Vicenza and Cleveland: From a Piece of a Mountain to Kidney Transplant Technology

– Written by Ezra Ellenbogen

                            Vicenza city

Since 2009, the city of Cleveland has shown appreciation for its Italian-American community, especially through their sister city relationship with the city of Vicenza, Italy. Vicenza, a city designated in its entirety as a UNESCO World Heritage Site,[1]has a population of around 114,000 people.[2] The historically prominent city is often overshadowed by its neighbors, Venice and Verona, but contributed greatly to Renaissance architecture and later early American architecture. Known as “The City of Gold,” Vicenza became a sister city of Cleveland on May 11th, 2009.[3]

This unlikely partnership came as a result of numerous historical events and cooperative efforts. Vicenza and Cleveland have been friends since their first interaction, which came in the form of a gift from Vicenza in 1932. The city of Vicenza sent a boulder carved from the side of Monte Grappa (a mountain) to the Cleveland Italian Cultural Garden, to commemorate the efforts of Ohio’s 332nd infantry, who fought on Monte Grappa in World War One. Later, under the administration of former Cleveland Mayor Ralph J. Perk, Cleveland considered the city of Milan as a possible twin city.[4] Perk’s administration, despite having been one of the most consequential contributors to Cleveland’s modern sister city program, did not end up constructing a relationship with an Italian city. Later, after new administrations reinvigorated Cleveland’s interests in a growing global presence, the Honorable Mayor Frank G. Jackson’s administration incorporated Vicenza, Italy into the sister city program in 2009. Vicenza was chosen not only for its 1932 gift but also because of the large amounts of Italian immigration from the Veneto region of Italy to Cleveland.

In the month of May that year, Mayor Jackson traveled to Vicenza to meet with Achille Variati, the mayor of the city. From there, the two mayors worked together extensively to create a sister city partnership between their cities and to create a cultural delegation to represent Vicenza in Cleveland. Then, despite the difficulties with Trans-Atlantic communication at the time, Jackson’s administration was able to invite Mayor Variati and his administration to Cleveland, just in time for a ceremony commemorating the 1932 Monte Grappa gift from Vicenza. This 2011 meeting was not just an effort between Cleveland and Vicenza officials; Mayor Variati and his delegation met with numerous business leaders and local companies, whose purposes ranged from medicine to rock and roll. As a result, that year saw numerous successes with Italian efforts to strengthen business ties across the American Midwest.[5]

Nowadays, Cleveland’s Italian population has become a vital part of cultural communities and has gathered local representation. The Italian Honorary Consul in Cleveland has established successful initiatives and programs that have made the lives of innumerable Cleveland Italians easier and more successful. Serena Scaiola, the Italian Honorary Consul to Cleveland, is one of Italy’s most successful and involved consuls globally.[6] Her Honorary Consulate in Cleveland aims to achieve four main goals: to promote the Italian language and culture throughout Ohio, to promote trade and business exchanges between Italy and Ohio, to represent the Italian community culturally and diplomatically, and to assist Cleveland Italians with bureaucratic processes (particularly immigration; usually with no cost). The Honorary Consul is similar to Cleveland and Vicenza’s sister city program and they do work together (in fact, Cleveland signed the Vicenza Sister City Agreement in 2009 in coordination with the Italian Honorary Consul), but the main difference is that the Honorary Consul works with broader goals and in broader regions and focuses on different fields than Cleveland’s sister city program. While the Honorary Consul focuses on economic opportunities and cultural exchange, the Sister City Program focuses on medical technology and music. Some examples of the Sister City Program’s initiatives include student exchange programs between Cleveland State University and the University of Vicenza as well as kidney transplant testing involving Cleveland Clinic and San Bortolo Hospital. Under the combined efforts of the Sister City Program and Honorary Consul, Italian culture has been more recognized in Cleveland, Italian immigration to Cleveland has become streamlined, the quality of education for Italian-Americans has been improved, and the medical capabilities of Cleveland Clinic and San Bortolo Hospital have been greatly expanded.

Of course, this incredibly successful sister city program could not have been possible without initial periods of Italian immigration. In 1870, Cleveland had only 35 Italians. Then, in only 50 years, over 20,000 Italians came to Cleveland.[7] Political and economic struggles in Southern and Central Italy drove numerous Italians towards the United States, with many settling in Cleveland. Italian immigrants followed standard patterns of immigration to Cleveland, with many partaking in manufacturing and the press, and religious establishments playing large roles in their communities. But by the late 1920s, things changed. Italian-Americans faced numerous problems. American prejudice against Italians, mostly stemming from political thoughts on the rise of Mussolini, caused many to view Italians negatively. This led to Cleveland Italians being treated unjustly even in their own established communities. Prohibition, the rise of the Great Depression, and growing prejudice against Italians formed a catalyst for a new period of Italian-American immigration. Italian Clevelanders began to become involved in politics on a large scale, with many expressing concern with new restrictive policies set out to hinder Italian-Americans. This also marked an ideological shift for Italian-Americans as many shifted towards the Democratic Party after the 1920s. However, in light of some Italian efforts at cultural exchange, political expression in the Italian-American community soon became too controversial for the political legacy to continue, as the US had entered into conflict with Italy’s Fascist Regime. From there, the strong political presence of Italian Clevelanders faltered, but their legacy and contributions have remained up until the modern day.

Post-World War Two, the overall identity of Italian Clevelanders had changed. They began to assimilate and spread their community across many areas, as a result of many divides from the war period. Many Italian Clevelanders moved to the suburbs. While this did mean that the population of Italians in Cleveland significantly decreased, it also means that the region of Northeast Ohio as a whole maintained a consistent Italian population. Now, the Italian-American community in Northeast Ohio seems to have its future vested in the suburbs of Cleveland.

The future of Italian Clevelanders looks to be one of guaranteed success. With the established Sister City and Italian Honorary Consulate programs, Italian Clevelanders have gained significant representation and have become large parts of the European community in Northeast Ohio. As Cleveland continues to work with Vicenza, students from both cities continue to learn extensively through cultural exchange, lives continue to be saved by the distribution of medical technologies, and culture continues to be shared from one generation to the next. From a rock commemorating a 1932 battle to initiatives reaching as far as international kidney transplant programs, Vicenza and Cleveland, since the beginning of their relationship, have been steadfast partners committed to bettering the world.

-by Ezra Ellenbogen

Ezra’s blog: One Page Stories