Migrant Ecologies in the Press: Chicago Italians and The Tribune

  • Daniele Valisena Royal Institute of Technology
  • Gilberto Mazzoli European University Institute
Keywords: Environmental History, Italian Migration, Chicago Tribune, Urban Ecologies


During the age of mass migration (1850-1940) more than 4 million Italians reached the United States. The experience of Italians in United States cities has been largely explored during the twentieth century and produced a vast amount of academic literature. However, the study of migrants’ adjustment practices connected to nature is a quite recent concern, also for Environmental History. Migrants' visions of nature influenced their practices and attitudes toward the environment, helping them to be resilient and adjust to different urban contexts and manage the sense of displacement provoked by their encounter with a U.S. metropolis at the turn of the twentieth century.
Italians of Chicago, for instance, in their quest for a partial self-sufficiency brought into the urban space non-urban practices—like the raising of animals, the farming of many vacant lots in the city, and the collection of different kinds of materials from the urban landscape—which challenged the modernity project that was deeply embedded in the functionalist city enterprise. Their way of inhabiting the city was a performative activity, which generated hybrid spaces. In many cases though, these practices were perceived by U.S. authorities and public opinion as a sign of backwardness and an obstacle to modernity: this complicated immigrants' aim for self-sufficiency and generated conflicts over the uses of urban space.
One of the challenges that emerge from the study of migration phenomena through the lens of environmental history is the lack of sources: where can scholars find the environment in migration studies’ sources? With this article we address such an apparent epistemological blank spot by analyzing one specific kind of written source: we aim to explore the Italian experience in Chicago through the articles of the newspaper The Chicago Tribune, which we analyze following the socio-ecological dichotomy of proper urban space vs. unruly migrant practices. Known for its nativist, isolationist, and anti-Catholic positions—which targeted the Irish before shifting to Italians—The Tribune played the role of an anti-Italian-immigrant press organ from the 1870s until the first decade of the twentieth century. In an era when white Anglo-Saxon primacy within society, racism, and discriminatory discourses on immigrants’ ethnic qualities were commonly accepted as scientific, The Tribune reportage of Italians’ poor conditions and livelihoods concurred in re-enforcing such a narrative. With this article, we want to show that through the often biased and deformed lens of the WASP middle-class press, it is possible to reconstruct Italians’ and other immigrant’s urban practices, as well as to show how so-called modernization processes were contested and resisted by various marginal urbanites.