Florence Scala, the daughter of an Italian tailor, was born in Chicago in 1920. She grew up in in the Nineteenth Ward of Chicago and was educated at the Hull House Settlement. Later she became a volunteer at Hull House.
In 1959 the University of Illinois began looking for a site to build a new campus. The following year the city authorities suggested the area which housed the Hull House Settlement. The fight against this scheme was led by Jessie Binford and Florence Scala. On 5th March, 1963, the trustees of Hull House accepted an offer of $875,000 for the settlement buildings. Binford and Scala took the case to the Supreme Court but it decided in favor of the University and the Hull House Settlement was closed on 28th March, 1963.
After complaints from long-time supporters of the settlement it was decided to preserve the original Hull House building and turn it into a museum.
I was born in Chicago, and I've always loved the city. I'm not sure any more. I love it and I hate it every day. What I hate is that so much of it is ugly, you see? And you really can't do very much about it. I hate the fact that so much of it is inhuman in the way we don't pay attention to each other. And we can do very little about making it human ourselves.
What I love is the excitement of the city. There are things happening in the city every day that make you feel dependent on your neighbor. But there's detachment, too. You don't really feel part of Chicago today.
I grew up around Hull House, one of the oldest sections of the city. In those early days I wore blinders. I wasn't hurt by anything very much. When you become involved, you begin to feel the hurt, the anger. You begin to think of people like Jane Addams and Jessie Binford and you realize why they were able to live on. They understood how weak we really are and how we could strive for something better if we understood the way.
My father was a tailor, and we were just getting along in a very poor neighborhood. He never had any money to send us to school. When one of the teachers suggested that our mother send us to Hull House, life began to open up. At that time, the neighborhood was dominated by gangsters and hoodlums. They were men from the old country, who lorded it over the people in the area. It was the day of the moonshine. The influence of Hull House saved the neighborhood. It never really purified it. I don't think Hull House intended to do that.
For the first time my mother left the darn old shop to attend Mother's Club once a week. She was very shy, I remember. Hull House gave you a little insight into another world. There was something else to life beside sewing and pressing.
Sometimes as a kid I used to feel ashamed of where I came from because at Hull House I met young girls from another background. Even the kinds of food we ate sometimes you know, we didn't eat roast beef, we had macaroni. I always remember the neighborhood as a place that was alive. I wouldn't want to see it back again, but I'd like to retain the being together that we felt in those days.
There were Negroes living in the neighborhood, but there was not the tension. I've read about those riots in Chicago in the twenties - the race riots. But in our neighborhood it never did come to any kind of crisis. We used to treat each other as neighbors. I think that the man who came over from Europe, the southern European especially, who was poor, could understand and see the same kind of struggle and have immediate sympathy for it. He accepted the Negro in the community as a man who is just trying to make a way for himself, to make a living.
In the early sixties, the city realized it had to have a campus, a Chicago branch of the University of Illinois. There were several excellent areas to choose from, where people were not living: a railroad site, an industrial island near the river, an airport used by businessmen, a park, a golf course. The mayor looked for advice. One of his advisers suggested our neighborhood as the ideal site for the campus. We were dispensable. When the announcement came in 1961, it was a bombshell. What shocked us was the amount of land they decided to take. They were out to demolish the whole community.
A member of the Hull House Board took me to lunch a couple of times at the University Club. My husband said, go, go, have a free lunch and see what it is she wants. What she wanted me to do, really, was to dissuade me from protesting. There was no hope, no chance, she said.
I shall never forget one board meeting. It hurt Miss Binford more than all the others. That afternoon, we came with a committee, five of us, and with a plea. We remended them of the past, what we meant to each other. From the moment we entered the room to the time we left, not one board member said a word to us.
Miss Binford was in her late eighties. Small, birdlike in appearance. She sat there listening to our plea and then she reminded them of what Hull House meant. She talked about principles that must never waver. No one answered her. Or acknowledged her. Or in any way showed any recognition of what she was talking about. It's as though we were talking to a stone wall, a mountain. The shock of not being able to have any conversation with the board members never really left her. She felt completely rejected. Something was crushed inside her. The Chicago she knew had died.
© John Simkin, April 2013