“America–a beautiful Italian word,” said the man behind the podium at the Old Neighborhood Italian American Club’s Memorial Day ceremony. “That’s right,” said an old man standing in front of me in the audience, nudging his neighbor. Elsewhere in the crowd, grey heads nodded up and down. “Our parents and grandparents, they came to this country with fear in their heads and hope in their hearts,” the speaker continued. “They built this for us.”
ONIAC is situated on Shields between 29th and 30th, in what was once considered Armour Square. Now it is more commonly identified as the eastern edge of Bridgeport. Bridgeport has a reputation as one of Chicago’s great Irish American neighborhoods, and, inextricably, as one of Chicago’s great seats of political power. This is deserved–Bridgeport ruled the city with four successive mayors from 1933 to 1979. Throw in the younger Mayor Daley, and a Bridgeport native has had an office on the fifth floor of city hall for sixty-eight years of the city’s 176-year history.
Yet this mythical Irish hegemony masks a lot of the real character of the neighborhood. ONIAC anchors a strong Italian American community, one that has maintained a steady presence in the neighborhood for years. North of 35th Street, many two-flats and bungalows proudly display Italian flags.
“Could you tell me a bit about Bridgeport?” I asked one of the grey heads at the ceremony. He wore a drab track jacket over pressed slacks, which seemed to pass as a uniform among the audience members.
“This isn’t Bridgeport, this is Armour Square.” He gave me an impatient look.
“Can you tell me about Armour Square?” I tried.
“It’s not an Italian club, it’s the neighborhood club. There’s a mixture of people. We have Croatians and Irish and Chinese. It’s the neighborhood club.”
How has the neighborhood changed?” I followed up. “Very little,” he said, walking away into a group of four similar old-timers, shaking hands in greeting.
“It’s a close-knit neighborhood. A lot of people think we are rude or racist, but really it’s because we are close-knit,” offered Renee. She stood around casually chatting with Chris and Brian after the ceremony. Now in their late twenties, the trio grew up together in Bridgeport, raised by multiple generations worth of Italian-American tradition.
“A lot of people think we’re from New York ’cause of the way we talk,” said Chris. “One, two, tree,” Brian demonstrated, counting his fingers.
University of Chicago sociologist Gerald Suttles coined the term “ordered segmentation” to describe an area he studied in the early 1960s on the Near West Side, where UIC is located today. The neighborhood contained Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and Italians–a diverse lot. But he noticed that, up close, it wasn’t integrated at all: community came down to neat street-by-street divisions between the different factions. “The overall pattern is one where age, sex, ethnic, and territorial units are fitted together like building blocks,” he wrote.
This holds true for old Bridgeport. There were the Irish Catholics. But there were also the Czechs and Croats. German and Swedish communities were located in the neighborhood as far back as the 1850s. St. Mary’s of Perpetual Help, founded in 1882, was the first Polish parish in the neighborhood. Ullman Street (now Morgan) divided the Poles from the Lithuanians who had congregated along Lituanica Street, which was renamed from Auburn Street. Of course, blacks were never welcome. Langston Hughes, the great African American poet, wandered into the neighborhood two days after moving to the city as a teenager in 1918. He quickly returned to Bronzeville, with a new collection of bruises.
“Honestly, I do think that we’re much less racist than before. If you talk to our grandparents compared to us now, it’s like totally different. Even they think differently because of us, because of the younger generation,” says Christie Bertucci.
Christie and her two sisters run Fabulous Freddies Italian Eatery on 31st Street. We chatted at a table along the wall in her establishment. Next to us four cops scrunched around a table. Freddies opened in 1990, when Christie’s father, Freddie, decided to chase the dream. Before the restaurant, he used to teach religion in a neighborhood high school. “I think he was supposed to be a gym teacher, but they needed a religion teacher and he’s like kinda holy,” she says.
“It’s very family,” she says of the neighborhood. She was born and raised around the corner, and attends church one block from her house, where five generations of her family have attended.
The first Italian immigrants were latecomers when they began to move into the already diverse neighborhood in the 1890s. The Italian American section of the neighborhood stretches north from 35th to the Stevenson Expressway, bounded by the Dan Ryan and Halsted. Neighborhoods are sites of constant change, and the boundaries have shifted over time. Some groups have replaced others, and the neighborhood has drifted toward small-c catholic. But those old communities still linger.
“People leave, but they always move back,” said Renee. “Yeah,” agreed Chris. “A lot of people move to the suburbs and hate it because you don’t know your neighbors. Here you know everybody walking down the block.”
There are still numerous Italian institutions dotting the neighborhood. On any day of the week, a steady flow of people walk into Impallaria Bakery at 31st and Wallace for handcrafted cannolis. Restaurants such as Franco’s and Gio’s serve hearty Italian food. Pizza joints and Italian Lemonade stands aren’t hard to find.
Then there are those that have disappeared, such as the faÃ§ade on 26th that reads “Pizzeria/Spaghetti,” with a faded sign in the window that reads, “SORRY, NO MORE SOFT SERVE ICE CREAM.”
ONIAC itself is members-only, one of several such clubs in the neighborhood. The large brick building has few windows, all of which are dark black. The door is locked, and women are not typically allowed inside (a separate women’s club meets once a month). Most afternoons, old men sit around playing cards, casually chatting and occasionally venturing into the gym or onto the racquetball court. The club has around 500 members, not all of whom are senior citizens, nor even Italian. But most meet both demographics.
The St. Joseph Club, which sits on Honorary St. Joseph’s Club Way, keeps the quiet reminder “Members Only” printed on the window. When I peered through the deeply-tinted glass on a sunny afternoon, three old men stared back from a bar counter with the sort of look that lets someone know they are not wanted.
In talking about exclusive and deep-seated Italian tradition in Chicago, it’s hard to avoid organized crime. After all, this is the city of Al Capone. “I mean, I know people who are technically in the mob, but does it really still exist?” asks Christie.
“Don’t put anything I said about the mob,” she joked later as we said goodbye. “I already have enough trouble.”
Yet there are tall tales. ONIAC was founded in 1981 by Angelo LaPietra, a major figure in the Outfit who earned the nickname “The Hook” for how he would collect on outstanding loans (imagine your own gruesome details). He went to prison in 1986 for embezzling two million dollars out of Las Vegas. When he got out, he returned to his beloved club until his death in 1999. Toward the end of his life, he was rumored to have spent every night awake at the club, sitting with a shotgun in his lap, trying to catch the robber who kept stealing the veal cutlets.
This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: June 9, 2013
An earlier version of this story misstated the location of a former Bridgeport restaurant. The shuttered pizzeria with “NO MORE SOFT SERVE ICE CREAM” is located on 26th Street, not 29th Street.