On Fermi Drive

In which Benjamin angers the ghosts of Italo Balbo and Ron Santo.

By Benjamin Recchie, AB’03

In June the Chicago Tribune editorialized that the city ought to rename Balbo Drive, a short street just south of the Loop. The reason given was its obscure namesake: the Italian aviator and general Italo Balbo, who led a formation of 24 flying boats on a flight from Rome to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. At the time, his flight was hailed as a triumph of aviation, but the years have dimmed his reputation: Balbo served as right-hand man to the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. The Trib’s suggestion was to switch the namesake from one Italian to another: UChicago Nobel laureate in physics and noted time-capsule stuffer Enrico Fermi. As an Italian American with a background in physics, I heartily agree, and you should too, darn it.

Sure, you might argue that Balbo wasn’t the worst of the Fascists—he opposed Italy’s anti-Jewish racial laws, after all, as well as Mussolini’s alliance with Hitler. But being the world’s nicest fascist is a little like being the world’s biggest Chihuahua; you’re setting the bar pretty low. Or perhaps you agree with the Chicago Sun-Times’s counter-suggestion that the street should be renamed for the late Chicago Cub Ron Santo. No disrespect to ol' No. 10, but Fermi won more Nobel prizes (1) than Santo (0) and led the Cubs to the exact same number of World Series championships (0).

Besides putting the city back on the right side of World War II, the change would say something about our values. We elevate Fermi’s pursuit of scientific knowledge over Balbo’s pursuit of imperial conquest. We prefer to honor a man who left his homeland to avoid submitting to race laws rather than a man who brought the government that promulgated those laws to power. We celebrate an actual Chicagoan over a stranger who visited the city once. (And another guy who could hit a ball with a stick really well.)

Still not convinced? Then let me appeal to your Maroon pride: don't you want the name of a famous U of C professor gracing Grant Park during the Taste of Chicago, Lollapalooza, and the occasional parade? Oh, yes you do.

The University hasn’t taken an official position on the matter—Balbo Drive is roughly five miles from Hyde Park, after all. But that shouldn’t stop readers of this blog from taking their own stands. If you want to see Balbo Drive renamed for Fermi, then contact Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Alderman Robert Fioretti (in whose ward Balbo falls), and join my Facebook group made expressly for this purpose. There’s no time like the present to give one of my favorite physicists his due.

Photo courtesy Quinn Dombrowski, AB'06, AM'06 (CC BY-SA 2.0)

August 4, 2011