City crews removed the Christopher Columbus statue from its pedestal in Grant Park in July 2020.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

During recent meetings, members of the public have been most vocal about the potential removal of statues of Christopher Columbus, as well as monuments to the Italian fascist leader Italo Balbo and former U.S. presidents.

The leader of a city commission charged with reviewing dozens of problematic monuments reported Wednesday that many Chicagoans who have commented on the process contended that removing monuments and statues would be “akin to erasing history.”

The comments came during a meeting of the Chicago Monuments Project’s advisory committee, which was convened following Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s controversial decision to temporarily remove two statues of Christopher Columbus after they became focal points of demonstrations over police brutality and racial injustice last summer.

Erin Harkey, the first deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events who is heading the committee, further explained that members of the public have been most vocal about those two statues, as well as monuments to the Italian fascist leader Italo Balbo and former U.S. presidents.

The 41 monuments that are currently under review were picked for a variety of reasons, like promoting narratives of white supremacy, presenting inaccurate or demeaning representations of Native Americans and memorializing those “with connections to racist acts, slavery, and genocide.”

Throughout the meeting, committee members insisted that the process of reviewing the city’s monument is important for addressing the past and creating a sense of healing. Bonnie McDonald, the CEO and president of Landmarks Illinois and a co-chair of the committee, said the project aims to “tell the truth” about the impacts of systemic racism and segregation and to offer an inclusive history of the city that elevates the native community.

“Many of our monuments are telling a perpetual, harmful and untrue narrative about the history, and also that these are offensive to many people who live here today,” McDonald said.

However, Harkey noted that members of the public who commented during recent meetings have simply held “that people aren’t perfect.”

“The expectation that the figures that we memorialize in these monuments have to reach some unattainable bar in terms of their level of perfection is impossible to reach,” Harkey said, reiterating the public sentiment.

During Wednesday’s meeting, the only members of the public who commented raised concerns about the potential removal of the Balbo monument in Burnham Park and the Columbus statues in Arrigo and Grant parks. But both struck conciliatory tones, saying they welcomed the open discussion about public art.

“We should add artwork to the city rather than tearing it down and depriving the people of viewing it,” said one commenter.

John Vinci, an architect who works on the preservation of historic buildings, was unequivocal in his criticism of the calls to remove statues of “former heroes” like Columbus and Abraham Lincoln. Columbus’ legacy has been tarnished by the acts of atrocity he committed against Native Americans, while the co-chairs of the committee previously noted in a Sun-Times op-ed that his statues are on the chopping block due to “his historical role as an escalator of Indian removal.”

“Let’s accept the past,” Vinci said. “If you want to change the dialogue of these sculptures, that is a good idea. But to try to erase them is, I think, a vicious act.”

Once the review is completed, members of the committee will submit their recommendations on the monuments to the city.

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