Lawsuit against Chicago Park District seeks Columbus statue’s return to Arrigo Park

The lawsuit filed by the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans alleges the Chicago Park District breached a nearly 50-year-old contract when it removed the statue last year.

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A fence with the U.S. and Italian flags cover the area where a Christopher Columbus statue once stood at Arrigo Park in Little Italy on Oct. 8, 2020.

A fence with the U.S. and Italian flags cover the area where a Christopher Columbus statue once stood at Arrigo Park in Little Italy on Oct. 8, 2020.

Sun-Times file photo

An Italian-American organization has filed a lawsuit against the Chicago Park District demanding the Christopher Columbus statue be returned to its pedestal at Arrigo Park in Little Italy.

The lawsuit filed by the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans claims the removal of the Columbus monument violates a nearly 50-year-old agreement the group has with the Park District that says it must obtain written consent from the organization “before making any substantial change to Columbus Plaza or Columbus Statue.”

The filing comes just three days short of the one-year anniversary of when the city removed the statue after mounting pressure from community activists.

“We worked out a contract in 1973 with the Chicago Park District after the statue and plaza was built,” Ron Onesti, president of the organization, told the Sun-Times. “The contract agreement basically says any alterations of the statue or plaza must have the written consent of the Columbus Statue Committee.”

The lawsuit claims that the Columbus Statue Committee had paid the Park District $10,695.74 “for the upkeep of the Columbus statue” in 1973 and then entered a contract that gave the organization a say over significant changes to the plaza and statue.

The Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans is the successor of the former Columbus Statue Committee, Onesti said.

“Removing the statue last year is a clear breach of our contract with the Park District,” Onesti said.

The lawsuit lists the Park District, several of its executives and members of the Board of Commissioners as defendants. The city of Chicago and Mayor Lori Lightfoot are listed just as “respondents in discovery” and not as defendants.

The city’s Law Department declined to comment on a pending litigation and said it will review the lawsuit once received.

Enrico Mirabelli, the lead attorney in the lawsuit, said they tried to avoid taking the Park District to court but their contract would’ve been nullified if they didn’t raise their legal grievances within a year. In April, hoping to avoid court, they “hand-delivered” a letter and the contract to the Park District’s Board of Commissioners.

“We never received a reply,” Mirabelli said. “We remain committed to finding a reasonable solution. … But no governing body and no individual is above the law. When you make a contract you are expect to follow the terms of the agreement.”

The statue of Columbus in Arrigo Park was the center of several clashes with residents who wanted it removed because of the Italian explorer’s role in the atrocities committed against indigenous people in the Americas. Others, however, opposed the removal of the statue as an attempt to erase Italian-American culture.

Workers with We Save Art clean paint from a Christopher Columbus statue located in Arrigo Park at 801 S. Loomis St. on June 15, 2020.

Workers with We Save Art clean paint from a Christopher Columbus statue located in Arrigo Park at 801 S. Loomis St. on June 15, 2020.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

That monument at Arrigo Park was repeatedly tagged with graffiti and hit with balloons filled with paint. Several of the protests over the statue brought opposing factions to the park, which at times became very contentious — at one point a retired judge and resident of Little Italy threw a punch at a protester.

The city and Chicago Park District began feeling pressure to intervene as mass protests took place in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. There was also a battle playing out nationally over memorials honoring controversial figures like Columbus and ranking members of the Confederate Army.

Then, in the middle of the night, the statues at Arrigo Park and Grant Park were taken down and put into storage while officials determined how or whether to display them. The last Columbus statue that stood on a Far South Side intersection was then removed a week later.

“Pulling the monument down at 3 a.m. without any interaction with our community was not the way to go about this,” Onesti said. “I couldn’t see this happening to any other ethnic group in the city. That would be like ending the St. Patrick’s Day parade without warning or explanation. No other ethnic group would allow something like this to happen.”

Onesti said the lawsuit isn’t calling for any punitive measures against the Park District like money or an apology. Rather, he said, they just want the statue returned to where it has stood since 1966.

According to the lawsuit it does call on the city to cover any attorney fees, and it doesn’t call for the other two statues to be reinstalled.

“We just want the statue back where it belongs,” Onesti said. “Allow us to tell our story and tell the bigger story of what the statue means to us because a foundation of concrete with no monument on top of it doesn’t tell any story, and how is that good for any community?”

The sentiment that Columbus represents the grim consequences of colonialism is misguided, Onesti said. He hopes the return of the statue could also bring people to have a conversation about why Columbus is so important to Italian Americans.

The statue of Christopher Columbus at Arrigo Park, 801 S. Loomis St., was covered after bing vandalized on June 17, 2020.

The statue of Christopher Columbus at Arrigo Park, 801 S. Loomis St., was covered after bing vandalized on June 17, 2020.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

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