photo of the cover of the Rizzo book and of author Sal Palantonio

Notes from Sal Paolantonio’s landmark 1993 biography of Frank Rizzo

In recent years, it became commonplace to compare legendary and controversial former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo with Donald Trump. Perhaps that was why I finally read Frank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America, the influential biography published in 1993 by Sal Paolantonio. It is a familiar part of the foundation of the Philadelphia canon so it’s long been on my list.

Below I share my notes from the book.

Here are notes for future use:

  • In 1870, only 300 Italians lived in Philadelphia. It was 19,000 in 1900, 1.5%. In 1910, it was 80,000, or 5% of a city of 1.5M.
  • St. Mary Magdalen De Pazzi: At 7th and Montrose, the country’s oldest Italian Catholic church. Rizzo’s parents and he himself were married there. Theresa Erminio was Frank Rizzo’s mother
  • “Accustomed to life in the sheltered hills of Calabria or on the farms of Sicily, most of the southern Italians in South Philadelphia rarely wandered far from their neighborhood. Even the dockworkers walked only a few blocks east to their jobs at the Delaware River piers, then stopped at the open-air Italian market on Ninth Street to buy fresh fish and vegetables on their way home.”
  • Despite the immigration, just 25% of Philadelphia in 1900 was foreign born, compared to 38% in New York City and 33% in Boston
  • In 1900, 2.2% of Philadelphia was Italian, 21% was Irish, 15% German. In 1930, 9.3% was Italian, 9.4% Irish and 6.7% German
  • Salvatore Sabella fled Italy as a stowaway in 1911 and began Philadelphia’s Black Hand mafiosa; Angela Bruno was an infant crossing to Philadelphia the same year with his parents. He’d later become a major crime boss
  • In the early 1900s, Philadelphia was already the ‘city of homes,’ instead of tenements, with the highest percentage of homeowners of any American city.
  • “About 9 in 10 homes erected in 1915 were individual dwellings: row houses”
  • 2322 South Rosewood Street was an old Irish neighborhood and too far west for the heart of the Italian community, which Frank’s father Ralph Rizzo wanted. Frank Rizzo born Oct. 23, 1920. This was his first home.
  • Philadelphia’s first Republican political boss was Israel Durham; allied with U.S. Senator Boies Penrose. Reputation for corruption and election fraud
  • State Senator James P. McNichol led party machinery in the “northern half” of Philadelphia. In 1914, Republican leaders led the opening of the first 7 miles of Northeast Boulevard (later renamed Roosevelt Boulevard when Democrats won the city). This stretch was for the Irish and German families who were leaving Kensington and Old City
  • On May 16, 1967, newly elected Mayor Tate announced Frank Rizzo as his new Police Commissioner. Rizzo changed from Republican (and the old Ed Vare Republican party where Italians had been) to Democrat as part of the deal
  • On Dec. 5, 1970, before Michael Meehan went to a Christmas party at the Union League, he stopped at the Anthony Cortigene’s Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union headquarters for a brokered meeting where Frank Rizzo said he wanted to run for mayor as a Republican
  • Gene Roberts arrived Oct. 15, 1972 to the Inquirer, where at first Rizzo was excited for a change over previous editor McMullan. It soured quickly
  • White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman asked Rose Mary Woods, the president’s personal secretary to get a recommendation from Walter Annenberg about Frank Rizzo as a political ally for Richard Nixon. Annenberg made the recommendation. After a meeting, Nixon had his staff routinely calleRizzo with updates, a schedule that only two other men in the country received: Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan, according to a Feb. 15, 1972 memo from Halderman to Ehrlichman
  • Why Not Lounge dive bar at 1350 Locust Street was a prominent example of a sting that found major police corruption, with bar owners paying policemen for protection.
  • Massive macroeconomic factors and the city’s lingering wage tax reputation: The Pennsylvania Economy League estimated the city lost 980 companies totaling 41,000 jobs in the first four years of Rizzo’s term.
  • Rizzo fought the reputation that other struggling cities and pledged a new labor deal, no new taxes, no layoffs. Bond ratings went up, but it was short-lived
  • Author implies this points to patronage jobs: “The number of Civil Service-exempt city employees went from 487 to 1,285. The number of employees grew ten-fold in the mayor’s office and more than twenty-fold in the managing director’s office. Rizzo refused to slash the payroll. And his 1976 tax increase nearly cost him the mayoralty.”
  • Between 1972-1980, Philadelphia lost 90,000 jobs. About 10% of them came from the downsized federal government operations in Philadelphia during the Carter administration. Unclear how many jobs went to the suburbs by blaming the wage tax. “Construction jobs were cut in half. General Electric moved 1,000 jobs from the city. Food Far, 4,000. Lit Brothers, 1,800. Frankford Arsenal, 5,300.”
  • Rizzo said fiscal crisis made wage tax reduction impossible, but the author said: “In truth, he never tried hard enough.”
  • Rizzo did do economic development. With the help of Senator Henry Jackson, Rizzo lured five aircraft carriers away from Newport News shipbuilding to the Philadelphia Navy Yard, totaling $3 billion in federal money.
  • “He was sensitive to the problems of the businesses and especially in my section,” said Paul Kaiser, chairman of the board, Tasty Baking Company. “It completely rehabilitated 150 homes and meant a better life for 25,000 people living around the bakery, better protection, better city services in general. We were running into a situation where we would have no alternative except to move unless things turned around. He was extremely instrumental in revitalizing the neighborhood.”
  • Frank Rizzo gave Ed Rendell the “Fast Eddie” nickname
  • In 1987 mayoral election, real estate developer Ronald Rubin (behind the renovation of the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel after the legionnaire’s disease outbreak) formed the Rubin Group to do a rare thing (as Digby Baltzell argued) for Philadelphia businessmen: influence local politics
  • Bob Brady became the city’s Democratic Party Committee Chair as a brokered deal between Wilson Goode, who sought endorsements for mayoral reelection, and Brady’s mentors Vince Fumo and Buddy Cianfrani. Brady was also close to his predecessor Pete Camiel
  • Michael Smerconish was influential in getting out the vote for Rizzo’s Republican mayoral run. Rizzo was a Democrat mayor in the 1970s and a Republican mayoral nominee in the 1980s. Including influence in the 1967 defeat of Arlen Specter, Rizzo influenced 5 elections over 20 years
  • Ronald Regan was moving Republican party away from cities, which left Rizzo even further afield of political parties
  • “Under Reagan, federal funds as a percentage of city budgets were reduced by over 64 percent, from an average of 18 percent in 1980 to 6.4 percent in 1987, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.” The worst cuts were in Nixon’s General Revenue Sharing program. In 1987, Philadelphia’s budget was made of just 0.5% of the program, compared to 6% in 1970. (By 1989, it was zero).
  • Author notes that after Rizzo being so close to Nixon and then falling so far from the Reagan-Bush leaders that Philadelphia was particularly badly hit. Unlike Boston, New York and Baltimore, no waterfront and no convention center (until mid-1990s).
  • More than 14,000 people stood in line in the summer heat on July 18, 1991 to pay their respects to Frank Rizzo
  • Author thinks “unqualified yes” that he would have beaten Rendell in the 1991 general election if Rizzo hadn’t died of a heart attack.