Monuments committee says Goodbye Columbus, but its work mustn’t end there

The best path forward is to go easy with the crowbar when it comes to these monuments. Ramp up the opportunities — and funding — to teach where feasible, rather than tear down.

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Protesters surround the Christopher Columbus statue in Grant Park on Friday, July 17, 2020

Alexander Gouletas/ For the Sun-Times

It’s hard to view the recommendations from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s monuments committee as the final word on the fate of the Christopher Columbus statues and the city’s other problematic public art.

First, the committee’s report is advisory, meaning the mayor — as she often does on other matters — can read the recommendations and then decide to go her own way.

And while the panel rightly called for the permanent removal of the Columbus statues — particularly the one in Grant Park, which became the site of violent clashes between protesters and police in 2020 — its recommendation to give the hook to 10 other public works the committee deemed racist should be sent back to the drawing board for a little more thought and work.

When possible, teach — don’t tear down

Lightfoot created the committee after clashes between police and protesters in 2020, when activists sought to bring down the Grant Park Columbus statue themselves during the civil unrest following George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis.

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The committee then reviewed 500 city monuments and held nearly 40 public meetings on the matter over the past two years, which is no small feat. We commend their work.

Of the 500 monuments, the committee is recommending that 41 be removed, moved elsewhere, replaced or altered to provide more context.

The mayor should heed the recommendation on the Columbus statues at Grant and Arrigo parks, which will be a flashpoint for years to come and would likely have to be protected if they are returned to their old sites.

The Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, which protested the statues’ removal, wants them put back by Columbus Day and protected at city expense — complete with motion detectors, 24-hour armed guards and surrounded by Plexiglas.

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It’s a bad idea that, if anything, just reinforces the fact that the statues’ days as a city-supported monument are over.

The best option, in our view, would be to give the statues to the Joint Civic Committee, which could display them on or inside private property of their choosing.

But the recommendation to remove the limestone reliefs on the DuSable Bridge at Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue — depicting the Battle of Fort Dearborn — is the wrong move.

The committee found that the works were created “within an allegorical narrative of the triumph of Western civilization [in which] American Indians are used as merely a foil to help define the heroic acts and qualities of colonizing forces.”

However, reliefs are accompanied, at that same intersection, by other, less visually offensive commemorations of Fort Dearborn, including boundary markings in the pavement and a large relief above the entrance of the London House hotel, depicting the fort itself.

It’s a setting that offers an important opportunity to grab history and teach context, rather than tear down. That could be done by including additional art, or information that is accessible on the spot via smartphone, to add context about the reliefs and the history they depict.

Several monuments — including the Lincoln statues, Grant Park’s General John Logan monument and Ulysses S. Grant and Benjamin Franklin monuments in Lincoln Park — would indeed receive additional text to flesh out the history of their subjects. More of this approach is needed.

Only the beginning

The best path forward is to go easy with the crowbar when it comes to these monuments. Ramp up the opportunities — and funding — to provide new art, or docents, to explain the full story of what’s being depicted.

Tearing down should be reserved as a last resort, such as the removal of Confederate statues that became rallying points for racists and also reinforce the falsehood that Confederate military leaders were heroes, not traitors.

Admittedly, deciding which monuments to keep and which to bring down is not always easy. The monuments committee recommended getting rid of the Balbo Monument, given to Chicago in 1934 by dictator Benito Mussolini and flown here by the Italian air force general Italo Balbo — and not without good reason.

The monument’s base has an original inscription that openly celebrates fascism. That has no place in Burnham Park.

But might it be better suited for a museum? Such an institution would have the means to tell detailed stories of the monument, including its fraught history and that of the 2,000-year-old stone column from Ostia, Italy that makes up the work.

The monuments committee’s work should not end with this report. We’d like to see a permanent commission that meets publicly and invites testimony — not unlike the city’s Commission on Chicago Landmarks — and can tackle monuments and also the names of parks, streets and public schools.

The important work must continue.

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