Italians have been in Chicago since the 1850s. Until 1880 the community consisted of a handful of enterprising Genoese fruit sellers, restaurateurs, and merchants, along with a sprinkling of plaster workers. Most Chicago Italians, however, trace their ancestry to the wave of unskilled southern immigrants who came to the United States between 1880 and 1914. As a rail center, an industrial center, and American's fastest growing major city, Chicago offered opportunities for immigrants from all nations. In the nineteenth century it was a mecca for German and Irish migration. In the early-twentieth century Italians, Russian Jews, and, most important, Poles found a place in Chicago. Later, blacks from America's South, and Mexican and Asian immigrants came to the city, making it today home to sizable colonies of more than eighty different nationalities. Chicago's black population is second only to that of New York City; at one time or another it has been the largest Lithuanian city, the second largest Bohemian city, the second largest Ukrainian city, and the third largest Swedish, Irish, Polish, and Jewish city in the world!
As in most older American cities, ethnic identities have persisted well beyond the melting pot, and a sophisticated understanding of the economic, social, political, and cultural dynamics of the city is impossible without careful consideration of ethnic factors. Being part of the complex interaction of ethnic groups and consistently outnumbered by Irish, Poles, African-Americans, and Hispanics, Italian aspirations for power and prestige have often been thwarted.
Typical chain migration patterns prevailed, with families and villages gradually reforming in Chicago neighborhoods as workers accumulated savings to send for their relatives. Throughout the early-twentieth century a good deal of residential mobility continued among the Italians. Nevertheless their major colonies, as first enumerated by Rudolph Vecoli, were shaped as follows. The original Genoese/Lucchese neighborhood in the shadow of today's Merchandise Mart produced the first Italian Catholic Church of the Assumption in 1880. Toward the south end of the Loop near the Polk Street Station, the Riciglianese (Salerno) lived. Over the years the colony moved south into what is now known as Chinatown, where they were joined by the Sicilians from Nicosia. The Scalabrinian church of Santa Maria Incoronata (patroness of Ricigliano) remained the focal center for the community until the 1980s, when it became the Chinese mission of St. Therese. On the near West Side, in a neighborhood made famous by Jane Addams and Hull House, the largest Italian colony grew up. This Taylor Street area contained about one-third of the city's Italians — a mixture of people from Naples, Salerno, Basilicata, the Marche, and Lucca. The neighborhood was also shared with Russian Jews to the south and Greeks to the north.
For the most part this area could be considered a slum in the pre-1920 era. The Scalabrinian churches of the Holy Guardian Angel and Our Lady of Pompeii and a hospital founded by Mother Cabrini served the zone. On the near Northwest Side a varied community of Baresi, Sicilians, and others grew up around the Santa Maria Addolorata Church. Perhaps the most colorful Italian sector was in the 22nd Ward on the city's Near North Side. Known alternately as"Little Sicily" and "Little Hell," this neighborhood was home to some 20,000 by 1920.
Most originated from the small towns surrounding Palermo. The Servite Church of St. Philip Benizi provided the backdrop for a score of festivals each summer sponsored by paesani-based mutual benefit societies. (Paesan is from paese, meaning fellow countryman or townsman.)
In addition to the major inner-city Italian enclaves, a number of outlying and suburban colonies formed in the pre-1920 period. In the 1890s a settlement of Toscani who worked at the McCormick Reaper plant appeared a few miles to the southwest of the Loop at 24th and Oakley. Also to the south, in the famous planned company town established by George Pullman, there was a colony of Italian brickmakers from Altopiano Asiago. The nearby Roseland neighborhood was also home to a contingent of Piedmontese and Sicilians. The town of Blue Island at the southwest border of the city was heavily settled by railroad laborers from Rippacandida (Basilicata). Chicago Heights, thirty miles to the south of the Loop, had a population that was 50 percent Italian by 1920, with most hailing from San Benedetto del Tronto (Marche), Caccamo (Sicily), Amaseno (Lazio), and Castel di Sangro (Abruzzo). Melrose Park, sixteen miles to the west of the central city, was a place of second settlement, attracting Italians from the inner city to the wide-open spaces of the suburbs. The establishment of a major religious feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel eventually identified the town as the quintessential Chicago Italian suburb. The Highwood community, twenty-eight miles north of the city, developed after the turn of the century when migrants from Modenese towns moved here from Illinois coal towns.
Mostly contadini (small farmers) from dozens of towns in Italy both north and south settled around the core of the central city and in selected suburbs. They practiced campanilismo (allegiance to their town of origin), living near others from the same village or region. The core colonies were considered slums, their inhabitants the object of intensive efforts by social workers to make them middle class and masterful maneuvers by political ward bosses to get their votes.
The immigrants worked as railroad laborers, construction workers, small-scale fruit and vegetable peddlers, shoe makers, and barbers. Both men and women were engaged in the needle trades, and Italian Socialists were among the leaders in several Chicago strikes by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. In the pre-World War I period, it was unusual to find Italians employed in factories. Only a minuscule number worked in meatpacking plants.
The Italian communities of Chicago were enriched by a phenomenon all too rare in their towns of origin — voluntary associations. By the 1920s in addition to the paesani-based mutual benefit societies, the Italians in Chicago had church and school-oriented clubs and sodalities that worked at fundraising, as well as special-interest organizations sponsored by the settlement houses. According to historian Humbert Nelli, the general prosperity had nearly completed the Italians' social mobility by 1929.
No treatment of Chicago's Italians would be complete without some discussion of the city's most famous Italian American — Al Capone. The image of this gangster, who operated a vice, gambling, and illegal liquor empire for twenty years under the bribed consent of the city's non-Italian political leadership, has besmirched the name not only of Italians in Chicago but of the city itself. A showoff, Capone fancied himself a modern Robin Hood, passing out cash at social functions and establishing soup kitchens for the destitute. Though the numbers directly involved in syndicate crime were less than 1 percent of the Italian American people, the Capone mob captured the imagination of journalists and moviemakers who helped create a negative stereotype that continues to haunt people with Italian names a half century after Capone's death.
On the whole, public opinion of the Italian immigrant in the 1920s was a negative one. Poverty, ignorance, blackhand crime, and prohibition-related violence were the chief ingredients in the public image of Italians. Even the most sympathetic saw Italians in the city as suitable objects for social work, charity, and rehabilitation — perhaps a more negative image than the criminal stereotype.
In the mid-1920s Italians in Chicago still maintained their Italianess. Their language, their family patterns, and their religious practices were retained in their old neighborhoods even while they were Americanized by their daily contacts with non-Italians (mostly immigrants themselves). Mussolini and Fascism reinforced Italianata. In fact, the proudest moment in
the history of the Chicago Italian colony came in July 1933 when Italo Balbo's squadron of planes completed its transatlantic flight, landing in Lake Michigan as part of the World's Fair activities. The event and the activities surrounding it put Italians on the front page — in a positive light for a change. Until the declaration of war between the United States and Italy, support for Mussolini was high. Then things changed, the second generation marched off to war, and vocal support for the Fascist regime died out.
Roughly speaking, what might be called the second generation emerged in the 1920s through the 1940s. Born in Chicago, educated according to American and/or Catholic standards, influenced by the Prohibition of the 1920s, tempered by the Great Depression, and tested by service in World War II, this group was often ambivalent about ethnicity. Though they had experienced the joys of Italian family life, middle-class America had always frowned on their parents' language and customs, and now came the War.
