By Vince Romano
“History should include the stories of those who lived it.” - Lisa Lee, Director of the Hull House Museum. “You talk the talk, but do you walk the walk?” -Full Metal Jacket.
“If our generation doesn’t act now, and act boldly, to preserve and remember and disseminate the Italian American past, it will die.” -Dominic Candeloro, noted historian and writer.
If we do not act now, the following will be our epitaph:
“-and it came to pass that, for those who follow us, it will be as if we never were.”
“The psychological genocide of a people, that media induced plague, is the unexplored and untold story of the Italian American immigrant.” -Taylor Street Archives.
Meet the “Hull House Kids,” a historic picture taken by Wallace K. Kirkland Sr., Hull House Director, on a summer day in 1924, circulated the globe as a poster child for the Jane Addams’ Hull House. Kirkland,who became a top photographer with Life magazine, identified the 20 boys as being of Irish ethnicity.
On Sunday, April 5, 1987, over one-half century later, the Chicago Sun-Times refuted that earlier attempt to label those twenty young boys, posing in the Dante school yard on Forquer Street (now Arthington Street), as being of Irish ethnicity. It lists the names of each of the young boys. All twenty boys were first generation Italian Amercans–all with vowels at the ends of their names. “They grew up to be lawyers and mechanics, sewer workers and dump truck drivers, a candy shop owner, a boxer and a mob boss.”
Fast forward to 2006 and it appears that a similar attempt to disengage and minimize the Italian American experience from Hull House (consciously or unconsciously) is in place. The UIC faculty, serving as guardians for the Hull House and Bowen Country Club (BCC) web sites refuse to even acknowledge the contributions made by those writers who lived the Hull House experience on the streets of Taylor Street’s Little Italy–the inner core of “The Hull House Neighborhood.” A history that the local media, steeped in the tradition of the “Hull House Neighborhood,” has and continues to publish. Neither, apparently, is the UIC faculty willing to make their web site visitors aware of companion web sites that address the synergy that existed between Taylor Street’s Little Italy and the Hull House complex. Their arrogance to our existence is reflected in their refusal of even–the courtesy of a response. Had this insult been heaped upon any other ethnic group, the community would have called to task both the UIC Chancellor and the assigned UIC staff. Jane Addams herself would have called them to task.
It took over six decades (1924-1987) to correct the first attempt to manipulate the history of “The Hull House Neighborhood.” Here we are, almost another six decades removed from the 1963 acquisition of Hull House by the UIC, and we have another symbol of authority manipulating, by omission (and commission as we have discovered) the place of Taylor Street’s Italian American community in the history of Hull House.
We have witnessed the infamous Vineland Map hoax, which attempted to confirm that the Vikings had knowingly discovered America centuries before Columbus arrived; governmental decrees to rename Columbus Day to Explorer’ Day; and other insidious attempts to disengage Italian Americans from their rightful place in history. Our challenge today is to reinstate the existing empirical and documented evidence of who and what comprised “The Hull House Neighborhood” –that geographic area known to the entire world as Chicago’s Little Italy, Chicago’s legendary Taylor Street.
The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), via their inheritance, in 1963, of the physical site of the Jane Addams Hull House, is the designated caretaker of the Hull House museum and hence, by definition, caretaker and guardian of both the Hull House and the Bowen Country Club (BCC) web sites. The UIC staff assigned to the web sites, have, by default, been delegated the responsibility of researching and documenting the story of those who sought the services that the Hull House/BCC complex provided. Although well compensated for their guardianship by our taxes, there is a resistance to expand upon the initial input made to the web site. One might arguably define their reluctance to even acknowledge the request as a reflection of their pseudo-intellectual arrogance.
