REMEMBERING FLORENCE SCALA
REMEMBERING FLORENCE SCALA
September 17, 1918- August 28, 2007
The Individual in History
The Chicago Metro History Education Project, in a cooperative effort of the Newberry Library, the Chicago History Museum, and various area universities, has, for the past 30 years, sponsored the Chicago Metro History Fair. Its goal is to inspire an appreciation for, and the study of, local history. The Fair has encouraged students to become history detectives and, as a by product, produce significant research. As part of National History Day, students compete at both the Junior High and Senior High School level. They may write research papers, produce documentaries, and/or create either an individual or a group performance. The theme this year was “The Individual in History”. In the Chicago area, dozens of schools participated with hundreds of local teachers, “history buffs”, graduate students, and professionals volunteering to act as judges. Statewide, the program encompassed 20,000 students, with 500 teachers, from 200 schools.
Nicole Jaconetty of Chicago, representing Regina Dominican High School in Wilmette, created an individual ten-minute performance dramatizing the role of Chicago community activist Florence Scala. Nicole was also required to submit a written Thesis Statement, Summary Statement, and Annotated Bibliography. Her project was: “Florence Scala and the Spirit of Community Organizing.”
Mayor Richard J. Daley’s decision, in 1961, to build the UIC campus in “Little Italy” between Harrison and Halsted changed the lives of its inhabitants forever. Florence Scala and her neighborhood reacted and fought. The demonstrators—mostly women and led by a single woman–rose up and picketed City Hall along with every possible agency of the federal and state government. They vehemently protested the destruction of their community and their way of life…all, supposedly, in the name of urban renewal, progress, and education. Her efforts left a lasting and indelible mark on the social and political fabric of Chicago.
Florence Scala was a woman of action, fierce independence, and strength. She was driven by a sense of justice to challenge what she saw as an abuse of power, a land grab fueled by arrogance, ego, greed, and politics. She stared down the Mayor, the downtown business interests, real estate developers, U of I Trustees, politicians, the City Council, and power brokers. She battled in every possible legal forum; confronted every available political official; marched to every available federal or state agency. She carried the fight to both the Illinois and United States Supreme Courts.
Even in defeat, Scala raised the consciousness of the city, empowered her community, and stood up for her neighborhood and its people. She was the “beating heart” and “soul” of the resistance…and, in the process, evolved into the role model of a community organizer. Her legacy is not just the salvaged homes (including the one in which she was raised and died) that were conceded. Her legacy includes the Hull House Museum (footnote Taylor Street Archives: UIC; Flawed history) and the respect and admiration of people such as Studs Terkel, Carol Marin, and even Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Today, because of her example, politicians routinely seek the advice of the local community concerning zoning and building. Local school councils all must have parents and community residents on their board. Community college districts have student representation. Now, Chicago is blanketed with over 75 active community groups and organizations. These organizers are driven by a sense of justice, the desire to see that the average person truly has a voice. They yearn for fairness and often are justifiably angry.
Florence Scala made a difference then—and she makes a difference now. Chicago would not be the same place without her. She was truly a heroine, a fighter for the rights of the underdog, a leader who lost a battle—but in so losing rekindled our civic conscience. One person at one moment in time, Florence Scala was a force…a presence that impacted upon the manner in which the voice of community residents can be heard and heeded. She became “the legendary” Florence Scala. At her death, she was so acknowledged. A great university now rests on the site where she fought. But, it is there partially on her terms: Hull House retained as a museum and an historic site housing her personal papers, a public library, her home as a living legacy. , and the memory of her—a great, honorable, and noble woman.
The script was simply entitled, “Florence”. It is based on extensive research that resulted in a twenty-seven (27) page annotated bibliography consisting of eighty (80) primary and thirty (30) secondary sources. Included were:– several biographies, Chicago histories, contemporary accounts, court decisions, documentaries, legal documents, “letter’s to the editor”, newspaper articles, personal correspondence (including those of Jessie Binford, Richard J. Daley, Paul Douglas, U of I officials, and Scala herself), statutes, and records of Hull House and University of Illinois Trustee meetings. Nicole also conducted several personal interviews with Chicago community activists and was given access to the archives of the University of Illinois at Chicago for the Hull House Collection and the Scala Collection.
