Street Lessons

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #5 in October 2007]

In Eastern Europe, one of the earliest efforts to reclaim a sense of national identity in the post-Soviet era was to remove street names that honored Lenin, Stalin and other Communists. Elsewhere, post-colonial societies typically changed street names upon independence, erasing the presence of imperial powers from maps and road signs. The names that a community gives to streets, park and schools can reveal much about what and who its members value. What do these street lessons teach us about Chicago?

pulaski road

In the 1930s, Polish-Americans began to lobby Chicago’s City Council to change a road’s name to honor Casimir Pulaski (1747–1779). Their focus was Crawford Avenue and they faced fierce opposition, primarily from local businesses who felt that changing their addresses would be too costly. Some Anglo-Americans also feared being associated with an ethnic group they understood to be unassimilated immigrants. Born into Poland’s elite, Pulaski took up arms against Russian forces before receiving a death sentence for his role in a plot to kidnap and murder the Polish king. Fleeing to North America, he fought to overthrow the ruling British authorities and died in this struggle after being wounded at the Battle of Savannah in 1779.

balbo avenue

Italo Balbo (1896-1940) was a pioneer aviator and governor of Libya when it was under Italian control. He was also, biographer Claudio Segrè comments, “the model of the fascist generation.” Second in command only to Mussolini, in 1933 Balbo led a squadron of Italian air force planes over Lake Michigan as part of the Century of Progress exhibition. It was his westernmost stop on a North American tour that saw him described by The New York Times as “suave” and “fearless.” Back in Italy, Balbo was integral in the fascist seizure of power. He was suspected of murdering a priest in Italy in 1923 and led the Blackshirts in breaking strikes, attacking union meetings and beating up political opponents. Following his visit, Chicago renamed Seventh Street in his honor.

fred hampton street

Balbo and Pulaski are official street names on green signs, but since 1964 Chicago has honored people with secondary street names on brown signs that do not require street maps to change. There were 1223 such honorary designations by March 2006, up from 589 in 1997. Most have been designated since the mid-1980s. In 2006, Alderman Haithcock (2nd) proposed a brown sign for the 2300 block of W. Monroe to commemorate Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton (1948–1969) who was shot and killed there by police during a raid on his home. Organizer of a gang truce, food depositories for the poor and other local services, Hampton was an important figure in the African-American community during his short life. When Haithcock proposed the street sign, Mark Donahue of the Fraternal Order of Police opposed it, saying that it was wrong to honor those who “advocated violence.” Police Superintendent Phil Cline also spoke out against the honorary sign, leading former Panther and now House Representative Bobby Rush (D-IL) to accuse Cline of racism.Mayor Daley was typically brusque, saying that the honorary street naming process was “a waste of time and money.” The Hampton street name never made it to a full Council vote and is, as yet, undesignated. Edward Hanrahan, the Cook County Attorney who had ordered the raid on Hampton’s house in 1969 said that a brown street sign honoring Hampton was “ridiculous.” Hanrahan continued by recalling the Black Panthers: “Wasn’t their slogan, ‘Power comes from the barrel of a gun?’ Is that what we want to teach people?”
The question that Hanrahan perhaps should have asked is whose guns do we learn about from Chicago’s street names? Pulaski and Balbo seem to be acceptable ‘street lessons,’ but Hampton is not. Is it merely a coincidence that two of these men were white Europeans and one was not? That only one of them lived here in Chicago? That the one not honored attempted to change this city?
The street naming process thus imprints meaning upon city spaces. Currently, to install an honorary street sign, a community group or individual makes a proposal to their alderman. The alderman will review the suggestion and send an ordinance to the City Council. The Committee on Transportation reviews the ordinance, which if accepted goes to the full City Council for final approval. This seemingly transparent process, however, produces a particular set of markers and meanings for Chicago’s public spaces. Street names implicitly instruct residents about whose beliefs and behaviors should be honored and which political leaders we should be learning from. They also, by omission, suggest who are unworthy topics of such street lessons. In addition to Hampton, the many significant local progressives absent from street names include community organizer Saul Alinsky, labor activists Lucy and Albert Parsons, Altgeld Gardens environmental campaignerHazel Johnson and housing rights advocate Dorothy Gautreaux.
Although seemingly innocent and mundane aspects of everyday life, street names teach us about our community in a way that often hides as much history as they illuminate. Yet, street names are changeable components in the ongoing processes of making public space and public life. We should be discussing who Balbo, Pulaski, Hampton and Gautreaux were and why Chicago is, or is not, honoring them, generating public debate about whose beliefs and values we want our city to showcase in its public streets. In some venues, such alternative street lessons are being written.Community Walk technology, as employed by the Chicago Labor Trail website (, is an interactive way to comment on Chicago’s past. Perhaps a similar map that invites debate about who is honored with street names can be generated, or artists and educators could devise projects to explore this aspect of Chicago, engaging local residents in new street lessons.


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