In perusing the Hull House/BCC web site(s), one finds that links to companion web sites such as the Taylor Street Archives and references to writings of the Italian-American experience by local historians, such as Dominic Candeloro, are conspicuously and painfully absent. Neither is there any internet connection to the project completed by Mr. Candoloro for UICs benefit; i.e., –Italians in Chicago. The link between Taylor Street’s legendary Little Italy and the Hull House/Bowen Country Club complex is absent. References to artists, some of whom resided at Hull House and whose works addressed the Italian American experience in the Hull House Neighborhood, are also non-existent. The void has existed for several decades. There is an urgent need to address this matter. If not, the memory of the most important component of the Hull House Neighborhood will be lost forever–leaving untold the full story and full value of the Hull House complex for posterity.
It is fairly well agreed that one would be hard pressed to locate a non-Italian name or face among those who utilized the services of Hull House and the Bowen Country Club during the decades preceding the demise of those two institutions; i.e., the late 1930s through the 1960s. That period of time constitutes the giants share of the 70 year history of Hull House. The banner (which once hung in the BCC dining room) commemorating the 257 alumni of Bowen Country Club who fought in WWII is saturated with names like Garippo, Cavallo, Terraciano, DeFalco, Guido, etc. The only non-Italian names I could find, in the “Chain around the World” letters of campers and staffers, who memorialized the contribution of Bowen Country Club in that Great War, were those of Mrs. Joseph T. Bowen, owner of the 72 acre site, and the directors, Bob and Ada Hicks.
The Bethlehem-Howard Neighborhood Center Records further substantiates (per Jane Addams own words) that, as early as the 1890s, the inner core of “The Hull House Neighborhood” was overwhelmingly Italians. Germans and Jews resided south of that inner core (south of twelfth street). The Greek delta formed by Harrison, Halsted and Blue Island Streets served as a buffer to the Irish residing to the north and the Canadian French to the northwest. If those were the demographics as early as the 1890s, the flight of those ethnic groups shortly after the turn of the century suggests that not only were the “Hull House Boys” from Arthington Street of Italian extraction, but the entire community from the river on the east end on out to the western ends of what came to be know as “Little Italy” –from Roosevelt Road on the south to the Harrison Street delta on the north–were virtually all Italians. Again, that leaves little room for the melting pot theory.
The Mexicans were the only other ethnic group that existed in any discernible numbers within the inner core of the Hull House neighborhood. Other than the most western end of Taylor Street, there were only two groups of people of Mexican heritage, to my knowledge, that lived and played among us. Families of the Tex-Mex group (came up from Texas and mostly belonged to the Zacetecas gang) seemed to be randomly interspersed throughout the community living among us as our next door neighbors and were our classmates in school. The Mex-Mex group (came from Mexico and mostly belonging to the Toltecs gang) lived on the fringe of the inner core of the Hull House neighborhood (south of Roosevelt Road) and were not integrated with the Italians as were the Zacetecas.
Aside: Tacho was the leader and spokesman for the Zacetecas. I recall one evening when Tacho organized a team boxing tournament pitting the Zacatecas against the Cecilia Boosters. The matches took place on Newberry Street by the Cecilia’s SAC. Needless to say, CYO and Golden Gloves boxers the likes of Richie Guerrero, who later became an Olympic hero, won their matches handily. By the time they got to the final match, the victories by each side were fairly even. That final match was short lived as the deadlier punching had its toll. The Zacatecas heavyweight was forced to quit when a punch shattered his elbow.
Although Mexicans and Italians were both teammates and opponents in their athletic activities, social integration was rare and virtually non-existent on a group-wide scale. There were individual Mexicans who had become members of an Italian gang or club. But rarely the reverse. I suspect a caste mentality rejected a reverse situation of individual Italians becoming members of a Mexican gang or club.
The only other ethnic groups that had a notable presence were Jews and Greeks. There could not have been more than a handful of either ethnic group living in the neighborhood. Most had abandoned the neighborhood by the time of the Great Depression but retained their neighborhood businesses; i.e., Greek Town and Maxwell Street ( Jew Town). Those who had remained lived, for the most part, in the same building that housed their businesses.
To the first generation Italian Americans, blacks were never part of any assimilation other than through the attempts made by the Hull House complex to integrate them into the fabric of the community. The Jane Addams Housing Projects eventually became totally segregated. They remained, until recently, as a reminder of that failed social experiment for over a half century–1940s through 2005.
