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Eight months after Chicago politicians proposed removing tributes to fascist aviator Italo Balbo in the wake of the racist violence in Charlottesville, aldermen are moving forward with plans to rename Balbo Drive after anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells.
On Tuesday evening downtown aldermen Sophia King (Fourth) and Brendan Reilly (42nd) announced that they will introduce an ordinance for the name change at a press conference before Wednesday's City Council meeting, which will be attended by Wells’s great-granddaughter Michelle Duster. The street runs through their wards.
After Balbo led a squadron of 24 seaplanes on a transatlantic mission to Chicago's 1933 Century of Progress World's Fair, Benito Mussolini donated a 2,000-year-old Roman pillar to our city to mark the occasion, and the downtown street was soon rededicated in his honor.
Last August alderman Ed Burke (14th) and northwest-side alderman Gilbert Villegas (36th) said they planned to push for removing the Balbo tributes, and a month later they were ready to introduce an ordinance to City Council. But there was stiff opposition from some local Italian-American civic leaders and history buffs, who view the landmarks as a source of ethnic pride, and the proposal seemed to stall.
Last month King, whose ward contains the monument, said she'd changed her position after speaking with community groups and instead favors adding an interpretive plaque explaining why the column is there and denouncing fascism. She added that she and Reilly were still considering renaming the drive.
To date, petitions proposing renaming the street for Wells and Italian-American saint Francis Cabrini, both of whom lived in Chicago, have garnered more than 1,700 and 400 signatures, respectively. University of Chicago physicist Enrico Fermi has also been proposed as a possible honoree.
More than 30 civic groups, including the League of Women Voters, the South Side branch of the NAACP, and Women’s March Chicago have endorsed the change. However, Italian-American organizations such as the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, which has been working with aldermen on the plaque proposal, are noticeably absent from the list. It's also worth noting that last August Reilly stated that, since Chicago has been home to "many great Italian-Americans," the aldermen hoped to rename the street after a "worthy" one.
According to King's spokesman, Mackenzie Thurman, the alderman hope to have the ordinance voted on in committee in June, after which it will move to the full City Council for a vote.
It would be the first permanent street renaming in Chicago in 50 years, officials said.
While other council members typically defer to local aldermen on issues within their wards, it's likely that Balbo boosters in the Italian-American community will follow through on their promise to “fiercely oppose" efforts to change the name, as JCCIA president emeritus Dominic DiFrisco previously told me.
Another complication is that Chicago already has a Wells Street, named for William Wells, a U.S. Army captain who perished in the Battle of Fort Dearborn, so if the ordinance passes, we can expect for some confusion to ensue.