By Rick Romano
The fate of the city’s Christopher Columbus statues removed from public view and now in storage for almost two years is unclear, as supporters and opponents remain steadfast in their beliefs about the voyager’s place in history.
Yet unknown is the final recommendation from the City’s Monuments Project Advisory Committee, which has concluded a series of meetings that reviewed dozens of pieces and installation public art to determine their cultural appropriateness. Among them are Christopher Columbus statues once in Grant and Arrigo Parks, which the City took down and stored because of vandalism.
While the committee has no specific date for unveiling its recommendations, Madeline Long, director of communications for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), which formed the advisory committee, said, “We’re in the final stages of evaluating recommendations about current and future monuments.”
The Italian American Heritage Society (IAHS) opposes returning the statues on the grounds that Columbus’s place in history is questionable on the basis of atrocities against Native Americans that he and his crew allegedly committed. The group, with membership of about 100, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request earlier this year, asking for a copy of the committee report. The request also seeks copies of “preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, memoranda, and other records in which opinions are expressed” by the seven committee members Mayor Lori Lightfoot appointed.
DCASE denied the request on the grounds that the documents are “pre-decisional.” The response suggested IAHS should narrow and clarify a subsequent request.
Gabriel Piemonte, IAHS president, said the group’s members just want to know the committee’s decision and what factors drive that decision.
‘Because of the politics’
“We really don’t want the Columbus statues to return to the parks,” Piemonte said. “If anything is coming back, it’s backwards. The commission is just dragging its feet because of the politics.”
The politics have been fueled by reports that Lightfoot would agree to returning the Grant Park statue, Piemonte said. He noted an alternative to displaying and preserving the Columbus figures, saying, “why not put them in the public housing museum being built on Taylor Street? On a certain level, I appreciate what they [supporters] are trying to do to keep the Italian culture alive,” noting that Columbus “was on the way to America, but the way it happened is a problem.”
Also problematic for Piemonte is the financial commitment it may take to keep statues safe once returned.
“When you look at the cost of providing police or any physical barriers to protect the statues, it would be better for these figures to be inside a building.”
Piemonte said the Italo Balbo monument in Burnham Park also merits consideration for indoor relocation, given those who see it as negative commemoration of a fascist figure rather than the honor associated with Balbo’s transatlantic flight to the 1933 World’s Fair.
Expectation of return
In contrast to Piemonte’s and the IAHS’s negative Columbus views, leaders of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans (JCCIA) and its affiliated Avanti Club said they expect the City will return the Columbus statues to their previous locations.
“We’re the principal organization working on this, and the reality is that we are working very hard to restore those statues,” said JCCIA president Ron Onesti. “We’re far from a compromise.”
Onesti cited a 1973 agreement between JCCIA and the Chicago Park District detailing the organization’s transfer of $10,695.74 to the CPD “for the purpose of maintaining in perpetuity the Columbus Statue and Plaza in Vernon Park,” since renamed Arrigo Park. The City’s removing the statue, as well as the one in Grant Park in the wake of damage amid numerous protests after George Floyd’s death in May 2020, violated that agreement, Onesti said. As a result, JCCIA filed a lawsuit.
Mayor Lightfoot “took down the statues in the name of safety,” Onesti said. “What law-abiding citizen wouldn’t comply? But ‘temporary’ was in that order. We have been asking for communication on this. That’s what this is all about. Taking things down is canceling history.”
JCCIA’s membership group for younger professional Italian-
Americans, the Avanti Club, shares the sentiment, said president Pasquale Gianni. He and Onesti have characterized Piemonte and his organization as “not legitimate” and “totally fraudulent” in that they are a small group and that JCCIA and Avanti represent upward of 75 Italian American community groups throughout the region.
“This is really about a campaign of misinformation,” Gianni said. “There is a proliferation of revisionist history.”
Opposing historical views
Gianni referred to Carol Delaney, a professor emeritus of Stanford University who holds an undergraduate degree from Harvard University and a PhD in cultural anthropology from the University of Chicago. Her writings on Columbus, including the book Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem, have described him as a man driven by an abiding religious passion and not a ruthless explorer. She writes that Columbus did not own slaves.
“I think we need to acknowledge Columbus Day, for he was the one who opened the route to what we know as the ‘new world,’” according to Delaney
Following that historical perspective, Gianni said, “Our full expectation is that the statues will be returned and look forward to having a safety plan in place.”
Despite their differing viewpoints about Columbus, Gianni’s and Piemonte’s communications about the statues indicate trying to live with whatever decision Lightfoot and the advisory committee render.
Of Lightfoot, Gianni said, “I believe she is a reasonable individual. I’m not going to bash the mayor. She had to make a very difficult decision.”