Italian American group calls for restoring Columbus statue in Chicago’s Arrigo Park

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John Byrne, Chicago Tribune
·3 min read
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An Italian American organization is calling on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration to restore a statue of Christopher Columbus to a Near Southwest Side park because of a decades-old agreement with the Chicago Park District.

Lightfoot ordered the statue in Arrigo Park near the city’s Little Italy neighborhood taken down in July along with one in Grant Park, after police clashed near the Grant Park statue with protesters who wanted to tear it down. The city later took down a third Columbus statue from a traffic island in South Chicago.

Lightfoot said the move was temporary, and she then created a commission to review dozens of city monuments as part of “a racial healing and historical reckoning project.”

But Ron Onesti, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said the group recently discovered a contract signed nearly 50 years ago between the Park District and the Columbus Statue Committee. The contract stated the Park District would check with either the statue committee or Onesti’s organization “in perpetuity” before making changes to the statue in Arrigo Park.

The agreement came after the organization raised “$10,000 and change” to pay for the upkeep of the statue, money which was turned over to the Park District, he said.

“They removed the statue in the middle of the night in July, without checking with us,” Onesti said. “We completely understand the safety concerns, but it’s time to at least have the conversation about restoring it. This contract shows we have a vested interest in this statue.”

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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.

Then 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.

“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 a statement Friday afternoon, Park District spokeswoman Michele Lemons said the district “is reviewing the Columbus Statue agreement. The monument was removed temporarily for public safety concerns.”

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.

Many Italian Americans prize the statues of the explorer as an expression of their mainstream American identity.

Northwest Side Ald. Nick Sposato, 36th, an Italian American who strongly supports the restoration of the statues, said it’s time to act.

“Look, we are willing to be inclusive, to include a plaque about Indigenous people, for instance,” Sposato said. “But we shouldn’t cave to terrorists. That’s not the American way.”

jebyrne@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @_johnbyrne