October 23, 2011

The Emperor of Philadelphia

No man in the history of the City of Philadelphia was more loved, hated, admired, feared and despised than Mayor Francis L. Rizzo, Sr.
Monument to Mayor Frank Rizzo
Photos by New York Scugnizzo
By Niccolò Graffio
“The streets of Philadelphia are safe.  It’s only the people who make them unsafe.” – Frank. L. Rizzo
“The City of Brotherly Love” began as a settlement founded by William Penn in 1682.  The previous year, Penn had received a charter from King Charles II of England to establish what would eventually become the Pennsylvania Colony.  Penn, a Quaker, had experienced religious persecution in England and was desirous of founding a colony in the New World where there would be absolute freedom of worship.  His “Holy Experiment” included the building of a city this farsighted soul believed would one day form, as he put it, “…the seed of a nation.”

The City of Philadelphia was officially established by Penn with the Charter of 1701.  Penn derived the name of the city from the Greek philos (“love” or “friendship”) and adelphos (“brother”).  At this time the city’s inhabitants were mostly settlers from the British Isles, as well as some Germans, Finns, Dutch and slaves from Africa.  True to Penn’s vision, many religious minorities settled the area.  In addition to Quakers, Mennonites, Catholics, Pietists and even some Jews helped to build the early city.  As it grew, Philadelphia began to emerge as an important regional commercial center, facilitating trade between the Caribbean and British colonies in the northeast.

Almost from the beginning William Penn’s vision suffered a series of setbacks, including a number of riots usually initiated by drunk and loutish British sailors against the city’s pacifistic Quaker and German-Mennonite populations.  The most spectacular of these incidents occurred during the infamous “Bloody Election” of October, 1741. 

In addition, after the analytical and orderly William Penn left Philadelphia for the last time on October 25th, 1701, those he entrusted to continue his “Holy Experiment” allowed the city to fall by the wayside.  Streets were littered with garbage and stray animals were everywhere!  Numerous streets were left unpaved and laws in general were poorly enforced.  As a result, petty thieves ran rampant!  In addition, working in city government had such a poor reputation that fines had to be imposed on citizens who refused to do so if chosen.  One fellow even fled from the city to avoid serving as mayor!

By the mid-18th century, however, all that began to change as Philadelphia grew into a large commercial center.  Numerous edifices were erected and many important cultural and learning centers were founded.  One of the most important early figures in helping to develop the city culturally and scientifically was James Logan.  Logan, who had served as secretary for William Penn, founded what was to become one of the largest libraries in all the American colonies.  He served as mayor of the city during the 1720s.  During his tenure as mayor and afterwards, he guided many of the city’s more learned residents to encourage them in their endeavors.  Among these was a young man named Benjamin Franklin.

Philadelphia served as the seat of the Continental Congress during the American Revolutionary War (1775-83). It was occupied by the British for 10 months from September, 1777 to June, 1778.  Before the end of the war the U.S. Congress relocated to New York City.

During the early part of the 19th century large numbers of German and Irish-Catholic immigrants poured into the city, leading to overcrowding, poverty, disease epidemics and gang violence. Nativist groups like The Know Nothing movement often resorted to violence against many of these immigrants, whom they perceived to be a threat to America’s Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture.

Though many in the city sympathized with grievances aired by American southerners, all that changed with the outbreak of the American Civil War (1861-65). Mobs of Union loyalists often attacked the homes of suspected Confederate sympathizers. At one point it was believed the city would be invaded by the Confederate Army, but those fears were allayed when Gen. Robert E. Lee’s forces were repelled at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863).

Following the end of the war the city continued its growth with new immigrant groups arriving from Southern and Eastern Europe. Chief among these new arrivals were Ashkenazi Jews and Southern Italians. The latter group mainly settled in the section of the city known as South Philadelphia.  In addition, large numbers of American blacks settled in the city.  Their numbers were further bolstered in the early part of the 20th century by the so-called “Great Migration” of American blacks from the American South towards cities in the Northeast, Midwest and West.

