Thursday, August 30, 2007

Arrivederci to a Chicago Hero from Little Italy

In federal court Tuesday morning, lawyers for five accused mobsters were poised to try and sell a jury on the sad, sad story about how their clients were misunderstood. Not murdering gangsters. And not guilty.

But somehow, sitting there, all I could think about was Florence Scala, who died that very morning, just hours before defense attorneys embarked on the last lap of a historic trial.

Florence certainly didn't need to stick around for that. Nor would she have bought a word of it.

She knew everything she needed to know about the Lombardos, Marcellos, Calabreses and their kind in 88 years spent on Taylor Street in the heart of Chicago's Little Italy. On the Near West Side where she lived and worked and died, she had no patience for these "other" Italians and said so many times.

"They were men from the old country who lorded it over people in the area," she once told author Studs Terkel. And those men had sons and their sons had sons. Some of them were politicians like John D'Arco Sr., the committeeman of the mobbed up First Ward. And Pat Marcy, the political rainmaker of the First Ward, who made sure the right kind of people became judges so they could guarantee "the right" kind of verdicts were handed down in Cook County. Harry "The Hitman" Aleman got one of those lucky decisions once. So did Anthony "The Ant" Spilotro. But Harry, in federal prison, isn't lucky anymore, and Tony is dead.

Florence fought the Chicago Outfit in the early 1960s. And the politicians on their payroll. Not to mention big business and real estate interests that saw a huge payday in gentrifying her neighborhood. And the genteel boards of upstanding civic organizations who sympathized with powerbrokers more than ordinary citizens. In her view, they all sold out the melting pot of immigrants whose modest houses and hard lives filled the enclave that was her community by never once consulting them. And when this small Italian woman with olive skin and big, dark eyes didn't blink, they didn't like it. And when she began to organize young and old, Italian and non-Italian, students and laborers to demand a voice in civic decisions, they couldn't believe the nerve of a Taylor Street housewife.

That's why, in 1962, the thugs who did the bidding of the bosses bombed her back porch as she tried to run for alderman herself. She lost a lot of wars but held the hearts of grateful people who marvelled at her courage.

"She tried to save the soul of Chicago," Studs Terkel told me by phone Tuesday. "It was a glorious sight."

Some of us who loved and admired Florence wanted to honor her before she died. In 2005, I wrote a column suggesting the city rename the library in Little Italy for her because she was instrumental in getting it put there.

A note from Florence arrived two days later. "Libraries should be named for authors, poets and writers who enrich our lives. I do not agree with proposing my name to rename the Roosevelt Library. Happy New Year Carol & thanks. Florence S."

When Florence said no, she meant no. That went for the Outfit, City Hall or an upstart columnist. Not a sentimentalist or a silly dreamer, she was a revolutionary in sensible shoes. She will always be my hero.

Arrivederci, Florence.

Thanks to Carol Marin

The Bombay Company, Inc.

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