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Alderman Are Moving Forward With Plan to Rename Balbo Drive

The Balbo Monument. Photo: Rich Hein, Sun-Times

[I publish a weekly transportation column in the Chicago Reader. We syndicate the column on Streetsblog Chicago after it comes out online. This particular column is a bit off-topic for Streetsblog, but I thought it would still be of interest to some of our readers.]

In spite of backlash from members of the local Italian-American community, Chicago aldermen are proceeding with their proposal to rename Balbo Drive and move or modify the Balbo Monument, memorials to a henchman of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. The tributes were added shortly after Italo Balbo, a leader of the Blackshirts paramilitary units and later Mussolini's air commander, landed at Chicago's 1933 Century of Progress World's Fair with a squadron of 24 seaplanes.

In the wake of the racist violence surrounding the Unite the Right rally last month in Charlottesville, Virginia, southwest-side alderman Ed Burke and northwest-side alderman Gilbert Villegas told the Sun-Times that they planned to push for renaming the roadway and removing the monument. The latter, located near Soldier Field, is a 2,000-year-old Roman pillar donated by Mussolini, according to its inscription, "in the 11th year of the Fascist era." Soon afterward, downtown aldermen Sophia King and Brendan Reilly announced support for relocating the column and renaming the drive after a "worthy" Italian-American from Chicago.

Since then the anti-Balbo movement has gained steam. On August 24, about 50 anti-fascist protesters held a demonstration at the column. And an online petition now calls for the drive to be renamed for Saint Frances Cabrini, an Italian immigrant to Chicago who founded dozens of institutions to serve the sick and needy. It had garnered more than 300 signatures as of Monday afternoon.

Villegas's policy director, Justin Heath, said last month that the aldermen hoped to introduce an ordinance for the removals at an August 21 City Council meeting. But they tabled the measure due to a packed legislative agenda that day, and were instead planning to propose it this month.

Heath said King and Reilly will have the final say on the new street name, since the current Balbo Drive runs through their wards. He added that the aldermen were leaning toward installing a sign next to the monument to explain why a gift from a fascist dictator stands on Chicago's lakefront. This would be a far cheaper alternative to transporting the ancient pillar to another location such as a museum.

Last week King's assistant Prentice Butler said his office had no updates, adding, "Obviously this is a very sensitive subject given the particular time period we're in in our nation's history, so we're giving this subject a lot of thought."

Burke, Reilly, and the Chicago Park District (which owns the monument) didn't respond to recent requests for updates on their positions.

Enza Ranieri, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, told me she has been in talks with aldermen about the column, but wasn't aware of the upcoming ordinance. "I'm open to making sure that we come to terms with a plaque that will work for everyone."

Amateur historian Don Fiore, who previously voiced opposition to the removals, says he's in favor of the addition of the sign. "It can explain why the monument is there, with a strong repudiation of fascism, and a reflection on how quickly the course of history can change," he says. "In 1933 Italy was considered a close friend of the U.S."

However, civic committee president emeritus Dominic DiFrisco, who published an op-ed in the Sun-Times on September 9 defending Balbo's legacy, says there will be payback if the aldermen move forward with their plan to rename the street. "We can show our disdain and disrespect for the aldermen who support for this ordinance at the voting booth," he says. "Hopefully more intelligent minds will prevail."

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