History of Little Italy

Old time photo of family on Taylor St in Little ItalyLittle Italy is a small neighborhood located on the Near West Side of Chicago. It is sometimes also referred to as University Village because the University of Illinois at Chicago is located here. The heart is Taylor Street and it embodies what most people think of when they picture an ethnic neighborhood in Chicago. Packed full of stores and restaurants the street is always full of people walking around, engaged in the activities of life. From cigar shops and barbers to bakeries and bars it offers a great walking experience. Bordered on the west by Ashland Ave, the east by Interstate 90/94, the north by the Eisenhower Expressway and the south by 18th street, Little Italy is in an easy location to get to by public transportation or car. There’s no excuse for missing out on what this neighborhood has to offer.Italians began arriving in Chicago around the 1850’s and slowly started growing as an immigrant population. By the 1920’s Chicago had the third-largest Italian population behind New York and Philadelphia and Italian neighborhoods were thriving. Italian food had become one of the most popular in the country and Little Italy reflected it. According to Tracy Poe, in the book Foodways, by 1927 Italians owned 500 grocery stores, 257 restaurants, 240 pastry shops, and numerous other food related businesses that were concentrated in the Italian neighborhoods.Little Italy, and Italians in Chicago, have been marked by a few big events in their history and one of them was World War I. Strict federal regulation regarding immigration was enacted following the war which stabilized the foreign-born population. The ones who were already here weren’t effected much; they continued to stick together in the tight-knit communities they had already formed.

For a long time Italians faced discrimination and prejudice from other ethnic groups in the city. They were denied housing and employment and this caused them to form together and help each other even more fiercely. One of the many things that Italians carried with them from the old country were deeply held religious beliefs. This led to the construction of two famous landmarks in the Little Italy neighborhood; the Catholic churches of Our Lady of Pompeii and Holy Guardian Angel.

Our Lady of Pompeii Church can be traced back to the early 1900’s. In 1911 the residents of the area convinced the Roman Catholic Archdiocesan leaders to create the church. It was a long and tiring process but by the 1940’s they had not only a parish but a successful school as well. Due to the construction of the University of Illinois at Chicago the church saw a decline in parishioners. The drop off caused the Archdiocese of Chicago to threaten closing the parish, but the people pushed back and a compromise was reached. In 1994, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin rededicated the former Our Lady of Pompeii parish as the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii. Holy Guardian Angel was the first Italian congregation in Chicago. It was formed in 1898 and the church was built a year later on Arthington Street. However, it was closed in 1960 to accommodate the construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway.

Little Italy wasn’t just about Italians though, as the Jane Addams Hull House would show. The Hull House was a settlement house founded in 1889 and located in the neighborhood. From the very beginning Hull House was deemed a “a community of university women”. They strived to provide educational and social opportunities for women and opened their doors to many of the immigrants coming over at the time. They championed for the rights of women and helped to develop ‘new roles’ for them. The early volunteers at Hull House taught classes on literature, history, art and even more vocational activities like sewing and cleaning.

The Hull House, and the residents from there, provided invaluable services to the neighborhood. When doctors wouldn’t, or couldn’t show up, founders Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr would step in and help. They acted as teachers, midwives and nurses. When houses and sanitation issues plagued the community, they advocated and pushed for investigations. Hull House was even responsible for bringing the first neighborhood level public playground, bathhouse, and gymnasium, in 1893. Some of their early residents even went on to become prominent members of society. Ernest Carroll Moore taught at Hull House after he received his Masters and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He then went on to found and become the first Provost of UCLA. Eleanor Clarke Slagle spent time there and later became known for being the found of occupational therapy.

Hull House was innovative in their approach and became a leader in the movement that had grown across the nation. By 1911 Hull House consisted of 13 buildings and a summer camp named the Bowen Country Club. However, all good things seemed doomed to eventually end. The migration of UIC from Navy Pier to Little Italy marked the beginning of the end for the Hull House. The buildings were demolished and all that is left is what we have today. A single building, dedicated to the memory of all that was accomplished, and designated the Jane Addams Hull House Museum. It still stands on Halsted Street and remains open even though the Hull House Association closed in 2012. The museum is a part of the Arts and Architecture College at UIC and serves as a memorial to Addams and everyone who pursued similar work to better the lives of others.

University of Illinois at Chicago

Lecture Quad Halls located in the middle of the UIC campus.

Another major turning point in the history of Little Italy was the construction of UIC, the University of Illinois at Chicago, in the middle of the neighborhood in 1965. In the 1950’s Little Italy was much bigger than what you see today. It still had many of the small bakeries and mom and pop businesses from the beginning of the neighborhood. The neighborhood was known as a tight-knit ethnic community where you could hear Italian being spoken up and down Taylor Street. It was vibrant and alive and the people their enjoyed everything it had to offer. Italian activists were revitalizing the area and parts were even dedicated as urban renewal projects.

