Fulbright Scholarship Luncheon Speech
Saturday March 8, 2008
11:45am - 2:00pm.
1550 W. Taylor Street
Recognizing the Influences of Italian Heritage on the City of Chicago.
Feature Speaker: Dominic Candeloro
Growing Up on Taylor Street
Feature Speaker:Vincent Romano
The following is that segment prepared by Vincent Romano.
I promised myself that I would forego being politically correct and give an honest picture of my perceptions growing up on Taylor Street.
I am a product of Taylor Street. Like other first generation Italian American’s that were Taylor bred, my identity was, in-part, the creation of the neighborhood and its institutions.Primary among those institutions that participated in fashioning our identities was the Jane Addams’ Hull House, the first settlement house in the United States. Later, armed with my post graduate courses, I hired on as a social worker with Hull House.
Taylor Street was pretty crowded. During the summer evenings, while the streets were filled with wall-to-wall kids playing games they had improvised, the men would be huddled together arguing about whether or not Mussolini was good for the Italians.If I learned anything from those heated discussions, it was that “Mussolini did get the trains to run on time.” The women, gathered on the front steps, had their own agenda. The older kids and younger men spent their evenings at the Clubs. Pool rooms, gambling parlors and book joints, disguised as Social Athletic Clubs proliferated the neighborhood.
It seemed that everyone feared the establishment.Come election day, no one believed there was a secret ballot.If you did not vote the way you were instructed, they would find out and there would be hell to pay.If you did not vote as instructed, you faced possible deportation because your papers were not in proper order or, for some, the threat was discovering that you had no immigration papers at all. Other implied threats included city inspectors being summoned to rule that the flat you lived in or the building you owned was in violation of some building code. All the buildings at my end of Taylor Street were in violation of virtually every known building code.
Taylor Street was a tough neighborhood with a lot of tough guys! One of my grammar school classmates, Richie Guerrero, became the Olympic Middleweight Champion.In doing so, he knocked Floyd Patterson out of the ring. Floyd Patterson later went on to become the heavyweight champion of the world. I mention Richie’s accomplishments simply to make a point. Richie, the Olympic Middleweight Champion, wasn’t even close to being the toughest guy in the neighborhood. It was a tough neighborhood with a lot of tough guys.There were books written about blackboard jungles, asphalt jungles, and mean streets.One would be hard pressed to find a “street” more reflective of the combined theme of those novels.
Taylor Street was a subculture, sculpted by the major culture and reinforced by the media. It was a subculture whose profound failureshad been prophesized by our sociological soothsayers.
Taylor Street had spawned the 42 gang . Chicago’s entry into organized crime, the Outfit, had its genesis of the 42 gang. Although late in arriving, they took on the crime families of Chicago’s other ethnic groups and soon dominated the prohibition era trade… in much the manner that their New York counterparts had done. The Voldstead Act created a breeding ground for mob bosses, bookies, loan sharks, enforcers, and hit men for my end of Taylor Street.
With all due respect to the existentialists in the audience, being critical of Bobbie, or Hammer, or Bug House, or Butchie, or Mouse, or Sollie Monte, or Blackie, or whomever, for becoming what they had become, would be like blaming a compass for pointing north. Taylor Street was a difficult environment in which to forge a financially rewarding vocation that was acceptable to the larger culture.
The institutions that had opportunities to impact upon us and possibly insulate us from the profound failure prophesy were: our schools, our neighborhood Social Athletic Clubs, and the Jane Addams Hull House… along with its summer camp, the Bowen Country Club.
I remember our music teacher, each day, reminding us, 40 first generation Italian Americans youngsters, along with their 4 or 5 Mexican American classmates, that we were void of any musical aptitude.
None of the guys from my grammar school graduation class finished high school. Most of our first generation Taylor Street guys dropped out of school at age 16 to go to work.If you quit before age 16 to got to work, you did a stretch in Montefiore.