The arrival of all these new groups caused Philadelphia’s upper classes to flee the city for the suburbs.  By the beginning of the 20th century Philadelphia had earned a reputation as being a dull, lifeless city.  In addition, a political machine erected by the local Republican Party dominated the landscape.  Graft and corruption were rampant!  It was in this suffocating environment the subject of this article was born; a man of humble origins who would irrevocably carve his initials into the history of The City of Brotherly Love.

Francis Lazarro “Frank” Rizzo, Sr. was born on October 23rd, 1920 in South Philadelphia to Raffaele Rizzo, an immigrant tailor from Chiaravialle Centrale, a town in Calabria, Italy and his wife Theresa (née) Erminio.  His father, upon arriving in Philadelphia, gave up the occupation of tailor in favor of becoming a police officer. Raffaele Rizzo was a no-nonsense cop who was well-respected by his neighbors and idolized by his young son.

Young Frank dropped out of high school and joined the Navy, serving for about a year until he was forced out with a medical discharge due to incipient diabetes.  Unwilling to work the menial jobs that were the destiny of most dropouts, in 1943 he followed his father into the ranks of the Philadelphia police force.  A year previously he had married Carmella Silvestri.  Together they had a son, Francis Jr. and a daughter, Joanne.  

Standing at 6’2”, 240 lbs., broad-shouldered and with an imposing gaze, Frank made a formidable cop!  His first brush with fame came when he suffered severe burns helping to put out a fire.  Seven years later the press dubbed him “the Cisco Kid” for throwing himself in a fight between two gangs, quickly restoring order.  Punitive beatings were still regularly doled out by policemen back then, and several times during his stint as a police officer he was brought up on charges of beating suspects in his custody with a blackjack.  Each time the charges were dropped.

Frank Rizzo rose through the ranks of the Irish-dominated Philadelphia Police Department, eventually becoming Police Commissioner in 1967.  He brought with him the same taciturn, brooding manner to the job he had cultivated as a cop on the street.  By this time he had already earned a reputation as a polarizing and divisive figure in Philadelphia politics.  Civil rights advocates questioned his tactics in dealing with criminals and members of Philadelphia’s black community.  Law and order advocates, meanwhile, cheered his hard-nosed approach to crime control and lauded the fact that during his five-year tenure as Police Commissioner Philadelphia had the lowest crime rate of the ten largest cities in America.

Frank Rizzo had one way of running the Philadelphia Police Department…his way!  This caused him at times to be at odds with his boss, Mayor James H.J. Tate.  His combative attitude towards the media plus his iron-fisted approach to dealing with the Black Panther Party (a revolutionary leftist organization) made him something of a living urban legend.

His relationship with Philadelphia’s African-American community was always tense, if not volatile, at best.  Nevertheless, his tactics, while questionable, produced results.  During his tenure as police commissioner Philadelphia was spared the racial violence (replete with rioting, looting and burning) that engulfed cities like Detroit and Los Angeles, especially during the years 1966-68.  

During one particularly tense occasion of racial unrest in the city, Rizzo held a press conference to lay out his plans for dealing with the problem.  At this time Andrea Mitchell, then a young reporter for NBC-affiliate KYW-TV, asked him, “What about the Black Panthers?”  Staring her straight in the eyes he loudly responded, “Andy Mitchell, when I’m through with them, I’m gonna make Attila the Hun look like a faggot!”   It was not an empty promise.  It was also the beginning of a long, antagonistic relationship between the two that would last almost until the time of Rizzo’s death.

Rizzo’s war with the Black Panthers would continue.  In late August, 1970 the Black Panther Party declared war on police officers nationwide.  On August 31st, 1970, just a week before the Panthers planned to convene a “People’s Revolutionary Convention” at Temple University, Philadelphia police stormed Panther headquarters in the city, seizing numerous illegal shotguns, rifles and pistols.  
Adding insult to injury, the police then strip-searched the Panthers and invited cameramen to photograph their naked buttocks.  The next day, photos appeared on the Associated Press wire and were seen around the world.  Despite intense media criticism, Rizzo commended police for their handling of the raid and gloated to reporters, “Imagine the big Black Panthers with their pants down!”

The Black Panthers’ convention at Temple University from September 6th to 8th went ahead as scheduled…with 1,000 members of the Philadelphia Police Department ready to pounce at a moment’s notice!  Needless to say, no incidents were reported.  Afterwards, leading members of Philadelphia’s business and civic communities publicly contacted Rizzo to express their gratitude to him for maintaining order and stability in the city during the convention.

