By Susan Eleuterio.
There are so many forgotten stories in Chicago but I’ve chosen one I know about because of my work as a folklorist and educator. Years ago, a friend of mine started an educational tour company which focused on Chicago’s ethnic history and communities. At the time he was the Director of Urban and Ethnic Education for the State of Illinois and he knew people in almost every neighborhood of Chicago who had a story to tell. He hired several of us who were schoolteachers temporarily staying home with our young children and we became the lead tour guides. We would drive to a school and then ride in from the suburbs with the students on their school bus, telling them about Chicago’s first settlers along the way. (More about those stories will appear in another post). Then we toured three different neighborhoods, having lunch in an ethnic restaurant along the way.
Jane Addams Hull House Museum, Chicago
Plaque with short history of Hull House
At each stop, a community representative would tell their own story and in some cases, take us on a walking tour. The local representatives included a refugee from Vietnam, a Puerto Rican community organizer and Florence Scala, a legendary activist and resident of Chicago’s Little Italy who battled Mayor Richard J. Daley’s decision to replace much of the neighborhood, and especially the buildings of Jane Addams’ Hull House Settlement with the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) all the way to the Supreme Court. At the time of these tours, Florence had a restaurant, Florence’s that had been her father’s tailor shop, and would regale the students with stories of Hull House and life in Little Italy. Studs Terkel, Chicago and America’s oral historian, recorded Florence’s story on his radio show, but it has been forgotten by many who now attend school at UIC or visit the Hull House Museum (Jane Addams home and the worker’s dining hall were preserved when the rest of the block was torn down.) Florence’s story is important on so many levels; for those who are currently battling gentrification of Chicago’s and other urban neighborhoods, especially those which have traditionally been ports of entry for immigrants, refugees, and migrants; as the example of a woman who felt passion for her urban environment and her heritage and was willing to risk ridicule and worse to fight to save it; and as part of the history of the Settlement movement in cities.
Mario’s Italian Lemonade Stand, Taylor Street, Chicago
One of the “secrets” I know from those days as a tour guide on the West Side include Mario’s Italian Lemonade (one of the few remnants of the real Little Italy). This stand, open since 1954, serves “Italian ice,” a concoction of shaved ice, syrup and lemonade made with chunks of real fruit. I have sometimes waited while an entire city fire truck stops for ice at Mario’s. This is one of those urban treasures, which has survived gentrification and is the perfect stop on a hot summer day.