The history of Taylor Street’s Little Italy and the history of the Hull House/Bowen Country Club complex are not separate and distinct. Neither is complete without the other.
One must ask, what prompted the UIC guardians of the Hull House/BCC web sites, to overlook the memory, the existence, if you will, of those of us who grew up in Taylor Street’s legendary Little Italy. As the aggregate message from the stories to be found in the Taylor Street Archives suggests, the Hull House and BCC experiences contributed to the blossoming identities of the Taylor Street residents. The history of Taylor Street’s Little Italy and the history of the Hull House/BCC complex are not separate and distinct. Neither is complete without the other. One of the first newspaper articles ever written about Hull House (Chicago Tribune, May 19, 1890) acknowledges the following invitation sent to the residents of the Hull House neighborhood: “Mio Carissimo Amico”–signed, Le Signorine, Jane Addams and Ellen Starr. That very first invitation, written in Italian, suggests, once again, that the inner core of what Jane Addams had labeled “The Hull House Neighborhood” was virtually all Italians.
Following is a quote from the opening statement on the UIC endorsed Bowen Country Club web-site: “It (BCC) was based on the idea of ‘where people of many races, ethnic origins, etc’ could live in joy and harmony as part of one family.“ That opening message suggests that Bowen Country Club was a “melting pot” of ethnic groups and races. Not true! While politically correct, it is not historically accurate. Other ethnic groups and races were sparse. One might argue that one or two non-Italians in a 30 bed cabin met the definition of integration; however, that is far from being a “melting pot.” As a camper (1932-1946), BCC counselor and Hull House staff member (1949-52) and visitor/observer thereafter, I can attest to the fact that BCC was no melting pot. At least not during the thirty year span of time I spent there. The staff, with its North Shore debutantes to be, may have had some measure of ethnic diversity and therefore may lend support to the melting pot theory. The campers, however, were, for the most part, wall-to-wall Taylor Street bred Italians. One could only support the melting pot theory if the definition of that melting pot phenomenon included the integration of Calabrese with Neapolitans with Sicilians with Bareses, etc. Italians, all!
To further refute the melting pot theory, one of my assignments as a Hull House social worker, in 1952, was to provide safe escort to a group of African American teenagers from the projects on the outskirts of Little Italy to Hull House proper. This was the first time (and the only time to my knowledge) that Hull house had embarked on such a venture. Hence, the messages from the pages of the UICs web sites, by omission and commission, were, arguably, inconsistent with the realities of the times; the realty of those who lived the history of the synergy between Hull House and Taylor Street. Upon my resignation in 1952, the assignment was given to a black social worker. His athletic prowess and street savvy failed him. He was convinced, during his initial attempt to make the journey from the black projects through Little Italy, to abandon the assignment, thus ending the experiment.
During the glory days of Hull House, non-Italians resided on the outer fringes of the “Hull House Neighborhood.” The inner core, the heart and soul of the neighborhood that surrounded Hull House proper, was Italian-American. The handful of residents who were not Italian acquired Italian mannerisms and personalities. We were the “hood,” at least from the early part of the 20th century until the demise of the neighborhood ‘s institutions in 1963. The mass migration from southern Italy to Taylor Street occurred before, during and shortly after WWI (1890-1924), until congress legislated against any further immigration of southern Italians to this country. Other ethnic groups had long vacated the neighborhood by the time the offspring of those emigrant parents, the first generation Italian Americans, arrived on the scene. And that time line doesn’t leave much room for acceptance of the melting pot theory.
We were the laboratory upon which they tested their theories and the rationale upon which they based their challenges to the establishment.
