Chicago's Little Sicily

By Lombardo, Robert M. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Chicago's Little Sicily


Lombardo, Robert M., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Nostalgic descriptions of Italian-American communities have become part of the American cultural landscape. From Mulberry Street in New York to India Street in San Diego, America's" Little Italies" have become artifacts of an earlier period that celebrate the culture and contributions of Italian Americans. While most people are aware of the restaurants, specialty shops, and festivals that are located in these communities, few, outside of academic circles, are aware of the contributions that many of these areas have made to social science. Studies conducted in New York, Boston, and Chicago, detailing the immigrant experience, have become mainstays of the sociological literature. One of the earliest such studies was Harvey Zorbaugh's 1929 classic book, The Social Order of the Slum. Chapter 8 of Zorbuagh's book is entitled "Little Hell," referring to Chicago's "Little Sicily" neighborhood. This article is the story of Little Sicily. Little Sicily does not exist today. It was replaced in the 1950s by public housing, but the community lives on in the hearts and minds of former residents and their children who have stubbornly held on to their memories.

There have been a number of articles written about Chicago's Italian communities. Scholars including Humbert Nelli, Rudolph Vecoli, and Dominick Candelore have greatly added to our knowledge of Italian immigration and settlement in Chicago, including Little Sicily.1 No essay, however, has provided a history of Little Sicily after its initial settlement. This article tells the rest of the story. It not only describes the backgrounds of the people and how they came to settle in the area, but also informs the reader of the struggles that they faced in their efforts at assimilation-many of which, are still being shared by immigrants today. In particular, this essay highlights the often adverse effects that public housing has had on Illinois communities.

Zorbaugh described Little Sicily as the greatest concentration of poverty in Chicago.2 Zorbaugh was a student of the Chicago School of Sociology, which argued that communities with the highest rates of criminal behavior were occupied by the most disadvantaged segments of the population. In spite of the strength of the relationship between disadvantage and crime, sociologists have come to realize that not all distressed communities are crime ridden. This fact was established for the Chicago School in Little Sicily. It was in Little Sicily that social disorganization theory was challenged by arguing that distressed communities can have a social organization of their own; one that differed from that of the larger society, but one that was effective, nevertheless, in controlling aberrant behavior. Following the tradition of the Chicago School, this article begins with a review of the ecological, social, and cultural conditions that led to the formation of the Little Sicily community. The discussion then centers on the efforts of community residents to establish a socially organized, functioning community in the midst of an urban slum; one that truly provided for the establishment of social order and the needs of its residents. Finally, this article will describe the government efforts that led to the end of the Little Sicily neighborhood and their implication for the larger Italian community in Chicago.

Little Sicily was located in the Near North Side community area of Chicago. The Near North Side was included in the original incorporation of the city in 1837. In 1856, a bridge was constructed across the Chicago River at Erie Street bringing settlers to the district.3 By 1860, large numbers of German and Irish immigrants had settled in the Near North Side. They were soon followed by Swedes and other Scandinavians. Although most of the Near North Side was destroyed by the Chicago Fire, the area quickly rebuilt. Immediately after the fire, destitute and homeless families moved back into the district and built small wooden cottages in spite of a new ordinance defining "fire limits" where only brick and stone buildings were allowed. …

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