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Little Italy is a neighborhood on the Near West Side of Chicago, Illinois. The current boundaries of Little Italy are Ashland Avenue on the west and Morgan Street on the east — bracketed by Harrison Street on the north and Roosevelt Road; i.e., 12th Street, on the south. It is hemmed in by the Illinois Medical District and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Today, it is primarily a restaurant district, with a mixed, multi-ethnic character, although several Italian-American restaurants remain. The neighborhood also hosts the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame as well as the historic Roman Catholic churches Our Lady of Pompeii, Notre Dame de Chicago, and Holy Family.
While there are several Italian-American communities that thrive within the Chicago metropolitan area, Taylor Street, the port-of-call for Chicago's Italian American immigrants, inherited the title of Chicago's "Little Italy." Taylor Street's Little Italy is part of a larger community area — Chicago's Near West Side. Dominant among the immigrant communities that comprised the Near West Side during the mass migration of Europeans around the start of the 20th century, were Italians, Greeks and Jews. Other ethnic groups vacated the neighborhood beginning in the early 1900s, and only the Italian-American enclave remained as a vibrant community.
Other ethnicities have always been present in the area known as "Little Italy." Nonetheless, the neighborhood was given its name due to the strong influence of Italians and Italian culture on the neighborhood throughout the 19th and 20th century. The Italian population, peaking during the decades of the 1950s and '60s, began declining shortly after the decision to build the University of Illinois in the area was finalized in 1963. However, several Italian restaurants and businesses remain in the formerly prominent Taylor Street corridor.
Italians began arriving in Chicago in the 1850s in small numbers. By 1880, there were 1,357 Italians in the city. By the 1920s, Italian cookery became one of the most popular ethnic cuisines in America, spawning many successful bakeries and restaurants—some of which prospered for generations and continue to influence the Chicago dining scene today. 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.
The immigration of Italians accelerated throughout the late 19th century and into the early 20th century. Chicago's foreign-born Italian population was 16,008 in 1900 and peaked at 73,960 in 1930. The largest area of settlement was the Taylor Street area, but there were also 20 other significant Italian enclaves throughout the city and suburbs. This was the home of the Genna crime family.
Jane Addams labeled the community as "The Hull House Neighborhood." One of the first newspaper articles ever written about Hull House acknowledges an invitation sent to the residents of the "Hull House Neighborhood." It begins with the salutation, "Mio Carissimo Amicimo," and is signed, "Le Signorine, Jane Addams and Ellen Starr." Bethlehem-Howard Neighborhood Center Records further substantiate that, as early as the 1890s, the inner core of "The Hull House Neighborhood" was overwhelmingly Italians. If those were the demographics as early as the 1890s, the flight of other ethnic groups, which began after the start of the 20th century, suggests that virtually the entire community from the Chicago River on the east end out to the western ends of what came to be known as "Little Italy" and from Roosevelt Road on the south to the Harrison Street delta on the north — the inner core of the Hull House Neighborhood, was wall-to-wall Italian from the 1930s through the 1950s.
A 1987, Chicago Sun-Times article that refers to a picture of "The 'Hull House' Kids," taken on a summer day in 1924, depicts young boys posing in the Dante School Yard on Forquer Street (now Arthington Street). The historic picture, taken by Wallace K. Kirkland Sr., Hull House director, who later became a top photographer with Life. The article lists the names of each of the young boys and describes all 20 boys as first generation Italian Americans … all with vowels at the end of their names.
In 1963, the decision to build the University of Illinois decimated Taylor Street's little Italy. Florence Scala, Chicago’s legendary Taylor Street activist and longtime Hull House cohort, blamed the board of directors of Hull House for betraying the thriving, vibrant, tight knit neighborhood. They encouraged Daley to go ahead and destroy the neighborhood. Her challenge as to why the Hull House neighborhood and not the vacated and easily accessible Dearborn Station, resulted in the bombing of her home.
Following World War II, several developments hindered the cohesion of the community. The construction of the Eisenhower Expressway and the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical district forced many to move. The establishment of the Circle Campus of UIC in the 1960s by Mayor Richard J. Daley further dispersed the community. During the construction of the 100-acre (0.40 km2) UIC campus, 200 businesses and 800 homes were bulldozed in Little Italy, with 5,000 residents displaced.
By the end of the 20th century, Little Italy was one of many formerly high-profile elements of the city’s geography that had become a mere shadow of itself. Few long-time residents are left in the community. Census data for the Taylor Street Little Italy tract showed only 1,280 people reporting Italian as their primary ancestry in 1990. In 2000, the number was 1,018. However, Chicago’s foodways continue to rely on their roots in the intimate neighborhood cuisines, including cuisine from the surviving Italian restaurants in the formerly prominent Taylor Street corridor.
Rents in the area have risen in the past few decades due to an influx of condominiums, townhouses, and the proximity of Little Italy to UIC and the Loop. An example of this gentrification: in the 1990 census, no homes in the Little Italy sample area were reported to be worth more than $400,000. By contrast, according to the 2000 census, 62 homes were reportedly worth more than $500,000, and 13 of those were worth at least $1 million.
Two of the more significant landmarks of Little Italy were the Catholic churches of Our Lady of Pompeii and Holy Guardian Angel founded by Mother Cabrini. Holy Guardian Angel was the first Italian congregation in Chicago. The parish was established in 1898, and the church was built on Arthington Street in 1899. Due to the burgeoning population, a second major Italian church, Our Lady of Pompeii, was founded in 1911. The Holy Guardian Angel Church was razed for the construction of the expressway system. The Our Lady of Pompeii Church is now the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii.
Taylor Street has popularly been known as Chicago's "Little Italy," but several other areas in Chicago have had significant Italian populations.
Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, each with distinct characteristics brought by successive waves of immigrants. Since the 1850s, Italians formed tightly knit enclaves following patterns of chain migration, eventually settling more than a dozen Little Italies across Chicago. Inner-city enclaves along Taylor Street, Roseland on the Southwest Side and Little Sicily on the Near North Side, as well as enclaves beyond the city limits, such as those in Highwood and Melrose Park, all flourished.
In the 22nd Ward on the city's Near North Side, a Sicilian enclave known alternately as "Little Sicily" and "Little Hell" was established in an area formerly populated by Scandinavians. It was considered the most colorful Italian neighborhood, and was home to 20,000 Italians by 1920. The neighborhood no longer exists due to the construction of the Cabrini–Green public housing projects on the site during and after World War II. By the mid 1960s, crime and social problems resulting from the housing projects caused many of the earlier residents to leave.
In the West Town neighborhood a person can find an old Italian enclave along Grand Avenue between Aberdeen and May streets. As noted by Maureen Jenkins, Staff Reporter for Chicago Sun Times: "You're still likely to hear folks speaking dialects from Sicily and the coastal city of Bari, which stands on the "heel" side of the Italian boot in the Puglia region. In fact, this sliver of Grand—with its private men's clubs and markets where sausage still is made by hand—feels way more "Little Italy" than current-day Taylor Street".
On the city's Lower West Side, a community centered on 24th and Oakley called the "Heart of Italy" or "Little Tuscany" is composed mostly of Northern Italian immigrants. While Taylor Street goes by the popular Little Italy moniker, that designation once belonged to a stretch of decades-old ristoranti on the 2400 block of South Oakley, an area now known as Heart of Italy.