By Gregory Pratt, Sophie Sherry, Armando L. Sanchez and Kori Rumore
Chicago Tribune | Jul 24, 2020 at 4:11 PM
Hoping to avoid another high-profile confrontation between police and protesters like the clash that happened last week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered the statues of Christopher Columbus removed from Chicago’s Grant and Arrigo parks early Friday.
Not all Italian American leaders in Chicago are on board with the decision, but it has received the blessing of key politicians including Northwest Side Ald. Nick Sposato. By taking the statues down in the middle of the night, Lightfoot drew criticism from those who believe she caved to activist demands.
Later Friday morning, Lightfoot said in a series of tweets that the statues were removed “until further notice.”
“We took this step in response to demonstrations that became unsafe for both protesters and police, and to efforts by individuals to independently pull the Grant Park statue down in an extremely dangerous manner,” Lightfoot said in the tweets. “This step is an effort to protect public safety and to preserve a safe space for an inclusive and democratic public dialogue about our city’s symbols. It also will allow us to focus public safety resources where they are most needed — particularly in our South and West Side communities.”
Last night, after consultation with a variety of stakeholders, the City temporarily removed the Christopher Columbus statues in Grant Park and Arrigo Park until further notice.
— Mayor Lori Lightfoot (@chicagosmayor) July 24, 2020
Lightfoot’s abrupt move in the dark of night was an about-face for the mayor, who has opposed taking down statues of the Italian explorer on the grounds that it would be erasing history. Lightfoot also said that the city would soon announce “a formal process to assess the monuments, memorials, and murals across Chicago’s communities, and develop a framework for a public dialogue to determine how we elevate our city’s history and diversity.”
Crews arrived at Grant Park sometime around 1 a.m. and began the process of bringing down the monument honoring Columbus a little afterward. A couple dozen people cheered from across the street and passing cars honked as the statue came down at about 3 a.m.
It was not immediately clear where the statues were taken. Reports from television stations showed the statue in Arrigo Park, 801 S. Loomis St., in Chicago’s historic Little Italy neighborhood, was removed a few hours after the downtown statue.
Unlike its unceremonious departure from Grant Park in front of a relatively small crowd of people, the Columbus statue was dedicated nearly 87 years ago to considerable fanfare. Thousands of people turned out for the dedication, on Italian Day during Chicago’s second World’s Fair, A Century of Progress, according to Tribune archives and the Chicago Park District.
But its creation was nonetheless controversial.
In 1932, Illinois’ State Board of Art, in reviewing sculptor Carlo Brioschi’s models, announced, “This statue is so bad it should not be put on public display.” Several days later, however, board members admitted it was the pedestal they objected to — not the statue. The piece, a gift of Italian Americans living in Chicago and Cook County, was dedicated on Aug. 3, 1933.
The monument was again singled out in 1963 when a Tribune reader complained to the paper that a likeness of Benito Mussolini, former Italian prime minister and leader of the country’s National Fascist Party, was one of four bas-reliefs included in the statue’s base. Amerigo Brioschi, the sculptor’s son, told the Tribune the relief was only an allegorical figure representing the Roman symbol for strength and unity.
The 9-foot-tall bronze Columbus statue at Arrigo Park was created for and displayed in the Italian Pavilion at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Following that World’s Fair, the statue was placed in a niche above the entrance to the Columbus Memorial building at State and Washington streets. That’s where it stood until the structure was demolished in 1959.
It spent much of the 1960s stored flat on its back in a yard outside the Joseph Lumber Co. on the city’s Northwest Side after the Loop building it had been installed on following the fair was demolished.
“We’ll find a place eventually,” said James Murray Haddow, then the vice president of the Municipal Art League of Chicago, in a 1965 interview with the Tribune. “He is too good looking to be lying where he is lying.”
Then-state Rep. Victor Arrigo, an Italian American lawyer, spearheaded a campaign to raise $25,000 to move the statue to Loomis Street in Little Italy. The statue was dedicated on Oct. 12, 1966 and the park was renamed for Arrigo following his death in 1973.
In Arrigo Park on Friday morning, red, green, and white ribbons representing the Italian flag had been tied around fencing where the Columbus statue once stood. Some neighborhood residents expressed their displeasure with the mayor’s decision.
Pasquale Gianni said he felt as if the Italian community had been robbed of a piece of its culture. Gianni, who said he’s a lifelong Chicago resident and member of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans and the Italian American Human Relations Foundation, does not live near Taylor Street but has many family members who do. He said the Columbus statue was an important part of the neighborhood.
