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Rename Balbo? How about State or Lake Shore instead, Italian-Americans suggest

Some want to rename Balbo Drive for Ida B. Wells, though Italian-Americans have objected. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Lake Shore Drive or State Street should be renamed for civil rights crusader Ida B. Wells, and Balbo Drive should be left alone, an Italian-American civic leader said Wednesday.

One day after Aldermen Sophia King (4th) and Brendan Reilly (42nd) resurrected the name change, Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian-Americans, shot it down.

DiFrisco said he would not allow Balbo’s “integral part of Chicago history” to be unfairly smeared and swept away in the haste to honor Wells, an iconic figure in the African-American community who led an anti-lynching crusade.

“We’ve already proven that he was in no way connected with anti-Semitism,” DiFrisco said.

“When Mussolini passed anti-Semitic laws in Italy, Balbo objected by taking all of his Jewish friends to dinner at a public restaurant. He also verbally and vocally opposed anti-Semitic laws. As a result, he was sent to Libya. Most people say he was shot down by Mussolini’s forces and killed in order to silence him.”

Italian Aviator Italo Balbo and his crew salute at Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress world’s fair. | File photo
Italian Aviator Italo Balbo and his crew salute at Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress world’s fair. | File photo

Instead of renaming Balbo Drive and “continuing the open wound already inflicted on the Italian-American community with so many assaults on our culture,” DiFrisco suggested an alternative and bigger honor for Ida B. Wells.

They should rename State Street or Lake Shore Drive for her and leave Balbo alone. “Then, we would not be erasing anybody’s name or legacy,” DiFrisco said.

“If you name Lake Shore Drive for Ida B. Wells, it would run the length of the city from north to south, where the most African-Americans live and her legacy was born. Balbo is a slice in middle of Chicago. That would be meaningless to the African-American community. Lake Shore Drive would be meaningful.”

At a City Hall news conference called to push for the name change, King and Reilly could hardly be heard. They were shouted down by demonstrators who opposed plans for a $95 million police and fire training academy.

Dan Duster, great-grandson of Ida B. Wells, speaks at a City Hall press conference about renaming Balbo Drive after Wells. Parts

When the chanting died down, Reilly scoffed at the suggestion that the proposed name change would be a slap in the face to Italian Americans that unfairly maligns Balbo.

“He happened to land a bunch of airplanes here. That was his fine accomplishment. The mayor at the time wanted to make a big splash and named the street after Balbo. He did not do anything to contribute Chicago,” Reilly said of the Italian Air Force Marshal famous for making the first transatlantic crossing from Rome to Chicago.

Arguing that Balbo served under Mussolini and was a member of the Fascist party, Reilly said: “This is not in any way an attempt to slight the Italian-American community. They’re an important part of Chicago’s fabric. [But] I would argue there are many other much more deserving Italian-Americans in Chicago.

King argued that there is “no place in Rome that honors Balbo” and that says a lot about his place in history.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel was asked to weigh in on the proposed street renaming that has infuriated Italian-Americans after Wednesday’s City Council meeting was abruptly adjourned amid opposition to a new $95 million police academy.

The mayor was conspicuously non-committal.

“We’re a very big city with a lot to offer. And we should, as a city, engage in a way to pay homage and recognition to Ida B. Wells,” the mayor said.

“I understand the spirit or the energy behind Ald. King’s ordinance. I want the City Council to work through an issue in a way – whether it’s a statue, whether it’s a street renaming, some way – recognize her contribution not only to the city, but to the country.”

In August, dozens gathered in Burnham Park to protest and call for the removal of the Balbo monument, given to Chicago in 1933 by fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
In August, dozens gathered in Burnham Park to protest and call for the removal of the Balbo monument, given to Chicago in 1933 by fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times