World War II changed everything for Italian Americans. It Americanized the second generation. The G.I. Bill opened up the first possibilities for a college education and the first opportunities to buy a new suburban house. Other government policies such as urban renewal, public housing, and the building of the interstate highway system combined to destroy their inner-city neighborhoods. First was the building of the Cabrini-Green Housing Project, which helped drive the Sicilians out of the Near North Side in the 1940s and 1950s. Then came the construction of the expressway system on the near south, west, and northwest sides, which dislodged additional Italian families and institutions, including the church and new school of the Holy Guardian Angel. The exodus headed west along Grand Avenue, eventually reaching Harlem Avenue. In the early 1960s Mayor Daley decided to build the new Chicago branch of the University of Illinois in the Taylor Street neighborhood. This meant that approximately one square mile of the heavily Italian neighborhood would have to be demolished. Almost simultaneously the Roseland-Pullman Italian Community fell victim to real-estate block busters who profited from the expansion of the black ghetto by scaring white residents into abandoning their neighborhood and their new Church of St. Anthony of Padua.
The overall result of all the positive and negative forces during the post World War II era was that, except for a few noteworthy pockets of Italian settlement, Chicago's old Little Italies were destroyed. With them have gone the sentimental sense of identity and security that the continuity in customs and familiar faces of the old neighborhood offered. Whatever political power that the Italians could muster from geographic concentration was also undermined. Henceforth, there would be no geographic base for the community. This was replaced by a smaller community of interest based almost entirely upon voluntary association and self-conscious identification with Italianess.
One of the first to perceive the change and to plan for it was Fr. Armando Pierini. Easily the most productive leader in the history of the Chicago Italian community, Pierini began serving at the Scalabrinian Santa Maria Addolorata Church in 1935. Within a year he founded a seminary to train Italian-American priests to minister to their own. The Sacred Heart Seminary trained future priests, and it educated young men who became Italian community leaders.
Pierini also used the same citywide approach for his next project: an Italian old people's home. Proposed in 1945, Villa Scalabrini opened in 1951. From that time forward there has been a continuous and intense campaign to create an Italian community and to unite that community behind a common noble cause — The Villa Scalabrini. In the 40 years since the Villa was proposed, Italians from various parishes and various parts of the metropolitan area have cooperated to stage an endless stream of carnivals, dinner dances, stage
shows, fashion shows, spaghetti suppers, cocktail parties, and golf outings to support this multi-million dollar institution which stands as a proud testimonial of what Chicago Italians can accomplish when they are united.
The campaign to support the Villa also resulted in the establishment in 1960 of Fra Noi (Among Us). A monthly English language paper, Fra Noi functioned as a house organ for the Villa. Featuring local articles on politics, people, organizations, major contributors to the Villa, sports, recipes, and cultural and religious topics, Fra Noi has in its four hundred issues reinforced a sense of Italianess and community among its 12,000 subscribers and their families. In 1985 Fra Noi passed from Pierini into the hands of the third-generation professional journalists who have broadened the paper's circulation, advertising revenue, intellectual scope, and even the size of its Italian language section. Given the current geographic dispersal of the 300,000 Italians in the Chicago area, it is hard to conceive of any meaningful way in which the term "community" could be used to describe that population if Fra Noi and the Villa did not exist.
A brief demographic analysis of the Italians in the city in recent times yields varied conclusions. Census figures for 1970-1990 show Italians in the city to have above-average incomes and to be slightly under-represented in the professions. Other studies have shown that the Italians along with the Poles, African-Americans, and Hispanics are woefully under represented on the boards of directors of large corporations. Figures for educational attainment show Italians to be below average, but this can be explained in part because the oldest cohort of Italians had little or no formal education.
In 1980 statistics show the highest concentration of people of Italian ancestry in the Dunning, Montclare, and the Belmont-Cragin areas of the northwest edge of the city limits where approximately 20,000 of the 138,000 city Italians live. This forty-block area is shared with second and third generation Poles but contains hardly any African-Americans. The ambiance of the neighborhood also reveals the ethnicity of the zone. It features a large grocery specializing in Italian imports and a genuine Italian-style bar (Bar San Francesco) complete with espresso, gelato, and card-playing Calabresi in the backroom. Many of the stores and businesses on Harlem Avenue are owned and operated by Italians, many of them recent (1970s) immigrants.