In a 1970 federally sponsored study, Italian Americans occupied the bottom rung of the educational achievement ladder… Italian Americans were the lowest of all European ethnic groups in educational attainment as measured by college enrollments. Taylor Street was no exception to that norm. Many Taylor Street bred guys became entrepreneurs, finding unconventional ways to their share of the Dream.
The American Legion award was given to the top grammar school graduate. Deadeye received the award for my class.He died before reaching 18.It was not from natural causes.
Nanette Partipillo sang the graduation song.She met and married a local mob boss while working the near-west side clubs as a promising singer. Decades later, while sitting in front of her house, she watched as 2 gunmen riddled her husband with bullets.
Goodrich School had a Fresh Air Room. The theory was, if you did not do well in your studies, it was because of poor nutrition. You were therefore assigned to the Fresh-Air room. You got all the milk and all the peanut butter sandwiches you could to eat… along with a cot to sleep on every afternoon, for a whole week. None of us had ever slept in a bed alone before.I made sure I got my share of Mrs. Sangamon’s peanut butter sandwiches.
Goodrich School also had showers for us. Once a week we were marched down to the basement level to get showered up. None of our Taylor Street homes had showers or bathtubs. As dating teenagers, we went to Hull House or Sheridan Park for our Saturday showers.
Goodrich School yard
Our games were a reflection of the character of the neighborhood.One indication of that character was a game we played in the Goodrich School yard called Baby in the Hole. The loser stood alone against a brick wall as the others threw a nine inch rock hard baseball at him.
The Goodrich School yard was where the dice games were played every Saturday and Sunday.There were always 3 games going at one time. A penny game… a nickel & dime game…and the dollar game.The police car stopped by every hour or so to collect their due. There were many days when I lost all of my shoe shine money in those dice games that I had to go back out to earn back that money I lost before I went home.I would start in Greektown and work my way around the Loop back home.
The annual Feast was held in the Goodrich School yard each summer.In a neighborhood where gambling was an obsession, the carnival sharks had an eating frenzy. Each day, before going home, I was forced to go back out with my shoe shine box to recover the money I lost to those sharks.
The Social Athletic Clubs that proliferated the neighborhood like fiefdoms were really gambling parlors.You were more readily identified with the club to which you belonged than your school, church, or the street you lived on.
We were gambling fools.Card games often lasted throughout the week-end, from Friday evening on though Monday morning.We didn’t realize how good we were at cards until two members of our Club, Bugsy and Steady Eddy, won virtually back-to-back world championships in the Las Vegas gin rummy tournament. Hammer Nose almost made it three out of three.
Taylor Street was a high risk neighborhood.You never knew when or where the brutality of the neighborhood would erupt.Mouse and Bug House ran one of the poker games in the neighborhood.You had to be connected to run a poker game in the neighborhood. During the wee hours of Saturday morning, after their poker game had ended, they often went to Rush Street to have breakfast before going to the Russian steam bath to refresh themselves.I typically went along with them. One Saturday morning, as we walked out of Papa Milano’s on Rush Street, the clicking sound of guns being cocked resonated through the early morning air.With my hands up against the wall, I began to wonder if this was a hit ordered on Mouse or Bug House. Either one could have been involved in a dispute with a higher hierarchy mob connected guy who got the OK to remove them as competitors in the lucrative gambling business that flourished on Taylor Street.
On another occasion, and at another neighborhood club, we were playing poker when three guys, armed with shotguns, busted through the door. They ordered us against the wall and went through each of our wallets. When we returned to our game we noticed that they had not taken any of our money. Not from our wallets…not from the poker table. Shrugging our shoulders, we sat down to continue the game. That is when we noticed that Nick Labalardi, the dealer, was missing. There were no safe havens. You never knew who among us may have offended some connected guy. When the order was given, when a button was pushed, there was no place to hide.
The Jane Addams Hull House afforded a variety of experiences other than what Taylor Street had to offer its first generation Italian Americans. I became part of that structure when I became part of the Hull House staff. My employment encouraged the implementation of an experiment that had long been shelved… the racial integration of Hull House. I was assigned to escort Black youngster from their project homes through the various sections of Taylor Street’s Little Italy to Hull House. That experiment ended in a disaster when I left the employ of Hull House. The neighborhood would not permit the continuation of the experiment with a newly assigned black social worker.
