Columbus, Fabian, Rizzo and Me

Philadelphia and Italians — Perfect together. A new book explains why

But while these and other Northern Italians, blessed with education, skills, social graces and liquid assets, sought opportunity in the New World, the southern half of Italy went on as it had since before Christ was born, suffering more or less stolidly under the boot-heels of various unkind occupation forces. (Romans, Lombards, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Germans, French, Spanish — it’s a long list.) The fatalistic Southerners had grown accustomed to being terminally poor, illiterate, backward hillbillies, but then things really got bad. The four centuries leading to this one were particularly crushing under the Bourbon regime, and the late 19th century piled on famine, earthquakes, drought and plagues of cholera and malaria. Naturallv. the reward for the peasants’ stoic suffering was scorn: The South was viewed as a hopeless drag on the national ambitions of the North. Respected criminologist Cesare Lombroso expressed the view that Southerners were inherently, measurably inferior to other Italians. One government leader suggested that Italy cut itself off from the South — "a ball of lead at our feet." 

Thanks, bella ltalia, land of Michelangelo, Dante, Verdi, Armani — screw all them Northerners. Southern Italy finally got the message, and responded in the form of a diaspora that started just before the century did and lasted about four decades. Whole Southern Italian villages became ghost towns; before the great emigration ended, 40 percent of Sicily had cleared out. By 1930 there were 5 million people of Italian birth living in the United States, but it’s safe to say that life didn’t improve immediately for many of them. In some ways, it got worse. 

In practical matters, Southern Italians were largely unprepared to succeed in America — the life of a rural peasant offers no training for that of an urban poverty statistic. Seventy-seven percent of the Southern Italians who came in this century’s first decade were either farm workers or unskilled laborers. In 1910, when $800 a year was thought to be the minimum needed to support two American adults and three children, the average Southern Italian family here earned $688, just slightly better than the blacks at the bottom of the heap. The Southern Italian inclination to start working young and disinclination toward schooling meant that in 1930, Italian-American children disproportionately constituted 30 percent of all working white Philadelphians ages 14 to 16. In the same year, one-quarter of all Italian-born males in this city were illiterate — a rate exceeded only by men from Portugal and the Azores.
No wonder the suicide rate for Italians tripled among those who came here. Even the one thing they might have expected to comfort them in America — their religion — was different and hostile. The U.S. Catholic Church hierarchy was dominated by the pious Irish, who were horrified by the pagan Catholicism the Italians practiced — a blend of vaguely comprehended dogma and firm belief in the existence of the evil eye, the primacy of the Madonna and the benefits of pinning money to gaudily dressed statues of St. Rocco. Irish-Italian animosity was nowhere greater than in Philadelphia, where from 1918 to 1951 Cardinal Dennis Dougherty was the no~nonsense architect of the archdiocese that exists today. Especially in the mostly Irish parishes on the west side of South Philadelphia, the Father Farrells and Kellys had been instructed to bully from the pulpit when necessary and refuse to indulge any exotic styles of worship. As Richard Varbero wrote in his excellent 1975 doctoral dissertation, Urbanization and Acculturation: Philadelphia’s South Italians 1918-1932, "Dougherty could not hope to make the Italians Irish, but he could at least attempt to make them respectable." It’s not by accident that Philadelphia has no major Italian religious festival, like the San Gennaro feast in New York. (The sole local equivalent that took root is safely out of sight in Hammonton, New ]ersey.) The main show of forceful resistance to Dougherty came in 1933 when his plan to close an Italian church — Our Lady of Good Counsel, near 8th and Christian — sparked a riot in which angry parishioners imprisoned a priest inside the rectory and threatened to burn the church down. In the end, though, Dougherty carried out his plan just as he had announced it.