Great Chicagoans

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A couple of years ago I wrote a story about Oscar D'Angelo, the political and development wheeler and dealer often called the "Mayor of Little Italy." D'Angelo, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, was polite, evasive, funny, charming, and often demanding and controlling--obsessed with knowing and, if possible, dictating the look and governance of Little Italy while doling out favors and funds like a reformed rich man from one of the gospels. I met and talked at length with him several times, but he never let me interview him on the record. Instead, he handed me a videotape.

It turned out to be a 17-minute, professionally produced documentary called "A Nite in Little Italy." The film, narrated by D'Angelo's wife, Paula, essentially tells a story of how Oscar D'Angelo saved the neighborhood.

Much of it, by most counts, probably understates how much time, commitment, and blue-collar work D'Angelo has put in over the last half-century to preserve and protect lovely old buildings and park space. It certainly understates the influence D'Angelo had on public policy, both in Little Italy and across the city, under both Mayor Daleys and the three people who ran Chicago in between. 

It also offers some fascinating perspectives of the history of Little Italy.

In the early 1960s, the film says, "The city decided to build the urban campus of the University of Illinois. Ten thousand people were displaced, and in the worst American tradition, a whole community should have completely disappeared."

So far, this bears a close resemblance to other accounts of the way the first Mayor Daley razed a huge swath of the neighborhood to create the university.

And then it says: "That it didn't is in part the story of one very stubborn man."

Oscar D'Angelo comes on the screen and says that the federal government and city had plans to wipe out almost all of the neighborhood. He says he tried to find a way to embrace UIC while also preserving the area's architecture and Italian character. 

He also sort of admits that he was the center of considerable controversy. "When Mayor Daley announced the establishment of the University of Illinois at Chicago, it appeared that the community had been treacherously betrayed--those are probably the words my good friend Florence would use."

That would be Florence Scala, the longtime Little Italy resident who led the long, bitter fight against Daley, D'Angelo, and the urban renewal plan that eventually triumphed. Scala died Tuesday.

"So that was the most divisive fight that ever occurred in this community," D'Angelo says. "Matter of fact, I was hung in effigy--some people thought I should be hung in reality--for taking the side of the university. And I thought it would be a magnificent opportunity to create a newly viable community. And it depends on who you ask. I thought I was right, and if you asked Florence, I think she'd say I was wrong. I think she did a phenomenal job. She may have taken a different view than mine, but she certainly knew how to do it. She fought the most powerful politician in recent American history, in my view, and for a long, long time fought him to a standstill."

In other words, as D'Angelo essentially admits, Little Italy was hardly saved by one stubborn man--Scala's losing effort had a huge impact, bringing attention to the neighborhood and making a hero out of defenders of the voiceless and powerless (even if her work didn't end the proud Chicago tradition of literally and figuratively bulldozing the homes of so-called little people). Community and political activists get fired up and vow again to fight the power when her name is mentioned. A west-side preservationist and close friend of D'Angelo's told me he thought that both Scala and D'Angelo should be included on any list of all-time great Chicagoans. He was serious, and by way of explaining, he said D'Angelo has "a magnetic perspicacity" and added, "Sometimes I wish he would shut the fuck up." Notably, he made a point of not saying that about Scala.

I never met Scala. But I did call her once to talk about D'Angelo. I'd heard and read all about the blunt-talking, power-challenging woman known as "Flo," and I knew she hadn't quit fighting D'Angelo or the city after the university was built.

It turned out Scala didn't really help me with the story, but I can't say she disappointed me, either. She simply said that, after nearly half a decade, she was tired of talking about Oscar D'Angelo.

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