The DNAinfo archives brought to you by WNYC.
Read the press release here.

Who Was Oscar D'Angelo? Mayor Of Little Italy Or Infamous Power Broker?

By Stephanie Lulay | August 9, 2016 8:15am | Updated on August 10, 2016 10:54am
 Oscar D'Angelo can be seen in this 2006 photo by Chicago architecture critic Lee Bey.
Oscar D'Angelo can be seen in this 2006 photo by Chicago architecture critic Lee Bey.
View Full Caption
Lee Bey/leebey.com

LITTLE ITALY— Who was Oscar D'Angelo, known as the unofficial "Mayor of Little Italy," before he died Sunday at age 84? 

The Little Italy power broker and lobbyist who rubbed elbows with city's movers and shakers was loved by some for his work to preserve the historic neighborhood that so many of the city's Italian immigrants once called home. 

Over decades, the hands-on leader founded neighborhood organizations, including the University Village Association, and fought against developments, working to make Little Italy safer. 

But to others, D'Angelo — who was born in and died in Little Italy — was a controversial character and the subject of scandal. 

The power broker 

Ald. Danny Solis (25th), whose ward includes part of Little Italy, remembered hearing about the legendary D'Angelo when he was appointed to the post in 1996. 

As a freshman alderman living on the west end of Taylor Street, Solis would soon learn exactly how much influence was wielded by D'Angelo, who welcomed Mayor Richard M. Daley and Ald. Ed Burke (14th) as dinner guests.

In his first year in office, Solis clashed with D'Angelo on a debated deal to move a homeless shelter in the neighborhood. 

"Oscar wanted to move it to the west end of the ward, but I didn't like that idea. And neighbors would say, 'Oscar wants it, and it's going to happen. He's the real alderman of Taylor Street.'" 

Solis, also a Daley ally, called the mayor for some advice. 

"I asked him, 'Who is this guy? Keyser Soze?'" Solis said, referencing the feared and revered crime lord from the movie "The Usual Suspects." 

Over the next 20 years, Solis and D'Angelo would agree and disagree on neighborhood issues. When you disagreed, "you would have to battle him. If you didn't hold your ground, he would bulldoze you." 

"He would meet with you, he would make arguments, he would try to entice you with fundraising, he would do whatever it took," said Solis, who called D'Angelo a friend. "But if you stood your ground, he respected you." 

Burke said D'Angelo was "a true renaissance man" who had a passion for the neighborhood where he was born and raised. Walking down Taylor Street, D'Angelo knew every person, shop, corner and stoop. 

The media came to call him “The Mayor of Little Italy” because he played such an influential role in preserving the iconic neighborhood, Burke said.

"Beyond all else, he was a dear, charming, stubborn and engaging friend who will be impossible to forget and truly missed," he said. 

Oscar D'Angelo (second from left) at the dedication of Joe DiMaggio's statue at the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in Little Italy in 1999. Also pictured, from left: Gary Hall, Jerry Colangelo, Joe DiMaggio and Mayor Richard M. Daley. [National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame]

'Unapologetic doer' 

Armando Chacon, president of the West Central Association, worked on a number of projects with D'Angelo over the years. D'Angelo, a great storyteller, was "an unapologetic doer," who was "misunderstood," Chacon said. 

"He may have been controversial but got things done time and time again," the West Loop leader said. "He was also misunderstood but there was no questioning his good intentions and love for the neighborhood." 

Former Ald. Bob Fioretti said D'Angelo, who he met in the '80s, was an "old school" guy who would drop handwritten notes off at his house — a laundry list of the things that he was wanted done on Taylor Street. 

"He [believed in] the 'broken window theory' before it became a catch-phrase," Fioretti said — that if the neighborhood was clean and free of vandalism, people would take pride in it, preventing major crime. "There was no task for him that was too large or too small." 

John Walsh, president of the University Village Association, has called D'Angelo a friend for 25 years. The "warm" leader could "yell and scream" at you one day "and love you the next day," Walsh said. 

"He didn't hold grudges," Walsh said. 

D'Angelo had a tremendous impact on the neighborhood, and was good at getting consensus among neighbors — whether it was to remove a strip of chain-link fences along Bishop Street or garnering support for the then-new UIC campus. 

"Every good thing that is in our neighborhood is because of him. Every improvement, every street paving, every tree planted," Walsh said.  

Chris Provenzano, who worked with D'Angelo as the executive director of the University Village Association for eight years, called D'Angelo a visionary with high standards. 

"He was a great person to work with, and an even better person to know personally," Provenzano said. 

Oscar D'Angelo at his 80th birthday party with wife, Paula. [Chris Provenzano]

The controversial

As a lobbyist and mayoral ally, D'Angelo was also the subject of scandals. 

A longtime friend of Richard M. Daley, the two had a falling out over scandals that included a controversial O'Hare Airport contract, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

In 1989, D'Angelo was barred from practicing law after federal investigators found he had arranged more than $10,000 in free rental cars for judges and city officials, the Sun-Times reported. 

In 2000, he was in trouble again, for making interest-free loans to Daley's deputy chief of staff and for working as an unregistered lobbyist who put two Daley friends in business at O’Hare Airport. 

In 2006, D'Angelo told the Sun-Times' Fran Spielman that his missteps were "a question of the times." 

"There was no malice. There was no intent to deceive or do anything illegal," D'Angelo said. "Times have changed, and perhaps, I did not change with the times." 

In the neighborhood, D'Angelo was criticized by some for backing former mayor Richard J. Daley’s decision to raze parts of Little Italy to make way for the University of Illinois at Chicago, a move that would ultimately change the course of the Near West Side. 

And in 2003, he had a well-publicized feud with another legendary Little Italy figure — Mario DiPaolo, whose father founded Mario's Italian Lemonade on Taylor Street.

And as he fought developments he didn't like in the neighborhood, residents didn't always agree. 

In 2007, then-Sun-Times reporter Mark Konkol chronicled the plight to open Taylor Street Tattoo, which D'Angelo fought to keep from opening.

Owner Keith Underwood recalled: "Oscar told me, 'There's no way there ever will be a tattoo shop on my street. That's what he called it, 'my street.'"

Fighting plans for the proposed public housing museum in 2006, D'Angelo professed: "I am a hell of a friend and a rotten enemy." 

But his wife said D'Angelo was passionate, a man who loved the neighborhood where his Italian family laid roots. Paula D'Angelo told the Sun-Times that D'Angelo's father immigrated to Chicago from Italy, working odd jobs. In 1939, he bought a building on Laflin Street when Oscar was 8, working as a grocer on the block.

"He became very involved in the urban-renewal process and wanted to make, as he said, 'lemonade out of lemons,'" she told the Sun-Times. 

In the end, Solis said D'Angelo will be remembered as "a hands-on leader," a man known to pick up garbage off the street, patrolling Taylor Street with a broom and shovel in hand. 

"He was abrasive, but he did a lot for the neighborhood," Solis said. "He was all about making the neighborhood better."

D'Angelo was interviewed for a film called "And They Came To Chicago: The Italian American Legacy." A small park next to Congress Parkway also was named after him.

In recent years, D'Angelo lived in a building adjacent to Garibaldi Park and he could be seen walking the neighborhood. 

D'Angelo, who had prostate cancer, is survived by his wife.

A wake is planned for 3-9 p.m. Friday at Our Lady of Pompeii, 1224 W. Lexington St., with a funeral set for 11 a.m. Saturday, according to church officials. 

For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: