Tempest Brews Over Re-Naming of Balbo Drive

Chicago Italian-Americans are crying foul over a proposal to re-name Balbo Drive in honor of Chicago civil rights pioneer Ida. B. Wells.

Balbo was Marshal of the Italian Air Force under fascist leader Benito Mussolini and famously commanded a squadron of airplanes which flew the Atlantic to Chicago’s Century of Progress world’s fair in 1933. Noting his fascist past, aldermen suggest Wells is a much more appropriate honoree.

“We’re taking away an honor from someone who never deserved it, and giving it to someone who should have been honored a long time ago,” said 42nd ward alderman Brendan Reilly. “They named the street after Balbo because he happened to land a bunch of airplanes here.”

Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone who opposes an honor for Wells. A crusading African-American journalist, she was famous for exposing the horrors of lynching across the south. Some, in fact, credit her for the great migration of African-Americans to what was perceived as the safer havens of Chicago and other northern cities.

“Ida B. Wells was one of the most prolific figures in U.S. history,” her great grandson Dan Duster told reporters at City Hall Wednesday. “Seventy years before Rosa Parks sat on the bus, Ida. B. Wells sued the railroads for equal rights.”

But Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the Joint Civic Committee for Italian Americans of Chicago, argues there are plenty of other streets which could receive the Wells name, including State Street or Lake Shore Drive.

“We in no way want to block naming a street for Ida B. Wells,” DiFrisco told NBC 5. But he said his community will not take the perceived slight to Balbo lying down. 

“He was not the villain that some are painting him to be,” DiFrisco said, noting that Balbo opposed anti-Jewish laws in Italy and Mussolini’s alliance with Hitler. 

“He was also an aviation pioneer,” he said. “Franklin Roosevelt invited him to the White House.” 

Di Frisco said he has been in contact with 4th ward alderman Sophia King, one of the sponsors of the re-naming effort. But if the move to strip Balbo’s name is successful, he says he and his community will have no choice but to take action. 

“We will ask to be arrested,” he said. “I give you my word of honor.”

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