Florence

23 10 2007

plan “b” was late for Florence Scala’s memorial last Saturday morning and worried that the church would be out the door and around the block full.  The biggish Holy Family Catholic Church on Roosevelt Road was not full. There were no television cameras or photographers. Perhaps a hundred or so people sat in the center pews, by the look and feel of them old family friends and family; neighborhood people. It was an intimate gathering of people who had been part of someone’s life and in that way it could have been the memorial of someone who had lived a much quieter life.

Florence Scala died at the end of August and very quiet mention was made at the time of a memorial planned for October 20.  After a round of dutiful obituaries Chicago went quiet about Florence Scala. She was the West Side, Little Italy woman who had gone up against Old Man Daley, had run for alderman in her ward against the wishes of the neighborhood muscle. Her building was bombed and in a town that loves its neighborhood politics, that doesn’t happen very often.  Florence Scala was one of the last and certainly one of the more prominent Chicagoans to have grown up in the excitement and hospitality of Hull House, in its Jane Addams hey day.  Hull House welcomed generations of people new to American life and, in a time of “Americanization,” the people and programs of Hull were the proof that newcomers could be fully welcome here and keep their cultures as well.

At the start of so many social revolutions in the early 1960s, Florence Scala closed ranks with the Halsted-Harrison community organization and the last resident of Hull House, the woman known locally as “The Conscience of Chicago”, Jessie Binford to save the thirteen buildings along Halsted Street that had been the center of close to a hundred years of pulsing Hull House neighborhood activism.  When the City’s wreckers had knocked down eleven of the thirteen and were closing in on the last two buildings, Florence and Jessie and the community group still opposed the City’s federally funded project of replacing a big hunk of the West Side of Chicago with a campus for the University of Illinois. Studs Terkel reminded the mourners of the old elm tree that was torn out at the very last, when the neighborhood people thought they had lost everything they could lose and then realized that there was one last thing, the elm tree Terkel called “the symbol” of the neighborhood.

Florence’s community activism continued to flourish after that heart-breaking 1963 defeat.  Her Taylor Street restaurant, Florence (named for the city) was the homey, kitchen for anyone who liked great food, great talk, politics and Florence.  Local broadcast journalist, Carol Marin, reminded the people at Saturday’s memorial that when Florence was 85, Florence was still throwing in with her Taylor Street business colleagues, to back the young tattoo artist who wanted to open his shop on Taylor Street.   That “other” Taylor Street faction was dead set against a tattoo parlor on the street they were promoting in the 21st century as the center of a high class, top dollar neighborhood.  Florence and her pals won that one and there’s a handy Tattoo Parlor on Taylor Street now.

The small crowd in Holy Family had a long memory of the life and times of Florence, so her nephew, Father Steven Giovangelo and niece, Terese Wyatt, didn’t have to recite a familiar biography and could instead remember their Aunt. You did not have to be explicit with this crowd. Teresa held up the perfectly proper letter of condolence from Mayor Daley and the two page Chicago City Council homage to Florence signed by all the Aldermen. The niece said the family was of course pleased to receive these testimonials and then added that it made one smile. Everyone laughed to think of the son of Florence’s old nemesis signing the condolence. Carol Marin said she’d checked out Florence’s cemetery and found the bodies of some of her most ruthless enemies buried nearby, the “gangsters…the aldermen…” and that Florence could be trusted to “make them twist in their graves!” It brought down the house and gave the last word to Florence.  

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