international analysis and commentary

Italians in Philadelphia, and beyond

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Italians have written fundamental pages of the Philadelphia region’s history. Since Independence and early Republic, the Italian community has indeed been instrumental in forming a number of the identifying characteristics of Philadelphia, the first capital and most important commercial and industrial  urban center of the North America before the rise of New York City. The Italian community helped to build the political, social, economic, and cultural structures that played a part in moulding what Philadelphia is today, a city with so many Italian influences that does not even have a central business district called “downtown”, as the majority of US cities do, but a “center city” that reminds of the Italian “centro città”.

A wall paint recalling Italian-American heritage in South Philadelphia

 

There is a strong transnational element to the Italian character one finds in Philadelphia: Italy as part of the heritage of humanity. It is the attraction to contemporary Italy for its culture and way of life. People of multiple origins thus become target of the public diplomacy actions of the Italian Consulate General in Philadelphia, seeing them as an example of Italic identity as defined by Piero Bassetti, i.e. as members of a global community attracted to Italy by cultural elements[1].

 

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When I started digging into the richness of these relationships, I felt like an archeologist, but rather than a dead ruin what emerges is a living résumé of cultural, political, religious, economic, technological, and social histories.

Philadelphia is an example of Italian cultural richness created through centuries of exchanges and I therefore felt the importance that an increased attention for the Italian legacy in the city would have had for the relationships between the region and Italy. It was important to bring together the descendants of Italians who immigrated decades ago, recent Italian settlers and friends of Italy in the region by merging the more popular dimension of the Italian and Italian-American culture, developed through popular media after the WWII, and the high formal culture, with the internationally renowned dimensions of Italianity such as art, science, design, opera, architecture, and fashion. To put it in a more evocative way, it was important to unite “Rocky” (the popular Italian American icon impersonated by Sylvester Stallone) with Botticelli (the Renaissance paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art), as effectively summarized in the title line of the article published in 2014 on Corriere della Sera by Paolo Valentino “From Rocky To Botticelli: Italian Philadelphia” and dedicated to the cultural activities promoted by the Italian Consulate General in the city.

The book “The Italian Legacy In Philadephia: History, Culture, People, and Ideas”[2] showcases the wealth of Italian heritage all over the city of Philadelphia, through writings by scholars and experts belonging to the most prestigious cultural institutions of the region.

The book is inspired in many ways by “Ciao Philadelphia”, a series of Italian themed events realized by the Consulate General of Italy in Philadelphia from 2014 in the framework of the cultural and public diplomacy activities promoted by the Italian Embassy in Washington, D.C. Originally planned as a three-day Italian cultural event, “Ciao Philadelphia” then upgraded to a month-long initiative and finished as a year long calendar of hundreds of events.

During the “Ciao Philadelphia” events, one of the slogans that people would hear most often was “Everybody loves Italy. So, let’s give everybody a chance to be Italian in Philadelphia”.

The event and the book provided good opportunities to remember the stories and the sacrifices of the many Italian immigrants, literate and illiterate, who came to the U.S. with their traditions to make a new life for themselves and their families. Some of these traditions might appear at odds with the sophisticated Italy portrayed in the museums and in academia, but they are all part of that “Italianità” that is at the heart of the richness of the Philadelphia region.

Sometimes the Italian-American community is perceived as fractured by cultural, economic, and even geographical divides due to the multiple backgrounds of immigrants coming from various regions of Italy, especially before the 1861 unification or in the decades immediately after. We now need to reconnect the components of that perceived fracture through a unitary vision. In this regard,  the life of Mariano DiVito is particularly impressing. Landing in Philadelphia with no formal education in 1929, Mariano DiVito started his career as a kitchen busboy at what was one of Philadelphia’s most prominent hotels, The Bellevue Stratford. Despite not having any connections with any Ivy league institutions such as the Philadelphian University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), and after a lifetime of wisely investing his earnings as Maitre d’hotel at the Bellevue Hotel, upon his death in 1987 he gave all his savings (1.25 million USD) to endow the first chair in Italian Studies at UPenn, the university founded by Benjamin Franklin. Even without a formal education, he understood the importance of having Italian cultural studies at one of the most respected institutions in Philadelphia and in the United States.

New Italian immigrants and old Italian immigrants are often not aware, nor do they fully value the connection that they share with each other. Michael Matza, journalist of The Philadelphia Inquirer, who investigates ethnic groups in greater Philadelphia, researched about the new Italians in the city. He published the results of his investigation in an article titled “Rich Mixture”[3]. The article correctly portrayed the new immigrants as different from the ones who came during the years of mass migrations. However, based on the answers provided by the people interviewed, it was clear that the interviewees did not understand what they had in common with immigrants of the past, and they did not exhibit a particular desire to become living bridges with Italy. When I was interviewed for the article, I suggested that rather than distinguishing among the different waves of immigration, the Italian immigration to the region was a centuries-long thread “with different components” – the masons who created stone houses, the factory workers of the Industrial Revolution, the doctors staffing hospitals today. Blue or white collar, Italian immigrants “are hardworking people, whose contributions are woven into the fabric of the region.” In his article, Matza then recalled that Italians have been part of the Philadelphian social fabric since the colonial times, as also shown by Richard N. Juliani, one of the major experts of Italian immigration in the region, in his publication “Building Little Italy: Philadelphia’s Italians before Mass Migration”.

 

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The “Ciao Philadelphia” project found its natural continuity in the book, which aims to put together under one single roof all the Italianity woven into its social fabric of the Philadelphia region, even if it is still sometimes difficult to see that unity which constitutes the basis for creating even stronger bridges between the region of Philadelphia and contemporary Italy. Through the lens of Italianism, it emerges a picture of Philadelphia as a city with structures forged by centuries of communication with Italian immigration and as a region capable of creating opportunities at an international level, owing to its engagement in international dialogue since its foundation. In this process of creating closer international relations, starting from Italy, the Italian community of early and recent immigration can play a decisive role.

The book on the Italian legacy in Philadelphia, published by Temple University Press in its American edition and by Treccani in the Italian one, is as technically rich and complex as the history it recounts. The hope is that by nurturing an awareness of past history, new opportunities will develop while at the same time further research will be undertaken on a subject that deserves closer study i.e. the contributions of Italy and Italian communities around the world, as well as in the cultural, social, economic, and political dialogues arising from this influence[4].

 

 


Footnotes:

[1] Bassetti, P. (2015). Svegliamoci italici! : Manifesto per un futuro glocal. Marsilio.

[2] Canepari, A., Goode, J., (2021). The Italian Legacy in Philadelphia: History, Culture, People and Ideas. Temple University Press.

[3] Matza, M., “Rich Mixture”. Philadelphia Inquirer, on November 9, 2016

[4] The book on the Italian legacy in Philadelphia builds on the framework as the third of an ongoing multi-volume series that aims to enhance the understanding of the significance of the Italian presence in other societies. I had the privilege to serve as editor of two other volumes—The Italian Legacy in Washington D.C.: Architecture, Design, Art, and Culture, published by Skira in 2008 and realized in the framework of the initiatives spearhead by Ambassador Castellaneta and Ambassador Luca Ferrari, at the time Head of  Public and Legislative Affairs at the Italian Embassy in DC, and The Italian Legacy in the Dominican Republic: History, Architecture, Economics and Society published in 2021 by Allemandi (the Italian and Spanish editions) and by Saint Joseph University Press (American edition).