Amid Balbo doubts, supporter says Lake Shore Drive, other streets could work to honor Ida B. Wells

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

A City Council backer of renaming Balbo Drive downtown to honor Ida B. Wells-Barnett expressed dismay the controversial plan didn’t get a public hearing Wednesday, but said another Chicago street such as Lake Shore Drive could instead get christened for the crusading African-American journalist and anti-lynching activist.

South Side Ald. Sophia King said after the hearing on her plan was delayed that talks are underway on a variety of ways to honor Wells-Barnett.

“There’s conversation we’re having about that, and I’m open to having another street named after Ida B. Wells,” King said. “I think it has to be the appropriate street and it has to be something that celebrates her in the way she should be.”

King said Lake Shore Drive could work, as could Congress Parkway, along with a number of other possibilities. Both are prominent Chicago streets, and neither has lots of business addresses. 

Business owners often oppose street name changes because they have to spend money getting new stationary and changing advertisements. That was part of the reason Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2013 proposal to rename part of Stony Island Avenue in honor of the late Arthur M. Brazier, an African-American civic leader and pastor, foundered.

Some Italian-American groups are opposed to taking away the honor from Italo Balbo, a pilot who flew from Rome to Chicago in 1933 for the Century of Progress Exposition and who was an ally of Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini. They say the flying feat should be considered separately from his association with the dictator.

Enza Raineri, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said the organization wants to see Wells-Barnett “honored in a grand way.” But she said taking the street name away from Balbo isn’t the way to do it. “History is history, and we need to learn from it,” Raineri said. “And Chicago has a special part in history because of that flight.”

Several people turned up at Wednesday’s Transportation Committee hearing to speak for and against the change.

Committee Chairman Ald. Anthony Beale did not include the ordinance on his agenda, however, saying behind-the-scenes talks to reach a compromise were ongoing.

After the meeting, King said her proposal should have at least gotten a public vetting. “This was the next step in the process, to have a hearing so everybody could publicly hear, so you guys could hear from them publicly,” she said. “There were people who were upset, as you know, that they weren’t heard, on both sides of the issue.”

And she said that while adding an honor for Wells-Barnett and taking one away from Balbo are separate issues, the Italian’s actions need to be taken into account when considering whether he deserves such a prominent place in Chicago’s public way.

“Certainly, he should be lauded for his flight across the Atlantic, but he also should be reprimanded for cruel behavior to his own people, people of different cultures and races, and his involvement in the fascist regime,” King said.

Emanuel has notably not endorsed the plan, saying only that he understands the "spirit and energy" behind the ordinance and wants the city to recognize Wells.

King on Wednesday said the upcoming city elections could be making officials leery of taking up the contentious issue. “I think that probably plays a part,” she said.

Also Wednesday, a council committee passed a proposal to amend an ordinance to supply panic buttons to hotel workers to protect them from sexual harassment or assault by guests. The change specifies that only employees who clean guest rooms or restrooms must be issued the panic buttons to be able to call for help. The hotel measure will be sent to the full City Council next week, and a July 1 deadline for hotels to provide the panic buttons or face fines remains in effect.

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