As a result, Nicole became a Metro Regional Finalist and was the sole Regina Dominican student to advance to the Illinois State Exposition (sponsored by the Illinois Historical Society) on May 7, 2009 in Springfield. For her efforts, she received “Superior” recognition at the State Expo as well as a special award from the Illinois Labor History Society, to go along with the “Margaret Cross Norton” Award at the Regional Competition for the finest use of government archived materials. Drawing upon several contemporary photographs, Nicole dressed “in character”. She became Florence Scala, replete with pillbox hat (veil and pin), dark blue clothe coat, black scarf, and round-toed square-heeled Mary Jane shoes. Here is her tribute, often in Florence Scala’s own words.
People used to come into my restaurant or to my home and say, “Florence—really, how was it?” This is what I tell them!
The Italians lived there— with the Greeks, Mexicans, and Negroes too. We were the Near West Side of Chicago. It was, I like to say, a “gutsy, nice little neighborhood.” 1961 brought the bulldozers which lined up to destroy that place, to crush the only homes we had ever known. But before the wrecking ball was swung, do not think for a second that we did not go down without a fight.
My name is Florence Scala. I was born in 1918 and was raised in Chicago’s “Little Italy”, just outside of downtown. As a teenager I volunteered at Hull House, the famous community service institution. I was a worker in the WPA Theater Project. After WWII, I ran the West-side Catholic Youth Organization. I was on the Near West Side Planning Board. By 1961, I was Secretary to the Near West Side Conservation Community Council. And along the way, I even took some urban planning classes at the University of Chicago and Northwestern.
THE DECISION COMES DOWN FROM THE MAYOR’S OFFICE
Like I said, on February 10, 1961, Mayor Richard J. Daley and the University of Illinois Trustees chose my neighborhood. There they would erect a new college campus. Three days later, my neighbors came to me, just a local homemaker—with a background in urban planning, activism, and community development!
The first meeting began in the basement of the Holy Guardian Angel Catholic Church. It’s funny—that same church was forced to relocate after the construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway, and it would move once again if we did not act immediately. In early March, I met with 500 people at Hull House to discuss what needed to be done. There we organized a march that would occur on the 20th. 1,000 protestors, starting at St. Francis of Assisi Church, walked with me to Hull House to show our solidarity and refusal to give up our homes, our memories, and our way of life.
Our community group rallied everywhere: at Hull House and Our Lady of Pompeii Church, near the Mayor’s office, in the City Council chambers and before its Planning and Zoning Committees. We lobbied every federal agency, even the Housing and Home Finance Board. We pleaded with Governors Scranton and Kerner, the Mayor, Senators Douglas and Stevenson, and the powerful Congressman Bill Dawson. I’ve said it once and I will say it again: we were operating on “instinct and anger.” Yes, we wanted fairness and a voice. But most of all, we were angry.
We were a small part of a greater plan. Since the 1950’s, “urban renewal”— eliminating “slums” and “blighted areas”— was a big issue. And Daley had big plans. He wanted to clear the slums and expand “urban renewal” around the University of Chicago. He financed and built an international airport. He wanted to place “L” trains down the middle of the expressways. He needed to stimulate downtown growth.
Because Daley always got what he wanted, our situation worsened. The frustra-tion and angst droned on. Picture crowded church halls full of young mothers sobbing, crying out: “The rich always take away from the poor!”, “What do they think we are—animals?” and “Putting us out on the street? Where will we go?” I even tried to convince the City Council once again for them. But it was like I “was talking to a stone wall”.
WHY TAYLOR STREET AND NOT NAVY PIER, GARFIELD PARK, OR PRINTER’S ROW?
I too asked questions: Why these streets, our families, our past—our futures? … Why? …Why not another site? We knew they had looked at railroad property, industrial land, an executive airport, park land, and a golf course.
Yes, the Mayor, the businessmen, and the students said that Navy Pier was no longer a fit place for a college opened under the G.I. Bill. And I agreed. I was all for progress. The University needed a permanent, four-year home. And Daley believed that Chicago deserved a campus. But there were other options. They claimed they had looked at a total of 90 sites since 1957. But even the best option, Garfield Park, was killed by the business community.
Chicago’s civic leaders had their hearts set on “Little Italy.” They had economic, educational, social, and racial motives. For them, an urban university, close to down-town, was convenient and cheap to develop. They said it would improve the area and create jobs. We wondered: Were they trying to stop the spread of Negro housing projects? Would construction create jobs and contracts for Daley and his friends? But, most of all, could he really do this?
