Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=96425
Story Retrieval Date: 6/19/2013 3:16:30 PM CST
Frank Tunzi, 85, sat in a dark storefront on Taylor Street on a July afternoon. The space used to be a family tailoring and dry cleaning shop, which he ran for nearly 50 years. He closed it when he retired in 1986.
Behind a screen door with a dust-covered doorknob, Tunzi, dressed in a white undershirt, black slacks and black suspenders, watched passersby. There’s no sign out front, but an aged poster labeled “Italia” sits in the store window. Inside, racks of clothes hang here and there and an old iron and spools of thread sit on a table. He only works these days when family or friends need something hemmed or mended.
“Just a few Italian people live here now,” said Tunzi, who came to Taylor Street from Italy in 1947. “Most have moved out to the suburbs. It’s too expensive here. Rent is so high; it’s no good.”
It’s mostly old-timers like Tunzi that remain in the Near West Side neighborhood known as "Little Italy." The building of the University of Illinois at Chicago in the 1960s and rising crime in the following decades drove many Italian families from the neighborhood. But generations after the exodus, a trickle of young Italian-Americans are moving to Taylor Street, re-inhabiting the streets their grandparents left behind.
About 102,000 people in Chicago claim Italian ancestry, according to the 2000 census. Only a small percentage of those live in Little Italy. An estimated 1,800 Italian-Americans live in the neighborhood of 12,000, according to the University Village Association, a neighborhood group.
The area maintains Italian flavor, largely because of its restaurants. Snippets of Italian can still be heard on the sidewalk. A few Italian flags hang, usually next to American ones. There are plenty of places to find linguini and pizza, but well-known spots like The Rosebud, Pompei and RoSal’s now sit next to sushi bars, taco shops and Thai restaurants.
Kathy Catrambone, author of “Taylor Street: Chicago's Little Italy” estimates that 10 to 15 percent of the “old neighborhood” families remain.
Discussion of the neighborhood’s changes always begins with the birth of UIC, which locals talk about like it was yesterday. It “decimated” the neighborhood, said Catrambone, a second-generation Italian-American who was raised in an Italian neighborhood on Taylor Street, and moved back to Little Italy nine years ago.
“Many people lost their houses physically through eminent domain,” she said. “People can walk through campus and say ‘here’s where my house was, here’s where my grocery store was.’ Thousands left the neighborhood.”
“If it wasn’t for the decimation, second, third generations might still be here,” Catrambone said. “But when they left, they didn’t come back.”
Italian-Americans have assimilated into suburbs and neighborhoods as they’ve married non-Italians, Catrambone said. And new Italian immigrants coming into Chicago don’t often move to Taylor Street.
“Their connection is with immigrants from the ‘60s and ‘70s,” she said. “They don’t have that last generation [on Taylor Street] to look to; it’s more like two or three generations ago.”
Catrambone said the lack of Italians in Little Italy is a huge loss.
“I really wish those people from the third and fourth generations would come back to the neighborhood,” Catrambone said. “[The original neighborhood] can’t be recaptured. It’s gone, the people are gone, but I wish people would come back to perpetuate and honor our ancestors.”
When the young generations do come back to the neighborhood, it’s often first to the nearly 100-year-oldShrine of Our Lady of Pompeii.
Italians-Americans from around the Chicago area, including those with no connection to the neighborhood “flock to the church” to visit, be married and baptize their children, said Marcia Piemonte, director of development and special events at the church.
“Children and grandchildren of people who lived on Taylor Street come to be married where their grandparents were,” Piemonte said. “We get an awful lot of people that have lived here and then moved away and always come back…People are married here, buried here, baptized here.”
Many of the suburban-raised young people who visit the church tell her they want to move back, but can’t afford it, she said.
Property values in the neighborhood have shot up in recent years, but some new residents are finding that construction of condominiums and remodeling of old buildings offer options that are close to the Loop and less expensive than other parts of the city.
Danelle Catrambone, Kathy Catrambone’s cousin, grew up in the western Chicago neighborhood of Galewood. Her great-grandparents settled on Taylor Street after moving from Italy, but her grandfather moved away from the neighborhood.
“Growing up we had family members there. We would always go and visit,” she said. “We’d do the usual things, getting Mario’s frozen Italian ice in the summertime. When I got married, I wanted to be close to the downtown area, but I wanted something familiar. I like that neighborhood feel.”
Danelle Catrambone, a 29-year-old nail technician, and her husband bought a condo in the neighborhood two years ago. Beyond its location and good price, she said she wanted to reconnect with her Italian heritage.
“I’m third generation [Italian-American], and as generations continue, I feel like we’re losing a little of our ancestry,” she said. “I wanted to become more familiar with that.”
Danelle Catrambone and her husband, who isn’t of Italian descent, have recently started learning Italian from software they purchased. She wants to speak it with their future children.
“My great grandparents didn’t teach their kids Italian,” Danelle Catrambone said. “It was looked down upon. They tried to raise their children as American as possible. It’s a different time. I want to give my kids that culture.”
In August, the neighborhood will host the Taylor Street Festa Italiana. The event attracted about 20,000 people last year, the first time a festival of its kind had been held on Taylor Street in nearly 15 years, said Ron Onesti, whose event production company is throwing this year’s festival.
Onesti, who lived on Taylor Street as a child before moving to the suburbs, said more young Italian-Americans will gravitate back to the old neighborhood.
“The children of those who left the neighborhood are now taking advantage of the resurgence of real estate opportunity there,” he said. “The next generation is coming back.”
Onesti, who now lives in Wood Dale, said moving back is something he’ll always think about, but suburban life has benefits that Little Italy can’t match.
“As someone with a 3-year-old daughter, it’s hard to leave someplace with a cul-de-sac,” he said.
Young Italian-Americans aren’t moving to the neighborhood in droves, but there are some returning, and more say they’d like to. It’s too early to say what changes they might make in the neighborhood, but locals like Kathy Catrambone say they won’t regret returning to their roots.
“I was speaking with a woman who has lived in the suburbs for years and years,” she said. “She told me: ‘when someone asks where I’m from, I say Taylor Street, not Oak Park.’ She only lived on Taylor Street for 20 years, but it was the most formative 20 years of her life. It’s such a strong connection, it cannot be broken, no matter how many miles you move.”