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Debate Rages Over Whether To Rename Balbo Drive

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Michigan And Balbo Avenues

Michigan Avenue and Balbo Avenue. (Credit: CBS)

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CHICAGO (CBS) — A call to rename Balbo Drive downtown is being met with a new petition, asking city officials to leave the street name alone.

Following a petition submitted for Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd) by local academics, the Chicago Tribune editorialized late last month in favor of renaming Balbo Avenue and Balbo Drive, which runs from State Street to Lake Shore Drive at 700 south.

Balbo, once called 7th Street, was named after Italian Air Force Marshal Italo Balbo, after he led a transatlantic flight of 24 aircraft from Italy to Chicago for the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition. But Marshal Balbo was also serving under Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, the villainous leader of an Axis power allied with Adolf Hitler in World War II, the Tribune pointed out.

The Tribune also called Balbo an “important and brutal leader in the movement that brought the Fascists to power.”

“It’s not as bad as having a street named after Hermann Goering, Hitler’s air marshal, but it’s bad enough,” the Tribune said in its June 27 editorial. “If you have any doubt, try explaining and justifying it to an out-of-town visitor.”

The petition against the name, the Tribune said, suggested renaming the street for Nobel-winning scientist Enrico Fermi, who fled Italy to escape fascism and later set off the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago.

But while the Tribune said there was “not much room for debate” on the issue, some Balbo supporters said the Air Force Marshal shouldn’t be judged for the sins of the dictator, and the name should remain as it is.

The petition to keep Balbo’s name on the street said the aviator’s flight was “an occasion of incomparable significance to Chicago’s Italian-American community” at the time and still deserves to be honored. Moreover, the petition said, Balbo was a “consistent opponent and vocal critic of anti-Semitism” and opposed entering World War II on the side of Nazi Germany.

The petition also said after his post as Air Force Marshal, Balbo served as a “well-respected and honored colonial administrator” in Libya and did not operate any concentration camps there as the original petition claimed. And when Balbo was shot down by friendly fire at the start of World War II in 1940, Italy and the U.S. were not yet at war, and Balbo was “considered with highest regard by Americans at the time of his death,” the petition said.

Even the British, who were at war with Italy when Balbo was shot down, reacted to his death with “an unprecedented wartime gesture of respect, sorrow and regret,” the petition said.

In a letter published by the Chicago Sun-Times last week, Italic Institute of America president Bill Dal Cerro also called for leaving the street name alone, because “the street name honors Balbo’s historically significant achievement, not any political message.”

Dal Cerro added that by the same logic, Jackson Boulevard should be renamed, given that it honors Andrew Jackson, “a U.S. President who committed ethnic cleansing against the Cherokee Nation.”

Balbo Drive is a route frequently used for traveling between Lake Shore Drive and the South Loop. But it’s not uncommon even to hear longtime Chicagoans misstate the name of the street as “Balboa,” presumably named for Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa.

But the connection to Mussolini’s Italy is made obvious by a monument honoring Balbo and his feat in aviation.

Several blocks south of Balbo Drive and just east of Soldier Field stands a single column that was taken from the ruins of a Roman temple in Ostia. The inscription on the column reads, in both Italian and English, that it is was presented to Chicago by “Fascist Italy by the command of Benito Mussolini.”

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