Most would view the attack upon a black social worker escorting a group of black kids from the projects through an all-Italian neighborhood (and other such attacks on the residents of the Jane Addams housing project) as an act of racism. At the risk of being politically incorrect, it was never viewed it as such. The failed Jane Addams integrated public housing experiment had created a disruptive socio ecosystem.It became a black ghetto within a subculture of Italian American emigrants who themselves were disenfranchised. Tough Italian kids, who had as little to lose as their adversaries, enforced the no trespassing after dark policy. Containing the black population within the boundaries of the projects was perceived as a necessity. Failure to do so would have exposed the neighborhood and its people to unnecessary dangers.
Another of the misplaced and misguided failures was Jane Addams aldermanic campaign. She failed to win the votes of the Hull House neighborhood.To be caught voting against the political machine would have dire consequences.She failed to understand that there were no secret ballots in our neighborhood.No one in Taylor Street’s Little Italy believed that the local precinct captain did not know how you voted in those voting booths.
Willard Motley, author of the best seller, Knock on any Door, was a resident artist at Hull House during my tenure there as a social worker. He used the Taylor Street neighborhood as the backdrop for his book. His main character, Nick Romano, lived on the same street as two people, currently serving life terms, had also resided. Willard Motley’s main character lived right across from Goodrich School and our legendary Cinder Stadium. During the time period that the book covered, both of the previously mentioned incarcerated individuals would have been in their teens.Real or fictitious, all the characters were shaped by that same Taylor Street culture.
Jared Diamond’s recently published Pulitzer Prize book explained how the physical geography determined the Fates of Societies.Willard Motley’s best seller explained how social geography could determine the fates of individuals. Willard Motley picked the right place, Taylor Street, to do his research.
Bowen Country Club
Bowen Country Club was the Hull House summer camp. It cost two dollars to attend a two week summer sessions. It was the first time any of us slept in a bed all by ourselves. For the first time in our lives, showers were available to us every day. We were exposed to a way of life different from that of Taylor Street.
Most of the kids brought their Taylor Street reflexes with them. Jasper, angered over an incident that occurred in the swimming pool, threw a rope over the rafters in the cottage while awaiting the arrival of the other boy. When I returned to the cottage, the boy who had angered him at the pool was dangling from that rope. Fortunately, I arrived in time to limit the damage. Old habits were hard to break.
The counselors at the Bowen Country Club consisted of: 1) Social workers, 2) North Shore Debutantes building their resumes prior to their debuts and 3) Taylor Street bred counselors.
At the same two week summer session was allegedly, the most prolific hit man in the history of organized crime. Another Taylor Street bred camp participant, assigned to that same cottage, went on to become the Dean of DePaul’s Law School. We have gone all the way to the moon and back again, and still we cannot guarantee, nor predict, the development of a single human being. It appears that the work of Jared Diamond, Willard Motley and other sociologists still leaves many unanswered questions as to how it is that we become what we become.
Two hundred fifty seven members of Bowen Country Club fought for our country in World War Two. Many did not return. Many came back with serious injuries. Of those I had come to know, Mike Garippo died in the African campaign. George Corvino died soon after he came home, spending his last years lying face down on a cot. Shorty Ray, blinded in the European campaign, visited BCC every day. He was a constant reminder of what it took to be a member of that greatest generation.Vito Favia was killed in Iwo Jima. He was awarded, posthumously, the Silver Star.Vito also lived on Peoria Street, just three doors from me. Just three doors from where Willard Motley’s main character, Nick Romano, lived.
On that same Iwo Jima beach that took the life of Vito Favia, another first generation Italian American warrior, John Basilone, also made the supreme sacrifice defending America from its enemies.Born and raised in another Little Italy somewhere in Massachusetts, John Basilone was the only enlisted man to receive the two highest awards given for bravery in action: the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross.