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When Monuments Go Bad

The stately eagle atop the 50-foot-tall fluted column of the Illinois Centennial Monument can be seen from blocks away. Located in the gentrifying Logan Square neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side, the memorial was designed by Henry Bacon and Evelyn Beatrice Longman and built in 1918 as an allegorical representation of the history of Illinois. Representational friezes line the column’s circular podium: On one side, the monument’s base offers abstract personifications of Chicago arts, agriculture and industry; the other side depicts an early contact between Indigenous people and Europeans. A Native American man wearing a feathered war bonnet stands while a woman looks back at a robed missionary clutching a cross. The look in her eyes is somewhere between a wary gaze and a confrontational glower. 

It’s a vision of colonization that might be more nuanced than those you’ll find in many of the city’s monuments, but it’s still a source of controversy locally. For one, the Indigenous man pictured is “wearing the wrong headdress,” says Santiago X, an Indigenous artist and architect based in Chicago. (The strikethrough in his name is intentional.) “They’re wearing the wrong clothes.” 

Andrew Schneider, president of local preservation group Logan Square Preservation, defends the monument as a beloved local landmark. “It’s an iconic image of Logan Square,” he says. “The people that live here have a real attachment to it, and that cuts across all racial and socio-economic classes.” 

The centennial monument and 40 others are now under the equally critical gaze of the Chicago Monuments Project, an advisory committee of civic leaders, artists, designers, academics, and culture workers (including X) tasked with re-evaluating how the city handles its stock of monuments (which Schneider says he supports). The city formed the committee in the wake of the uprisings against racist police violence in July 2020. During a demonstration at Grant Park against a monument to Christopher Columbus, police assaulted journalists and activists; within days, Mayor Lori Lightfoot had statues of Columbus in Grant Park and Little Italy removed “temporarily.” To come up with long-term policies for monumentalization, the advisory committee began meeting in September and tentatively hope to release a set of recommendations by late June. 

The official charge of the project is to “[call] out the hard truths of our history — especially as they relate to racism and oppression,” because “telling a true and inclusive history is important, as is addressing who gets to tell those stories in public space. Our priority is to address ignored, forgotten and distorted histories.”

No other American city has opened up this sort of wide-ranging dialogue about how cities make monuments. Swept up in this inquiry are five statues of Abraham Lincoln, as well as monuments to George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, and the Italian Fascist Italo Balbo. The 41 items under discussion are just a small percentage of the hundreds of monuments in the city, but committee co-chair Bonnie McDonald, president of Landmarks Illinois, says the work of the committee is just a start. She’s asking for public participation on how current memorials should be handled, as well an in the commissioning of new monuments. 

Read entire article at Bloomberg CityLab