So, I told him to his face: “I’m going to fight you on this!” It just wasn’t fair! Why should he benefit from our displacement? At the time, I wanted him to understand “what it was like to live in a real democracy”.
Yeah—we kept up our efforts, still shocked at how much land they wanted to take. That’s why it was so imperative that we continue. Or else, all would be lost.
Then, can you believe it? We packed the city council so maybe they would hear our pleas. And, even when they still approved the acquisition of 155 acres, we marched 200 loud and rowdy demonstrators right into the mayor’s office.
SEARCHING FOR A LAST DITCH SOLUTION TO SAVE TAYLOR STREET
Now, it seemed the only thing left to save was Hull House. How could I convince the board to salvage from the wrecking ball what Jane Addams had built with her own hands? Jessie Binford, my close friend and Addams’ colleague, had lived at Hull House since 1906. She had to be the solution. We begged the Board to let the institution continue. But in the end, they too sold out. We had been betrayed. They could not stand up for what was right? All of this for a “monument to Daley”.
But then came hope for our homes. We filed a federal lawsuit in the names of 282 people. Yet, on November 28, 1962, the United States Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled against us in an opinion that was sympathetic—but still a firm “no”. It said that
federal urban renewal funds could be used. In Spring of ’63, the United States Supreme Court said it would not hear an appeal. We tried in the Cook County courts to no avail.
Finally, on May 13, 1963—Daley won. The Illinois Supreme Court approved the taking of all our properties. Just goes to show, as the Court thought of our homes, we too were “dispensable, dilapidated, and obsolete”.
I’m not sure if I hate Chicago or if I love it still. People’s lives were changed forever. 8-10,000 displaced people were “deeply embittered”. They had lost the sights and smells they had always known—their smiling friendly neighbors and bustling 630 businesses, their Italian ice, and their fish markets. The “nice people”—those with money to make decisions—who pretended to be good but really weren’t, would never understand it! I do not think Chicago is the same as it was then. People are more concerned with themselves than their communities. For these reasons, I am angry with the city. But “I don’t grieve for the past”, only a future lost. And I still “don’t believe so much in people as I used to.”
And, what about UIC? See, the University is a great establishment, don’t get me wrong. As Mayor Daley always said, it was his single greatest accomplishment. 25,000 students. 300 acres. Libraries with 31 million volumes. 40 graduate programs in the top l00. Ranked 48th in federal research and development grants. It has what Jessie Binford said we need: “the spirit of youth”. It’s just that I still think it could have been just as great somewhere else!
Ironically UIC is where I have my personal papers—in the Richard J. Daley Library. It is where I ignited a nationwide outcry to keep the Hull House Mansion and dining hall as a permanent museum. And it is where I had my neighborhood Italian restaurant. So in the end, maybe I didn’t lose the battle after all.
And, I know in my heart that neighborhoods will continue to flourish . . . with help. This help comes from other community organizers. It is they who carry the torch, affecting the future and saving homes and livelihoods one by one. Just think about it—a community organizer is running this country, one who has empathy for the common man! People like him fight so the little people will have a voice. Community organizing is not just a job or an “in your face” mentality. It is a calling—a calling which draws many to support their neighborhoods to make Chicago better.
These days Chicago has 75 community development groups. Politicians think twice before they run rough-shod over the people. Most wards have a neighborhood zoning committee to watch development. 7-8,000 people run for local school councils every year, which have a major say in how communities are run. After me came Gale Cincotta in the Austin area fighting “red-lining” and bank discrimination. Then Marie Score, standing up to the “block-busters” and “panic peddlers in the 1970’s. I would like to think that I, along with these women and more, had a part in sparking a national revo-lution of participatory democracy. You could call it my legacy.
My friend Studs Terkel says I was his “heroine”. Some called me “the civic conscience of Little Italy.” To others I was “Rosa Parks [of] the Italian people”. Chicago activist Lucy Jefferson praised my “down-to earth qualities”. The current Mayor Daley said I “brought passion” and was “committed to my community in a way all Chicagoans can emulate.” All kind words indeed. I leave it to you, and to history, to judge me. I surely hope that people will say that I made a difference for both my neigh-borhood, my city, and maybe more. Whether they believe so or not, “I would do it again.” Without a doubt.