Columbus, Fabian, Rizzo and Me

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

By now, of course, we’re all as American as anybody else (applause). Still, we’ve retained a deep well of Southern-Italian-peasant turns of mind and soul. How else could it be that our destitute, ignorant ancestors willingly crossed an ocean in foul ships for an uncertain future in a hostile country, and yet among people of my acquaintance, any car trip more than 20 minutes (unless it’s to Atlantic City) is a major voyage, skipped if possible? The answer is clear — in our ethnic subconscious, travel equals pain. You might never get back home! The people you meet might be nasty!  
And why, in places like South Philly, do even old males spend so much time outside in the streets? It’s because a century ago, in Italy, we lived in little hovels with no plumbing — surrounded by green, open spaces. And why is it that the Italian word for donkey, ciuco, is so commonly used (as an insult) by people who have never seen donkeys? Because in Italy, that’s what we drove instead of Monte Carlos. Finally, why, after generations in this country, do we still gravitate so strongly, in such an un-American way, toward each other? Moglie e buoi dei paese tuoi: "Marry and buy cattle from your neighbors," as they say in Southern Italy and think in Southern Philadelphia.
If its soil bred little genius, it bred less treason.
 — Henry Adams, writing on Pennsylvania
BEFORE WE AGREE to condemn Italo-Philadelphia for lackluster performance, we must consider this possibility: Maybe there’s just something about this city that discourages individual accomplishment. That’s the theory animating another fascinating work of social history, E. Digby Baltzell’s 1979 Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia. Baltzell argued that the Quaker ethos gave birth to our city and state — a philosophy that valued egalitarianism and resistance to authority, rather than the hierarchical, authoritarian ethic that motivated the go-go Puritans who founded Boston.
As Baltzell pointed out, you really don’t even have to be a Quaker to possess the Quaker outlook on life, and as proof he looked at how well the Irish in each of the cities performed. Boston had its first Irish-Catholic mayor in the 1880s. Philadelphia did not get its first, Jim Tate, until 1964. Boston’s most famous Irish family is the Kennedys, who produced a president and two senators. Ours is the Kelly clan, which turned out a matriarch who forbade her son to run for mayor and a movie actress who married a prince. Catholic Boston’s leaders were mostly homegrown, while Philadelphia’s first four bishops were born abroad.