“They’ve (neighborhood residents) been expressing a sense of deep sorrow that they can no longer walk their children to school and look over at the icon and the symbol that for their entire lives has meant so much to them,” Gianni said. “Through the contributions, the suffering, the blood, sweat and tears of their parents and grandparents who came here as immigrant peoples and saw Columbus as a beacon of hope, a symbol of coming to a new world in search of something new.”
“They’ve been robbed of a piece of their heritage and their upbringing,” Gianni added.
Gianni said he hopes the mayor will soon select a time and date when the statute can return to Arrigo
The removal of the statue in Grant Park capped off an evening that was surreal at times. Late Thursday, Chicago Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara made his way to the downtown statue wearing an “Italia” T-shirt. He hung out, talking with cops, criticizing Lightfoot and promising there would be a pro-police protest there on Saturday even if the statue stayed in place.
He also got into debates with anti-Columbus protesters, some of which grew heated.
Ald. Brian Hopkins, 2nd, whose ward includes parts of downtown, said the mayor decided to remove the statue “unilaterally.”
Among the city’s prominent Italian American politicians supporting Lightfoot’s move was Sposato, 38th, who said the statues should continue to be displayed prominently but added that he believes it was appropriate to take them down for now.
“I support the mayor in her difficult decision out of our concern for public safety, including the protection of police officers and citizens of all neighborhoods,” he said in a statement. “I support her decision to TEMPORARILY remove those statues from harms way, so as not to create a distraction and divert police resources from the issues of lawlessness, anarchy and domestic terrorism facing our beloved city and nation.”
A bloc of socialist aldermen, including Alds. Daniel La Spata, 1st; Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th; Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, 33rd; Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th; and Jeanette Taylor, 20th; released a statement praising the move:
“We applaud the news that two monuments to white supremacy have come down in Chicago. Chicago’s Christopher Columbus monuments have been removed — and will stay that way — because of the Indigenous, Black, and Brown Chicagoans that have been fighting for so long to make this happen. We thank the activists and organizers who put their bodies on the line to make this happen, and we commit to continue to work towards replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and dismantling white supremacy in all it’s forms.”
But Northwest Side Ald. Anthony Napolitano, 41st, posted on Facebook: “I have never been more disappointed, not only for the removal of a city statue, but the cowardly fashion in which it was removed in the middle of the night.”
“The American way to remove the Christopher Columbus statue should have been a discussion, debate and decision made by the City Council,” Napolitano wrote. “The city didn’t just lose a statue on the sneak last night, it lost its sense of decency and American soul!”
The removal also drew comparisons from Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th, to former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s midnight bulldozing of Meigs Field in March 2003. Lopez later took to Twitter with his criticism of Lightfoot’s decision.
“What has become of Chicago? We have a mayor forced into submission by anarchy & mob-rule? No more public process, official discourse, or on-the-record debate,” tweeted Lopez, a frequent Lightfoot critic. “The lesson learned is that if you want action from Lightfoot, show up en mass at her house & she will cave every time.”
What has become of Chicago? We have a mayor forced into submission by anarchy & mob-rule? No more public process, official discourse, or on-the-record debate. The lesson learned is that if you want action from Lightfoot, show up en mass at her house & she will cave every time.
— Ald. Raymond Lopez (@RLopez15thWard) July 24, 2020
Protesters marched downtown last Friday then headed into Grant Park, where a group of people attempted to take down the statue, similar to what’s happened in other cities across the country.
But chaos followed the protest as officers and demonstrators clashed around the statue. At least 20 complaints of police brutality were filed against Chicago cops, including one involving activist Miracle Boyd, who said a police officer hit her in the face during the skirmish, knocking out at least one of her teeth.
Lightfoot and police leaders blamed a group of protesters wielding black umbrellas and shields for inciting what they called “anarchy.” Lightfoot also said she isn’t happy with officers who may have mistreated protesters or reporters.
Chicago’s statues of the explorer have become the center of a heated controversy for Lightfoot, who also has rejected calls to rename the Columbus Day holiday.
Columbus has been condemned by activists around the country who point to the Italian explorer’s mistreatment of Indigenous people after he landed in the Americas in 1492.
Earlier in the evening, protesters gathered near Lightfoot’s Logan Square home to criticize the police. Drawing loud cheers, hugs and applause, an activist informed the crowd over a megaphone that Lightfoot would be removing the statue.
The Tribune first reported news of the mayor’s plans to remove the Grant Park statue.