Mayor Lightfoot’s monuments panel recommends permanently sidelining 3 Columbus statues, removing Balbo monument

Ald. Nick Sposato (38th), who served on the 30-member committee, said the outcome was pre-determined by the make up of the committee.

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A fence with the US and Italian flags cover the area where a Christopher Columbus statue once stood at Arrigo Park in University Village / Little Italy, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020.

A Columbus statue was removed from Arrigo Park in University Village in July 2020.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s monuments committee is recommending statues of Christopher Columbus in Grant and Arrigo Parks be permanently sidelined and the Balbo Monument in Burnham Park be removed.

Italian American Ald. Nick Sposato (38th), who served on the 30-member committee, said the outcome was pre-determined by the fact that its members were, as he put it, “27 lefties and three righties,” including himself.

Sposato and Ron Onesti, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, are now demanding Lightfoot ignore the advisory recommendation and honor her promise to return the Columbus statues to their pedestals in Grant and Arrigo Parks, along with the Columbus monument near 92nd Street and South Chicago Avenue in South Chicago.

They also want the Balbo monument — a gift from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini — to remain in Burnham Park.

“The fate of Columbus was decided way at the beginning of this by an extremely skewed and partial commission. They were clearly against any notion of Columbus. They made some perceived historic assumptions about Columbus that we, as an Italian American community, don’t agree with,” Onesti said Friday.

Onesti urged the mayor to “thank the commission for their service but not tear down history.”

“What she should do is bring all of the statues back - not entertain any removals but foster the stories, broaden the narratives, make sure that history is served. Good, bad and the ugly: History must be served,” he said.

The always-outspoken Sposato was infuriated by the commission’s decision to target four monuments that have long been a source of pride for Italian Americans.

“The deck was stacked against us right from the beginning. It was a very liberal group of people,” he said.

Sposato acknowledged he’s “somewhat torn” on the return of the Columbus statues.

“If we put ‘em back up, I don’t want to see any policemen get hurt again. I don’t want to see [them] encased in plexiglass or barbed wire. ... But I also don’t want to see the terrorists or the mob win,” Sposato said.

Late last month, Lightfoot said she “fully expects” the Columbus statue to be returned to its pedestal in Grant Park, but not before a security plan is in place to prevent a repeat of the 2020 debacle that left dozens of ambushed police officers injured.

Sposato said that’s precisely what needs to happen now. He wants to sit down with the mayor, Police Supt. David Brown and Onesti and devise a plan to protect the Columbus statues.

“I don’t think we can just put [them] back up and not expect some consequences from these people. They’re not people, they’re terrorists,” the alderperson said.

Onesti said the city is “supposed to be in the protection business” — whether it’s people, buildings, monuments or history.

“Should they knock down all of Michigan Avenue because they were looted so many times [and say], ‘Let’s just get rid of the problem?’ You’ve got to protect,” Onesti said.

“There are ways to do it. There’s coatings that can be put on the monuments. You could put some plastic around it. There’s security cameras. I mean— we’re in a different world right now.”

Bonnie McDonald, president and CEO of Landmarks Illinois, co-chaired the Chicago Monuments Projects Advisory Committee.

In an email to the Sun-Times, McDonald refused to comment on the recommendations. “We do not yet have a final report,” she wrote.

She added, “We are working to release the report with the intent to do so in the coming weeks. There will then be an opportunity for further dialogue.”

McDonald said the commission set out to “engage in a long and often difficult public conversation about monuments,” and she’s proud of the panel’s work.

“Our charge was to consider the city’s monuments as a whole, to make recommendations for those deemed problematic and to consider new artwork for our public space,” McDonald wrote.

“Volunteer committee members and [Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events] staff have worked in earnest on this project for over 16 months. The Advisory Committee and others who have participated in the process should rest assured that their hard and sincere work is meaningful and will, in no way, be considered ‘symbolic.’”

In July 2020, Lightfoot ordered two Columbus statues “temporarily” removed in the middle of the night based on information that something bad was about to happen.

At the same time, the mayor argued statues of Columbus in Grant and Arrigo Parks that had been 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 to identify those that were offensive, problematic or not representative of the city’s values of equity and justice.

Jennifer Scott, a co-chair of the Monuments Project Advisory Committee, subsequently disclosed 41 statues had been deemed problematic for one or more reasons such as 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.”

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.

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