Rizzo’s reputation as a stern, law-and-order type endeared him to both the city’s white ethnics as well as its business/civic leaders.  One of the most memorable pictures of Rizzo shows him leaving a black-tie affair with police nightstick sticking out of the cummerbund of his tuxedo in order to lead “my men, my army” to break up a riot.  Deciding to capitalize on his popularity, he resigned as police commissioner and ran for mayor on the Democratic ticket, winning in November, 1971.  

Rizzo was barely in his new position when he came under fire by three of Philadelphia’s leading newspapers on charges ranging from police brutality to using the Philadelphia Police Department to conduct espionage against political opponents.  Two months after winning the election, in a move that would infuriate allies within the Democratic Party, he publicly endorsed then-President Richard Nixon for re-election.

His endorsement of Nixon won him friends in high places.  In return for his support, the Nixon Administration found its way to secure Federal funding for Philadelphia.  Despite near-constant media criticism, Rizzo tried to court favor with members of Philadelphia’s press corp.  According to Andrea Mitchell, he was even able to secure a meeting between them and President Nixon in the Oval Office, something almost unheard of for a local Democratic politician to do at the time!

As his popularity increased, so too, did Rizzo’s dreams of higher office.  He now had his sights set on the Governor’s office of the State of Pennsylvania.  Unfortunately for him, his endorsement of Nixon cost him friends and clout within his own party.  Peter Camiel, then-Chairman of the Democratic City Committee of Philadelphia, publicly accused Rizzo of offering Camiel patronage jobs in exchange for allowing Rizzo to choose the candidates for District Attorney and City Comptroller.  Rizzo responded by calling Camiel a liar!

To settle the dispute, a reporter from the Philadelphia Daily News asked both Rizzo and Camiel if they’d submit to a polygraph test.   Both men agreed.  Rizzo appeared confident he’d pass, even declaring just before taking the test “If this machine says a man lied, he lied!”  

To his horror, however, the machine seemed to indicate he did indeed lie, and that Camiel appeared to be truthful.  The scandal that followed ruined any chance Rizzo may have had for running for higher office.  It also put an end to Rizzo’s attempts at building rapport with the press, as he discontinued any further press conferences for two years.  

Camiel would much later be convicted of 11 counts of mail fraud in connection with his involvement in a scam involving placing “ghost workers” on the State Legislature’s payroll.  The convictions would later be set aside by a Federal judge due to “insufficient evidence”.

Deciding to run for re-election, in the 1975 Democratic Primary Rizzo defeated State Senator Louis Hill, who was supported by Camiel.  In typical Rizzo eloquence, he campaigned among Philadelphia’s electorate with the following promise: "Just wait after November you'll have a front row seat because I'm going to make Attila the Hun look like a faggot." 

Rizzo won re-election, but not without problems.  He had campaigned on the slogan, “He held the line on taxes” but then after his victory he succeeded in getting the City Council to raise the city’s wage tax from 3.31% to 4.31%, among the highest nationwide!

The tax increase infuriated Rizzo’s opponents and galvanized them to find a way to remove him from office.  Philadelphia’s city charter contained a provision that provided for a recall if 25% of the registered voters signed a recall petition.  The effort gained a large number of volunteers and contributions.  Rizzo’s supporters, in turned, challenged many of the signatures and the constitutionality of the recall procedure itself.  The whole matter eventually went before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the highest court in the state, where by one vote it was decided the recall provision was unconstitutional.  

While he was fighting to keep his job as mayor, construction started on The Gallery at Market East shopping mall in the downtown part of the city.

Faced with a two consecutive-term limit mandated by the Philadelphia city charter, Rizzo succeeded in having a charter change placed on the ballot that if passed, would have allowed him to run for a third consecutive term in 1979.  It backfired.  Philadelphia’s electorate voted two to one against changing the limitation.  In 1979 former Congressman William J. Green was elected mayor.  In one of the more sordid parts of this affair, Rizzo’s enemies in the media repeatedly accused him of criminal activity and mob associations while offering little in the way of hard evidence to back up those accusations.

