Cicero, Illinois November 2001

What's Past is Present

A town long linked to organized crime and racism fails a recent exercise in image rehabilitation

Cicero, a working-class Chicago suburb of narrow streets and small brick bungalows, has the feel of a town stuck in the 1950s, which is not entirely unintentional. Indeed, Betty Loren-Maltese, the town's president since 1993, said recently, "I want things how they used to be." Cicero, which was until this past decade an enclave for Lithuanians, Italians, and Czechs, has for a long time lived in a kind of bubble, wary of outsiders, protective of what it has—or, more precisely, what it had.

Most associate the town with Al Capone, who ran his operations from here and who in 1924 commandeered the local election with a brutal show of force. It's an association that irritates townspeople, especially because it's always the first thing the media have to say about the place (this dispatch further proving that dictum). In 1952 Cicero considered changing its name, because, according to the town's lawyer, "People everywhere think we're just a bunch of hoods. A kid from Cicero can't get into a college fraternity." As recently as 1993 the town, still hoping to divert reporters from the Capone link, raised banners calling itself the "Original birthplace of Ernest Hemingway." (Hemingway actually hailed from nearby Oak Park—which in 1899 was technically a part of Cicero.) Defensiveness about Capone is understandable, and yet over the years town leaders have retained connections to the mob—or at least to what's left of it. Betty Loren-Maltese was married to a bookmaker for the syndicate. Her husband, Frank Maltese, who was also the town assessor, died before he could be sent to prison. So the anti-Capone sentiment seems misplaced, not least because the other reason for Cicero's notoriety is, by most measures, even more embarrassing.

Cicero long had a policy of no blacks allowed, as strongly adhered to as anything in the Jim Crow South. For years the town was among the most adept in the nation at keeping out African-Americans. Old-time Lithuanians and Italians I've spoken with have told me that when they were kids, if a black person passed through town they'd run him out, at the behest of the police. In 1951 the governor of Illinois had to call in the National Guard when a mob threw rocks and chunks of metal into the second-floor apartment of a black bus driver and his family, who had just moved in. With town cops looking on, the mob eventually stormed the apartment and pushed the family's piano through a brick wall. In 1967 Martin Luther King Jr., who was leading his open-housing campaign in Chicago, rescinded his threat to march in Cicero after county officials told him they couldn't guarantee his safety there. King referred to the town as the Selma of the North.

With this dark history in mind I sat in on a recent civil trial that pitted a former police chief, David Niebur, and his deputy, Phillip Bue, against the town and its president. Despite its rather narrow legal implications (Niebur and Bue argued that they'd been wrongfully fired), this case offers an unusually intimate window onto this infamous community as its old guard struggles to preserve its way of life and to keep outsiders at bay.

Loren-Maltese personifies Cicero. She affects a look that harks back to the 1950s, making her perhaps the most easily recognizable politician in the state. A full-figured woman, she wears her black hair in a pompadour and applies thick black mascara and lengthy eyelashes. She is highly quotable (when she agrees to talk to the press), and also highly combustible—which is why her handlers often keep her away from reporters. A local columnist once wrote, "She's a headline." Loren-Maltese named the town's public-safety building after her late husband, a convicted felon. When the Ku Klux Klan announced plans to march through town, she raised $10,000 to pay them to cancel the rally. (She also offered to have town employees distribute Klan literature.) She responded to street gangs in Cicero with heavy-handed—illegal, according to the American Civil Liberties Union—tactics, which included impounding the cars of suspected gang members. Although Loren-Maltese is often a source of amusement for outsiders, her political skills shouldn't be underestimated. Over the past decade Cicero's ethnic character has changed dramatically. Hispanics moved in, slowly at first, and then in large numbers; according to a recent census, the town is now three-quarters Latino. ("Well, they're not black," one resident told me, explaining the lack of resistance to Hispanics.) And although this might suggest that Loren-Maltese's political base has eroded, she has been re-elected twice, most recently last April, when she defeated a Hispanic opponent by a two-to-one margin. She has included Hispanics in her administration, but her shrewdest move—or so it seemed at the time—was to hire an out-of-towner to reform the police department, which many Hispanics felt treated them unfairly.

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