Both the statistical and the impressionistic evidence point unmistakably to the fact that the era of the poor Italian-American is long gone. They are financially comfortable as a result of success in family business, the acquisition of a skilled trade, or through unionized factory work. Moreover, the under-consumption of previous generations, the slow accumulation of real property, and family economic cooperation reinforce their economic status. They have achieved the American Dream except for one thing — respect.
Attaining their final goal is the stated or unstated purpose of the hundreds of voluntary associations that Chicago Italians have formed. Prominent among these is the Joint Civic Committee of Italian-Americans (JCCIA). It was established in the 1950s in response to an effort by the Democratic party to drop a respected Italian-American judge from the electoral ticket. An important part of the Capone legacy is the assumption in the public mind (and among Italian-Americans themselves) that every successful Italian-American is somehow "connected."
The JCCIA since its founding has maintained a downtown office with a director, a secretary, and volunteers and is generally conceded to be the spokesman for the Chicago Italian-American community. Its Anti-Defamation Committee has used an effective combination of quiet influence, outraged protest, and award-giving flattery to nudge the news media toward more objective treatment of Italians. One major achievement has been the cessation of the use of Italian words such as "Mafia" and "Cosa Nostra" in favor of the more neutral "organized crime."
Oriented toward the regular Democratic organization, the officially "nonpartisan" JCCIA's major patron was Congressman Frank Annunzio, who fashioned for himself on the national scene the role of "The Leading Italian American Congressman." The most important annual function of the JCCIA is the Columbus Day Parade, which attracts almost every politician in the state regardless of race, ethnicity, or party. The Columbus Day event shows off the Italian community's power and influence.
In the early 1960s the JCCIA forged an alliance with the Villa and Fra Noi, which
gave increased credibility to all concerned. Together the agencies have sponsored a dizzying array of cultural, folkloric, and social events that range from Italian language classes to debutante balls.
The Italian-American horizon in Chicago is filled with hundreds of clubs and organizations that reinforce and promote Italian identity. A short sampling will suffice to illustrate their range and depth. The Italian-American Chamber of Commerce, organized in 1907 to promote trade between Italy and the United States and to help Italian American businesses; the Mazzini-Verdi Society of mostly Lucchese businessmen has a clubhouse with carpeted bocci courts; the Maroons Soccer Club has a satellite dish that receives Italian Soccer matches live at 7A.M. on Sunday mornings; at the monthly Sunday morning meetings of the Amasenese Society the debate is conducted in four languages: standard Italian, Italian dialect, broken English, and standard English; the JCCIA Young Adults Division plans ski trips and moonlight bowling events; each Labor Day weekend sees celebration of the feast of Santa Maria Lauretana complete with a procession and the flight of the angels (children suspended on thirty-foot high pulleys). A dozen Italian-language radio programs hit the airwaves each week; and the Italian Cultural Center sponsors art exhibits, scholarships, and Italian-language, classes for children and adults.
These activities and organizations do good. They contribute to Italian-American cultural projects, and they offer small scholarships to young people. More important than the good they do is the recognition that they bring to their leaders and their members. For it is in this kind of manageable social matrix that ethnics and non-ethnics alike can find the fellowship, recognition, and respect that most of us find so elusive in the larger social arena of the metropolis with its six million inhabitants.
