Alderman Are Moving Forward With Plan to Rename Balbo Drive

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

  • Russell

    A name change is important, but I would like to see something actually done to Balbo drive from Wabash to the lakefront trail. Bicycle lanes , curbside and protected would be nice to calm traffic on an overly wide street with lower volume and lead to a signalized lakefront trail entrance from the buffered bicycle lanes on Wabash.

  • Bill R

    Such a joke. They keep trying to re-write history, it’s better to know history and teach people what has been done in the past and keep people from wanting to repeat the things that have happened that should not have. Maybe get rid of half the alderman to make a real change in the City. Can you imagine if there were half the alderman how much taxes and fees could be lowered and even then still spend more on programs that truly work for good. There is a real goal vs changing street names like it will solve some problem.

  • Jeremy

    Changing the street name isn’t rewriting history, it is acknowledging history. It is looking at the actions of Italo Balbo and assessing whether he is worthy of having a street in Chicago named for him. If 7th Street could be renamed to “Balbo”, it certainly can be renamed from “Balbo”. It isn’t like this is a new subject. There was an attempt to rename the street in 1946.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “It’s better to know history and teach people what has been done in the past and keep people from wanting to repeat the things that have happened that should not have.” — definitely a good argument for adding the interpretive sign to the monument.

    No argument with you that having 25 aldermen rather than 50 would be beneficial. Now if we could just get them to vote to eliminate their own jobs…

  • planetshwoop

    History remembers Balbo more than many of these others because of a monument that explicitly mentions fascism.

    Streets names are political, and should respond to politics. So not every street must be renamed, but when there’s a movement, it’s worth politics responding to the request from the people.

  • what_eva

    I’m on the verge of invoking Godwin’s law here, but I’ll say this anyway. The only reason Balbo hasn’t been renamed in the past is because Balbo isn’t terribly well known. What if Germany had sent planes to the World’s Fair instead of Italy? What if we had a street named Goering? Or Goebbels? Or worse, their boss? (he types, skating around Godwin ;) )

    I make that point to show that there are some people that no sane person would argue against changing a street name. So, arguing that no street name should ever change or that because one is changing we somehow have to check every street name, I don’t buy it. If you want to research those streets and see who they’re named for, knock yourself out. If you find some really bad ones, great! Let’s change those too. If you find some marginal ones that you don’t like, great, let’s debate it. Balbo? He’s one of the former, not the latter.

  • what_eva

    Is it rewriting history to acknowledge that we were amazed when some guy brought some cool planes to our city, we named a street for him. We later relized that he was a complete a-hole, so we renamed the street?

    The only reason this street is still named Balbo is because some clouted Italians in this city were morons and stood up against it. As has been proposed, you want to keep it named after an Italian, fine, find a better one. Cabrini is a great idea.

  • Randy Neufeld

    Great idea. And we could name the protected bike lane on each block along Cabrini Drive for a different great Italian bike brand. Colnago, Bianchi, De Rosa, Pinarello, etc. Rich history here that deserves a place on the street!


    So Italian discovers America and you treat Italians like this…


  • johnaustingreenfield

    “Italian discovers America.” Oh man, where to start?


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