Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics

Nov 29, 2018 1144

BY: Timothy J. Lombardo

Even to the eyes of a 6-year-old, Frank Rizzo, the mayor of Philadelphia, was a presence. He stepped out of his car on Independence Mall one day in 1976, just in front of me, my sister, and a few Midwestern cousins. He looked down at us, extended his hand toward the heavens, and said “Hello, kids!” The Midwestern cousins had no idea who he was; I felt as if I had just been blessed by the pope. Which in a way I had been, because Frank Rizzo was the papa of Italian Philadelphia.

I was hardly alone in feeling that way, as Timothy J. Lombardo makes abundantly clear in his new book about Rizzo and his times. Francis Lazarro Rizzo (1920-1991) was the prototypical Philadelphia Italian-American, except with 100 times the ambition. He was a high school dropout who worked briefly in a steel mill before joining the Philadelphia police department, where he made a meteoric rise to commissioner. For complex reasons, the teasing apart of which is central to Lombardo’s book, Rizzo became the focus of the admiration of not only Italian-Americans but of every other ethnic group in Philadelphia.

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