While lauding Hull House’s successes, we must also faithfully document their failures; else we will be doomed to repeat them in the future. Failure to acknowledge the existence of a hierarchy of needs inherent in us all, led to the failure of Hull House’s inner sanctum of sociologists and philanthropists to usurp the power of ward bosses who controlled the lower regions of that hierarchy. The Jane Addams Housing Project had, initially, dramatically improved the living conditions of “The Hull House Neighborhood.” However, later attempts to integrate the projects failed to achieve the integrated society of the utopian world that was being fashioned on the drawing boards of Hull House’s inner sanctum. Italians fled the projects. The segregated history of the Jane Addams Housing Project, a slice of Little Italy that earlier had become one of their test tube triumphs, attests to that monumental failure. To suggest otherwise is to manipulate and distort history.
A story told by college graduates (of Italian ancestry or not) or reported by those had grown up outside of the “Hull House Neighborhood,” is not likely to have the same credibility as the story told by those who match the demographics of the Taylor Street neighborhood. The reality of those demographics is supported by a Federal study (circa 1970) confirming that Italians were the lowest of all European ethnic groups in educational achievement, as measured by college enrollment. Quitting school at age 16 was the standard rather than the exception for our neighborhood.
Stories from the Taylor Street Archives have been acknowledged by that media (Journals, gazettes, newspapers, radio, etc.) which has its roots steeped in the Italian-American culture of the legendary Taylor Street. Most recently the producer of the soon to be released television documentary (NBC5 and WTTW) on Chicago’s Italian Americans acknowledged, “I am most definitely covering Taylor Street and the Italian Americans crucial role in nurturing the neighborhood and its institutions. I am well aware of the importance of Taylor Street and plan to give it my full attention in the film.” Serious writers (novelists, students, script writers, etc.) have requested permission to use one or more of those stories/essays in their works.
Neither have they seen fit to make the visitor aware of companion sites, such as the Taylor Street Archives or bibliographies that include the writings of Italian American historians such as Dominic Candeloro, to fill the void that currently exists under their guardianship.
Meanwhile, the UIC staff, assigned the responsibility of researching and compiling the history of Hull House and the Bowen Country Club, have yet to respond to requests to make the web site visitors aware of companion sites, such as the Taylor Street Archives or bibliographies that include the writings of Italian American historians such as Dominic Candeloro to fill the void that currently exists under their guardianship. How ironic that those who snub us are also supported by our tax dollars.
Documents and essays, written long before Hull House’s existence, paper the landscape of those web sites. Documents, historic photographs and “scholarly essays” that had been languishing on the shelves of resource libraries for over a century, now fill the pages of the UIC monitored web sites. Nationalities maps of 1895, contradictory as they are to the empirical observations made by Jane Addams herself, permeate the web site. No maps are included for the time period that concluded the mass migration from Southern Italy to Taylor Street at the turn of the 20th century. The Italian American component–the component that served as their living laboratory, where the successes and failures of their sociological theories were played out and dominated the neighborhood during Hull House’s most celebrated years–is sadly missing.
Recognition of the symbiotic relationship that existed between the Hull House/Bowen Country Club complex and the Italian-American community would, while instilling credibility, would also breathe life into those sites now being managed (more appropriately, “guarded”) by the UIC staff. In the shadows of Chicago’s loop, (through two world wars and the Great Depression) that symbiotic relationship between the Hull House complex and Taylor Street’s Little Italy flourished. We were the laboratory upon which they tested their theories and the rationale upon which they based their challenges to the establishment.
Decades ago, the UIC, through the rule of law, had conscripted our homes. While we will never regain those homes, we can (and must) recapture our rightful place in the history of the Jane Addams’ Hull House–”The Hull House Neighborhood.” We cannot permit them to write history to their liking.
I leave the reader with these final observations. At the recent event celebrating Jane Addams birthday, of the hundreds of items and photographs hanging on the walls of the museum that hosted the event, the only mention of the Italian American component to the neighborhood was a single item. Alphonse Capone (and his benevolent soup kitchen) was/were choosen to memorialize our existence and our contributions. The historic Sun-Times photograph, Meet the Hull House Kids, (all with Italian surnames) receives no mention by the guardians of our history on the UIC web sites. Go figure!