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Congress Parkway — not Balbo — will be renamed for Ida B. Wells

Congress Parkway

Congress Parkway will be renamed in honor of Ida B. Wells under a proposal passed Thursday by the City Council's Transportation Committee, and headed toward full Council approval. | Sun-Times file photo

Congress Parkway will be renamed for civil rights icon Ida B. Wells to avoid a bitter battle with Italian-Americans triggered by the resurrected proposal to rename Balbo Drive.

Compromise talks aimed at finding an appropriate street to rename Ida B. Wells Drive had come down to a choice between Congress Parkway and Wells Street with Wells having the edge because it would not inconvenience businesses and homeowners at all with a change of address.

Wells Street currently honors the memory of William Wells, an Army captain killed in the Battle of Fort Dearborn in 1812.

But after huddling Tuesday with City Council champions of the Balbo renaming, Transportation Committee Chairman Anthony Beale (9th) said the three aldermen settled on Congress.

It’s a major thoroughfare with precious few businesses, making it a popular and convenient choice to honor Ida B. Wells, a journalist and anti-lynching crusader whose formidable civil rights work is credited with giving women in Illinois the right to vote ten years ahead of women outside the state, Beale said.

An added plus, Beale said with a smile, is the fact that nobody will miss the name “Congress Parkway.” That’s because public opinion of Congress is at an all-time low, the alderman said.

Ida B. Wells, a fiercely independent 19th century black woman, was born into slavery and became a leader in the struggle against racism.

Ida B. Wells was born into slavery and became a leader in the struggle against racism. | Sun-Times files

“It’s gonna be Congress. They’re gonna submit the ordinance at the City Council meeting and that’s gonna be the end of it,” Beale said Tuesday.

“Congress is a much better street in honoring Ida B. Wells…It’s a more prominent street. It has a larger impact on the city. It’s a gateway between three major expressways. It will honor Ida B. Wells in a larger way.”

With only five mailing addresses on Congress, Congress can be renamed with minimum inconvenience, Beale said.

Asked what might be done to avoid confusion at the intersection of Wells Street and Ida B. Wells Drive, he said, “I’m gonna let the experts figure it out,” he said. “It was my job to negotiate a peace treaty. I think I did that.”

Last week, Ald. Sophia King (4th), City Council champion for renaming Balbo, criticized Beale for yanking the street renaming off his Transportation Committee agenda.

Beale stood his ground and led the negotiations that ultimately produced the compromise.

On Tuesday, Beale said the entire controversy could have been avoided, if only King had followed City Council protocol and negotiated first before unveiling her street renaming proposal.

“For some reason, this went outside the normal process. We had to kind of clean it up,” Beale said.

King and her co-sponsor, downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd),
said they accepted the Congress compromise to avoid a divisive confrontation with Italian-Americans who didn’t want to see the street name stripped from Italo Balbo.

Italo Balbo was an Italian Air Force Marshal famous for making the first transatlantic crossing from Rome to Chicago and helping to bring Mussolini to power in 1922.

“This is the right way to proceed to end the controversy about naming a street after a woman who very much deserves it and we can leave that other item for future discussion,” Reilly said of the long-running Italo Balbo controversy.

“It became very clear very quickly that this is an issue that the Italian-American community is passionate about…No one wants to confiscate an important name to the Italian-American community in Chicago without talking it through and having buy-in from the community most directly impacted.”

King said she, too, “wanted to separate the issue of Balbo and whether that should be renamed or not with honoring the great legacy that Ida B. Wells left us.”

Congress was a good compromise, King said, because it’s a “very large street that goes down the middle of the city” and is an important enough thoroughfare to recognize “the great accomplishments that a woman like Ida B. Wells deserves.”

Italian-American community leader Dominic DiFrisco was thrilled with the compromise.

“We’re very grateful. That’s a great solution to the dilemma. It leaves Balbo in tact,” DiFrisco said.

“We did not want to deny Ida B. Wells the honor she deserves. But, Balbo deserves the recognition he was given in 1933 confirmed by every mayor since. Charlatan historians were beginning to raise incredibly erroneous facts about Balbo. The Italian-American community can now breathe a great sigh of relief.”

Street sign where Balbo Drive intersects with State Street. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

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

Wells Street bridge over Chicago River

Wells Street also had been considered as a possibility for renaming to honor Ida B. Wells, sparing the name of Balbo Drive. Wells Street now is named in honor of William Wells, an Army captain killed in the Battle of Fort Dearborn in 1812. | John H. White~Sun-Times

Four years ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans to permanently rename Stony Island Avenue for the late Bishop Arthur Brazier.

The ill-conceived renaming of a major thoroughfare that runs through the heart of Chicago’s South Side blindsided black aldermen and was subsequently nixed amid complaints about the cost and inconvenience to local merchants and residents.

That’s apparently why Emanuel has been conspicuously non-committal about the idea of permanently renaming Balbo.