Religious street festivals have been the most outstanding characteristic of old Italian religiosity in America. Parading the graven images laden with money pinned to their garments was shocking to Protestant Americans and not a little disturbing to the Irish hierarchy and even some Italian priests. Twenty years ago the number of such feasts had dwindled to a mere handful, but in recent times there has been a resurgence in the number and intensity of these celebrations. In the 1990s you can still find a feast on every summer Sunday Religious events, these paesani-oriented activities have mixed charitable and commercial purposes. Revenues encourage and support Italian American cultural and charitable activities, intensifying and perpetuating the identification of all participants with things Italian. Ethnicity is nothing if not symbolic, the feasts themselves, laden with ancient symbolism, proclaim a convincing challenge to all who would dismiss the significance of Italian-American ethnicity in Chicago today Italian-Americans have not been successful in getting elected to major posts in the city or in the state of Illinois. There has never been even a serious Italian candidate for mayor of Chicago. Until 1978 no Italian-American had ever been slated for a statewide elective office. Jerome Cosentino was the first to break that barrier when he ran and won as a Democratic candidate for state treasurer. In 1996 Al Salvi lost the election for U.S. senator. Italians have been more successful getting elected as state legislators, county judges, and suburban mayors. The number of Italians in the larger electoral units has never been great enough to challenge successfully other ethnic groups, and the Mafia image has made it difficult for Italian politicians in larger districts. However, in electoral units such as the city wards and the suburbs like Chicago Heights, Blue Island, Evergreen Park, Elmwood Park, Highwood, and Melrose Park, Italian-Americans have been successful.
Issues do not seem to matter. At a Chicago conference of Italian-American elected officials, participants were hard-pressed to name specific Italian-American issues or causes that shaped their politics, except of course for the anti-defamation issue. All Chicago politics are often based on place and influence. The one time when an Italian issue did emerge in the 1960s was when Mayor Daley decided to tear down the Italian neighborhood to build a university. The Italian elected officials went along with the deal, leaving only a heroic housewife, Florence Scala, to lead a fruitless battle to save the neighborhood.
If Italian-Americans have been thwarted in their political ambitions, they as individuals have compensated in other fields. The litany of ethnic achievers gives a clear sense of the dynamic roles played by Italian-Americans in Chicago society The saintly Mother Cabrini died in a Chicago hospital that she founded. Al Capone
distinguished himself in his field and has become a role model for all too many Americans. Nuclear scientist Enrico Fermi was a Chicago Italian. More recent stellar achievers include Dominick DeMatteo, who parlayed a small grocery into the gigantic supermarket chain that bears his first name. Anthony Scariano served in the OSS in Italy, as a popular independent liberal in the state legislature, and later as a judge on the Illinois Appellate Court. Dino D'Angelo, born in Castel di Sangro in the 1920s, conquered mental illness, then created a real-estate empire that included the Civic Opera House. D'Angelo's philanthropy toward various universities and hospitals approaches the $10 million mark. The list continues with former Federal Judge Nicholas Bua, whose courageous decisions have outlawed political coersion of city and county employees; Salvatore Rotella, son of an Italian bureaucrat who rose to the post of Chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago; Virginio Ferrari, a Veronese minimalist sculptor; and Professor Robert Remini, the winner of the American Book Award for his three-volume biography of Andrew Jackson. The list is longer. We can add former State Senator Aldo DeAngelis, bread magnate Ron Turano, Cardinal Bernardin, sportscaster Harry Caray, Anthony Tortoriello, and fuel supplier and writer Fred Gardaphe. The point is clear that there is an abundance of Italian-Americans achieving at the highest levels in Chicago society. To varying degrees, each of these current leaders maintains a sense of Italianata that they transmit to the general public and (more important) back to the Italian-American community in their lifestyles and through the ethnic media such as Fra Noi.
Some 500,000 Italian-Americans — about the population of a medium-sized Italian city — live in Chicago. Though the group has been in the city for about a century, it maintains a lively array of civic, religious, and cultural institutions and organizations that provide a sense of ethnic identification and recognition in a manageable arena inside the larger metropolis. Because the institutions perform the psychic function of allocating recognition, they will not die or fade quickly from the scene. Moreover, the more tolerant cultural climate toward ethnicity, the increased interest within the third and fourth generation in ethnic roots (travel), the promotional interests of the Italian government, and the intrinsic attractiveness of the Italian lifestyle together produce a powerful cultural force indeed. And judging from the success of the Fra Noi, future Chicago Italians might have an even stronger and more sophisticated ethnic identity than their second-generation grandparents.
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