Today, Little Italy is hardly the thriving Italian community it once was, and many argue that the start of the decline can be traced back to the construction of UIC. Why was Little Italy chosen as the place for the new University? That’s debatable. Many local Italians feel it was Mayor Richard Daley’s way of getting back at the Italians. Rumor has it they went against him in an election and when he had the chance he took it out on them by breaking up their community.

Something like that may get immediately disregarded as a conspiracy in most places, but not Chicago. Mayor Daley was well-known as a man who practiced strong-arm politics and Chicago had a history of doing things its own way. However, the numbers don’t particularly support that theory. In the 1955 election he garnered 89% of the vote from the 1st Ward. In the 1959 election, he got 87%. Make no mistake about it, that is a tremendous amount of support.

UIC was essentially a two-year program with an overcrowded location on Navy Pier. Mayor Daley wanted it to expand to a four-year program with a bigger location, something world-class for the University. The University Board proposed areas on the south side and even the suburbs, but Daley pushed for it to be in the city. He really felt that it was important for it to be accessible via public transportation, and also that it was close to the Eisenhower and Dan Ryan Expressways. Being able to cater to commuter students was important to him. At first he considered an old railyard, south of the Loop, but that didn’t work out. Eventually he decided that Little Italy was the perfect spot.

“There has been no occasion, that has given us greater satisfaction than this. The making of a dream into reality”. – Mayor Daley

Taylor Street residents protested the decision. They knew they were going to be displaced and they felt betrayed after the ward had voted for him in two elections. They fought against the decision for two years with protests and a lawsuit they eventually lost after making it to the Supreme Court. When it was all said and done the construction of UIC led to the destruction of over 800 homes and 200 businesses. Thousands of people were displaced and the community was forever changed. The mayor was fond of saying how much he liked neighborhoods, but the residents of Little Italy felt betrayed. By the 1970’s the majority of the Italians in Chicago had moved out to the suburbs of Cicero, Berwyn and Oak Park. But the loss of the neighborhood wasn’t in vain, UIC turned into something special.

UIC has grown a lot since its construction in 1965. Today it is recognized around the world as a tremendous University. Designated a Research 1 facility UIC was awarded the rank of #18 in the Top 100 Worldwide Universities granted U.S. Utility Patents in 2014. This was awarded by the National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association with 92 patents. UIC has a well-earned reputation for making a contribution to scientific research and an impact on the surrounding community. Known for diversity among its students and staff, world-class professors and location in the heart of Chicago, UIC maintains a high standing amongst its peers.

Recent Gentrification

Gentrification has been occurring in Little Italy for many years. The close proximity to the Medical District and UIC have led to an increase in diversity. The neighborhood is now full of sushi restaurants and coffee houses instead of small family owned businesses. The area used to have character, now there’s large, national-chain pizza places and towering supermarkets. The rents and average incomes have also slowly been rising which has pushed out the last remains of the old Italian neighborhood.

UIC expanded during the early 2000’s by building dorms along Halsted Street north of Roosevelt. Other areas have also seen development for both commercial and residential real estate. The expansion of the freeway, additional exits and increasing student population at UIC have all lead to rising property values and a new demographic. While some long for the old days, the only thing that is constant is change.

There have been talks since the late 1990’s about what to do with the area referred to as Roosevelt Square. The ABLA public housing projects were a part of the area and developers have wanted to replace the razed building site with mixed-income housing. However, over the years the project has seen delay after delay. Disagreements between community groups about the direction of the overall development have been the main cause. However, in 1995 the 10-year master plan was updated and agreements were reached on constructing buildings that are taller and increase population density.

A $200,000 federal grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities was given to the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. They will be studying gentrification of the West Side, which includes Little Italy. One of the bigger focuses of the year-long project will be the effects of the 1960’s urban renewal projects in the area, of which UIC was a part. The study and its outcomes will spur needed conversations about unresolved past issues that can inform the present, says Jennifer Scott, Hull-House Museum director.

Gentrification brings many benefits with it, but in the case of this neighborhood it completely changed the culture. They still hold annual festivals and parades in the area, but it isn’t what it was. The Piazza DiMaggio, a place in the neighborhood to meet up with neighbors to sit and talk, is still there. Spots like that are a throwback to the neighborhoods in Italy, where community and neighborhood life were everything. Those times may have passed, but the memory remains strong. Older residents of the city look back fondly on the time before UIC changed the course of the neighborhood.