Even though he was no longer in office, Rizzo could not remain out of the spotlight, or controversy, for very long.  Between 1983-91 he hosted a local radio talk show; his presence and charisma making it by far the most popular show of its kind.  During this time he also served as a security consultant for The Philadelphia Gas Works, drawing fire from critics since he was getting a city pension at the same time.

In 1983 he ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic Party nomination for mayor against W. Wilson Goode, who went on to become Philadelphia’s first black mayor.  On May 13th, 1985, responding to months of complaints by local area residents against members of the MOVE Headquarters in the Cobbs Creek area of West Philadelphia, police attempted to evict them.  They were fired upon.  A police helicopter then dropped a 4-lb. bomb containing C-4 plastic explosive.  The fire that resulted killed 11 occupants of the building (including 5 children) and burned 61 homes to the ground!

Rizzo was quick to condemn Goode’s handling of the situation, correctly pointing out that during his tenure as mayor, when faced with a similar situation, he was able to extricate MOVE members from their Powelton Village holdup without having to kill anyone, even though a police officer had been shot.  Surveying the carnage with reporters, Rizzo remarked, “There goes the neighborhood!”  Afterwards, he would frequently refer to Goode as “The Bomber.”
The Mayor Frank Rizzo Mural in Philadelphia's Italian Market
Frank Rizzo’s fame (or infamy, depending on your opinion of him) spread out much farther than just Philadelphia and wound up in some very interesting places.  John J. Dilulio Jr., Prof. of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, recounted meeting a delegation of the USSR’s Supreme Soviet and Congress of People’s Deputies while they were visiting the United States in 1990.  One delegate asked him where he had grown up.  When Dilulio responded “Philadelphia, Pennsylvania” the man smiled and nodded knowingly, which Dilulio took to mean the man was thinking of Benjamin Franklin.  The delegate, however, stunned Dilulio by asking, "Dear John, Philadelphia is the city of Rizzo. A great man of the people, true?"

In 1986 Frank Rizzo switched his party allegiance and ran as a Republican in the mayoral election.  He lost.  In 1991 he set out again to run for mayor; this time he succeeded in defeating former Philadelphia District Attorney (and later Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court) Ron Castille.  Changing his tactics from earlier times, Rizzo had campaigned in black neighborhoods, reminding residents of his having integrated Philadelphia’s police force and his commitment to keep neighborhoods free from violent crime and drugs.

Shortly before his victory in the Republican Party Primary, he was interviewed by his old media nemesis, NBC-TV correspondent Andrea Mitchell.  Mitchell was curious as to why Rizzo would give up a lucrative job as a radio talk show host to go back into the muck and grime of politics.  "I love the challenge," he said, adding, "You know the best part? Dealing with the press. I love to go head-to-head with some of them suckers. I really do."

Shortly after his upset victory over Ron Castille in the Republican Party Primary, “the Italian John Wayne” did something no one, friend or foe, expected him to do…he died!  On July 16th, 1991 he suffered a massive heart attack.  He was pronounced dead at 2:12 PM EDT at Thomas Jefferson Hospital.

There was a large turnout for his funeral.  Mourners lined the streets to say good bye to “Chairman Frank” as his detractors liked to call him.

His legacy, like his career, remains controversial.  After Benjamin Franklin, he remains the most quoted political figure in Philadelphia history (though admittedly, not nearly as eloquent as Ben).  He was one of the most polarizing figures in modern American history; a man you either loved or hated!  

Yet his impact was undeniable, for while his tactics might seem rough by today’s standards, the fact is Philadelphia under his aegis was largely spared the racial violence that engulfed other large cities like Detroit and Los Angeles.  Crime actually went down appreciably!  The city’s police force was likewise largely integrated during his mayoralty at a time when few if any other cities achieved similar results.

When asked once what he wanted as an epitaph, he jokingly replied “He’s really dead.”  Perhaps, though, it was his nemesis Andrea Mitchell who provided the most fitting one.  According to her, she was watching a budget debate from NBC’s Senate broadcast booth when she received a call from a Philadelphia reporter asking her to comment on Rizzo’s death.  

Upon hearing the news, she broke down and cried.

Further reading:
• S.A. Paolantonio: Frank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America; Camino Books, 1993