymarket Square and so much of the radical organizing that was Parsons’s life’s work? “If we were that literal, we wouldn’t have many opportunities” to name new parks for important women, Bachrach explained. Park District communications director Julian Green added that, while the District is pursuing land acquisition deals, there is “nothing finalized in the West Loop.”

I recently asked an old comrade what she thought of the whole Parsons Park situation. She liked the idea and hoped that anarchists would use it, contribute to its upkeep, make it theirs. I was skeptical, simply because of the park’s remote location (and the conspiracy theorist in me says that’s just what the city was thinking, too). But anarchists have ways of surprising you. Already members of the city’s progressive community have made pilgrimages to the site, taking it upon themselves to clean it up and otherwise shower love upon it, beginning the process of “improvement” that is still years off in the city’s own plans. But Bachrach has a similar, if less politically pointed, vision: She hopes this and the other parks named for notable women will be “vehicles to get the communities excited” and provide “educational opportunities.”

No doubt the senior citizens, workers, and schoolkids of the neighborhood will benefit from a new park in their midst, but will Lucy Parsons figure as anything more than a name on a sign? The Park District has no clear idea what sort of educational or commemorative structures, if any, the park might include. It’s a fair bet, though, that those with a real stake in Parsons’s legacy have some idea. Maybe, just maybe, if we allow our utopian imaginings to wander where they will, we might envision that empty lot across from the scrap yard as a tiny patch — perhaps only symbolic, but also perhaps a seedbed — of the lawless, peaceful, egalitarian community to which Lucy Parsons dedicated her life.

By the way, I finally found the plaque. There it is, set into the pavement at the foot of a metal fence on the east side of Des Plaines Avenue just south of Randolph Street, barely bigger than a sheet of letter-sized paper, its text half obscured by accumulated grime. I’ve probably walked or driven past it dozens of times. It was a few days past May Day, and two shriveled red roses were stuck in the chainlink above it. I looked around, trying as always to imagine the crowd of tired workers cornered in the alley whose mouth was right here, the phalanx of police advancing on them, the bomb flying out of nowhere, the resulting chaos. Trying to erase the whir of the expressway, to imagine the square surrounded by factories, to squint traces of century-old blood stains out of the pavement. What’s left of those old industrial structures now hold cafes, offices, condos. Where would you even put a park? I look to my left, to my right — on either side of the alleged exact spot where the bomb fell: parking lots.

Post-script, August 2004: I went back to Des Plaines Avenue last week. The plaque and chainlink fence are gone, and in their place workers are ripping up and refinishing the street. It turns out the city had plans for that parking lot after all. I went over to three men leaning against a half-constructed rectangle and asked whether it was to be the pedestal for the new Haymarket monument, a sculpture depicting the speaker’s wagon from the demonstration-turned-massacre, which the city is now preparing to dedicate. “We don’t know,” one of the men replied, “they just told us to build a box.” A few yards to his left, some more workers were laying cobblestones along the alley. I approached someone who seemed to be a foreman and asked about them. He told me they’d ripped up the asphalt to find these, the original cobblestones, which they’d removed, cleaned, and were now replacing.

The dedication of this new memorial lays nothing to rest, but instead opens a new chapter in the ongoing efforts of Chicago city government to erase the anarchist identities of the Haymarket Martyrs, and the consequent struggle of contemporary anarchists to keep hold of our history. The city has denied requests for an anarchist speaker at the upcoming commemoration ceremony. The anarchists promise they will speak there anyway.