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No statue or monument removed without City Council OK, alderman proposes

Concerned about the secretive process that culminated in the decision to place 41 statues under the microscope, Ald. Brendan Reilly plans to introduce an ordinance that opens a new front in the ongoing war over aldermanic prerogative.

The base of what used to be the Christopher Columbus Statue is fenced off at Grant Park Friday afternoon, July 24, 2020. The Christopher Columbus statues in Grant Park and Arrigo Park were removed earlier that day.
The base of what used to be the Christopher Columbus Statue is fenced off at Grant Park in July on the day the statue was removed. The statue had become the focus of protesters who tried to topple it.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The City Council — not Mayor Lori Lightfoot or her hand-picked advisory committee — should have the final say on whether to retain or replace Chicago statues, including those of four U.S. presidents, an influential alderman said Tuesday.

Concerned about the secretive process that culminated in the decision to place 41 statues under the microscope, downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) plans to introduce an ordinance at Wednesday’s City Council meeting that opens a new front in the ongoing war over aldermanic prerogative.

That proposal states: “Any decommissioning or other removal of a statue, monument, plaque or similar carved or cast artwork shall be subject to approval by the City Council.”

The new requirement would not apply to temporary public art for special events. Nor would it apply to the temporary removal of artwork “for the purposes of maintenance or restoration for a period not to exceed 60 days.”

Reilly said the ordinance “simply codifies” what most of his colleagues expect: That any decision to remove statues or monuments from public spaces in Chicago “should be done in consultation with and approval by” the co-equal, legislative branch of city government.

“Important decisions like these should be made by both the Executive and Legislative partners in city government in a very public and transparent fashion,” Reilly wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.

Noting that Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Mark Kelly now has “unilateral authority to approve, relocate or remove statues and monuments,” Reilly argued that no appointed official “should have such broad authority on a matter that could have a profound impact on communities across Chicago.”

The Better Government Association has raised “concerns related to the transparency of the decision-making process by Lightfoot’s Chicago Monuments Project Advisory Committee that preceded placing 41 statues under further review.

The BGA has reported the committee deliberated in secret during its first six months of work — and that a message delivered to members at an Oct. 14 meeting sounded like the advertising slogan for Las Vegas.

“What’s said here, stays here,” advisory committee members were told, the BGA has reported.

“Requiring City Council approval … will require regular Council proceedings (i.e. committee hearings, public comment, etc.) and will thus address BGA’s concerns by providing ample opportunity for public comment and transparency on this matter,” Reilly wrote.

In a statement issued in response to Reilly’s ordinance, the mayor’s office said, “This is not simply a binary choice between keeping or removing any particular statue on whoever’s authority. The Chicago Monuments Project is an opportunity to brainstorm ways to add context, to add voices and to create new work together.”

Bonnie McDonald, co-chair of the Monuments Project Advisory Committee, had no immediate comment. Jennifer Scott and Kelly, the other co-chairs, could not be reached.

Last summer, Lightfoot ordered two statues of Christopher Columbus “temporarily” removed in the middle of the night after receiving “intelligence that gave us great concern” something bad was about to happen.

City crews removed the Christopher Columbus statue from its pedestal in Grant Park in July 2020.
City crews removed the Christopher Columbus statue from its pedestal in Grant Park in July.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

At the same time, the mayor argued Chicago statues of Columbus in Grant and Arrigo Parks vandalized repeatedly since the death of George Floyd should not be torn down, but rather used to confront the nation’s history and trigger a “reckoning” that’s long-overdue.

City Hall then launched the Monuments Project and created an advisory committee to conduct a comprehensive review of more than 500 Chicago statues and monuments, with an eye toward identifying those that were offensive, problematic or not representative of city’s values of equity and justice.

Scott subsequently disclosed that 41 statues had been deemed problematic for one or more on a list of reasons: promoting narratives of white supremacy; presenting an inaccurate or demeaning portrayal of Native Americans; celebrating people with connections to slavery, genocide or racist acts; or “presenting selective, over-simplified, one-sided views of history.”

Last month, the monuments were identified on a new website — chicagomonuments.org — to launch a public engagement process that will conclude April 1.

Chicagoans were invited to submit feedback and participate in virtual events and one-on-one conversations.

Besides five statues of Lincoln, others on the list include the General John Logan Monument in Grant Park; the General Philip Henry Sheridan Monument at Belmont and Lake Shore Drive; a statue of Benjamin Franklin in Lincoln Park; the Haymarket Riot Monument/ Police Memorial at 1300 W. Jackson Blvd; the Italo Balbo Monument in Burnham Park; and the Jean Baptiste Beaubien plaque at the Chicago Cultural Center.

Missing from the list is a statue of Stephen Douglas sitting atop his tomb in Bronzeville. Last summer, three members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus called for the removal of the statue, which they said was “a tribute to a widely known racist and sexist who even staked his presidential platform on the subjugation of any non-white male in America.”

It’s not the first time that Lightfoot and Reilly have clashed over the issue of aldermanic prerogative.

In December, Lightfoot angrily condemned as “aldermanic prerogative at its worst” the decision by Reilly and downtown Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) to block plans to raise commercial property taxes along North Michigan Avenue to bankroll security improvements after two rounds of looting.