In the wake of the horrifying actions of those who attended the ‘Unite The Right’ gathering in Charlottesville just over a week ago that left a 32-year-old woman dead, many cities across the country have responded by taking down relics of our country’s sordid past. Baltimore, Duke University, Lexington, KY and New Orleans have all done so in the time since. That has encouraged local activists to begin calling for the removal and renaming of streets and monuments that nod to characters that dominated the arena of misunderstanding that paced America’s early generations. There’s two sides to the conversation, sort of. On one side, progressives and humans possessing empathy argue that the dated relics do nothing more than perpetuate the hate and antiquated ideals, removing them would remove the messaging. On the other, scholars, the over-40 crowd and degrees of veiled racists and bigots argue that the names and likenesses stand for our collective understanding of history, our ‘culture’. To them, their removal is a washing of the past. It’s this environment that Chicago has begun discussing the possible editing of it’s own background. As the conversations regarding the future of naming rights and likenesses begins we have to wonder what the impact is both ways, and how those in power should proceed.
Keep Vs. Replace
Before anything else, the debate surrounding whether to keep the items memorializing less-than-savory characters or leave them be must be figured out. The main perpetrators that have been singled out are Balbo Avenue and monument near Soldier Field and Washington and Jackson Streets and Parks respectively.
First off, Balbo. The monument in just south of the stadium and nearby street connecting State Street to Lake Shore Drive is named after the World War I-era Italian fascist and Governor-General of Italian Libya, Italo Balbo. The monument was sent from Rome by the Benito Mussolini in 1933 to commemorate the trans-Atlantic flight to the Century of Progress Worlds Fair.
While Balbo has dominated the news cycles as of late, with a protest to remove the monument which reads “a gift from the 11th year of Fascist Italy” there are also more camoflaged entities that have also been brought up for an adjustment. Both Presidents George Washington and Andrew Jackson similarly owned slaves, as much of upper-class society in the 18th century similarly did, but that fact has been a driving for for the changing or removal of both former statesmen’s names from signs and parks around the city.
The case for removing Balbo appears fairly tight. With little more tying him to the city than a long flight that he made only to visit Chicago for less than five days during the World’s Fair. 7th street was renamed after him with a full parade commemorating the flight, but again it was 1933 and despite the large festival happening in Hyde Park concurrently; there wasn’t exactly a lot of entertainment to be had generally and a parade for any reason would seem to be a nice break from the monotony of working class 30s Chicago, so don’t fault our forefathers for having a good time. In reality, the monument and street naming was a short-sighted affair that underlines Chicago’s attempts at self-importance to shake the ‘Second City’ tag back when it seemed first place was still in reach. Since then, Chicago has allowed New York to become the country’s overdone super-city, settling into the more habitable metropolis of today, albeit with a distinct attitude left over. Nowadays the city blazes it’s own trail, as it has in the face of Donald Trump (who still hasn’t attempted a visit since becoming President) and in standing up to the federal government when it comes to Sanctuary City status. With an image of it’s own, we no longer need the approval of outside governments or entities, and nothing about the statue or lifetime of Italo Balbo adds to or embodies the city of Chicago.
The case for Washington and Jackson, while understandable given the current climate we find ourselves, is muddier and less clear-cut than Balbo. While more complicated in scope, it’s also fairly simple in reasoning: both men owned slaves. This is fact, and not one shrouded in the depths of history. The debate here can sway both ways. While those on the right advocating for the Confederate flag and Robert E. Lee statues as ‘their culture’ are doing so as a thinly-veiled homage to their hateful dispositions, George Washington and Andrew Jackson did much to forge the country we have today, in all its horrors and glories. Then again, these are two wildly different men that should be approached as so. While Jackson was a tough-nosed general known as “Old Hickory”, revered for his victories in the War of 1812, he is just as well known for his savagery towards Native Americans in that war and the First Seminole War. With blood on his hands, he also campaigned for office advocating for the rights of common men over aristocrats, a strategy that saw him become the 7th President of the United States. Meanwhile, Washington was born wealthy in Virginia in 1731 and inherited slaves as a consequence of society at the time. It’s not our place to gauge how he felt on the matter, but by helping to guide a new society based on the pursuit of happiness for every man, he seems to at least have made strides towards being understanding from a wider perspective. According to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History “In 1860, 75 percent of white families in the United States owned not a single slave, while 1 percent of families owned 40 or more.” This fact isn’t included to minimize any experience or change history of any kind, but instead to underline the fact that our country has long been ruled by the wealthy, and they’ve always been allowed things the rest of us either can’t afford or choose not to. While both Washington and Jackson did possess slaves, it’s not the litmus of their character, societies grow over time and people with them. Washington persevered to the benefit of many more than he hurt, Jackson likewise was a bloody warrior who passed himself as the common man, a la Trump. One shared aspect does not make them one.
Decision: Keep Washington, Ditch Jackson
What’s The Solution?
Now that we’ve made our decisions on who to keep and who to swap out, what do we do with the nameless streets and parks assuming the monuments will simply be placed in museums or moved elsewhere. Anger is understandable, misplaced anger less-so and responsibly dealing with these relics is as important as dealing with them at all. Frustrations recently spilled over on the south side where a bust of Abraham Lincoln that had stood as a symbol of freedom for over 50 years was set aflame near 69th and Wolcott Ave. While not condemning those actions, it does seem misplaced given Lincoln’s place in history.
For Balbo, it should seem pretty simple: take the monument indoors somewhere where it can be appreciated as a part of history and not celebrated as a part of the city’s pride. The nearby Field Museum would serve as a perfect home. As for the street bearing his name, a return to 7th street would be the easiest move, although we’ve certainly had plenty of Chicagoans to commemorate. There have been calls for it to be renamed Ida B. Wells street in honor of the influential African-American journalist, suffragist and Civil Rights leader who helped found the NAACP. In all honesty, there couldn’t be a better candidate, and the honor would make up for labeling one of the city’s most notorious housing projects (and subsequently tearing them down) after her two generations ago. An Italian Fascist to an African-American Civil Rights leader? We’re making progress.
As for Jackson, the best idea I’ve seen brought forward so far has been, of course, from Twitter. While I can’t recall who typed it or where exactly it was seen, the idea for Jackson Park and Boulevard could be a simple one: change the first name. From Andrew to Jesse, in honor of the longtime politician and activist, Jesse Jackson. While he may be a divisive force elsewhere, he perfectly embodies his hometown’s need for progress and attention simultaneously and has served his communities in many capacities throughout his lifetime. Best of all? We wouldn’t have to adjust our mental maps all that much.
In a city that glamorizes the likes of Al Capone and John Dillinger, led by a Daly-led machine for decades and buoyed in the 90s by the likes of Michael Jordan and R. Kelly, the questions does remain: where is the line? Today’s community leaders and city pride is more wholesome, more authentic, but does that mean we completely shed our past? Would we have someone to look up to like Chance The Rapper if not for the confluence of both what to do and what not to do? We learn from good and bad, to remember only one side might have unforeseen effects, albeit with more comfortable realities.