LITTLE ITALY — For more than 20 years, a statue of Joe DiMaggio has called Little Italy home since Piazza DiMaggio was dedicated to the New York baseball player in 1998.
The legendary Yankees ballplayer even attended the ceremony when the plaza was dedicated to him.
But late last week, the statue in the plaza at 1004 S. Bishop St. was abruptly removed and is now being relocated to suburban Rosemont, along with the rest of the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame’s collection. The move is angering some Little Italy residents who believe the baseball player’s sculpture outside the hall of fame should be city property.
Brian Bernardoni, former executive director of the University Village Association, called the removal of the statue a “confiscation” from the Little Italy and the Italian-American community.
“To have our heritage ripped off the streets in the middle of the night with no communication going out to the community as a whole, including stakeholders on Taylor Street and Bishop, it’s repugnant,” Bernardoni said.
Bernardoni said once the statue was placed on city land, “it belonged to the city, not the Hall of Fame.”
“There are numerous statues across the city that are paid for by benefactors, once it’s put on city land it no longer belongs the benefactor, Bernardoni said.
Lynn Condon, a Beverly resident who works in Little Italy, noticed workers removing the statue on Friday. She watched as crews remove the statue with a crane as Little Italy residents in the plaza expressed anger that the statue was being moved.
“The statue deserves to stay right where it is, that’s where it belongs,” Condon said.
The DiMaggio statue was erected and dedicated in 1998 ahead of the plaza’s construction, according to a Tribune. At the time, neighbors expressed concerned that the plaza would disrupt the “quiet serenity of the neighborhood” and “bring droves of tourists.”
Bernardoni said the decision to install the piazza was controversial, and neighbors opposed the city’s decision to close off Bishop Street to make way for it at the time.
“The residents of Bishop Street sacrificed a lot to see that the piazza was put in place,” Bernardoni said. “Some of us took a lot of bullets for that. When we did it there was a lot of people who weren’t happy to have it in their street.”
Museum moving out of Little Italy
But attorney Enrico Mirabelli, who has been on the Board of Directors for the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame since the late ’90s and serves as its general counsel, said the statue belongs to the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame, and is being moved from Little Italy with the rest of the museum’s memorabilia. The museum itself is now closed, he said.
Late last year, Nasser Kazeminy, who owns the building at 1431 W. Taylor St. where the museum has been housed since it moved to the neighborhood in 2000, sold the building, according to Mirabelli. Because of the sale, the museum is being forced to leave the building, he said.
In a December listing of the four-story, 32,524-square-foot commercial building, Realtors wrote that the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame would “vacate upon sale.”
Mirabelli said the statue was never donated or “gifted to the city.”
“It doesn’t become city property because it sits on city property. There was never an agreement by the Hall to donate the statue to the city of Chicago, nor did the city say: ‘We’ll build a plaza, but then we own the statue.’”
“There was no such deal,” he said.
The statue was purchased by the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in 1991 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game-hitting streak, Mirabelli said. It initially stood outside the museum’s previous locaton in Arlington Heights, he said.
“When the Hall moved from Arlington Heights to Taylor Street, we brought the statue with us as part of our memorabilia collection,” he said.
George Randazzo founded the museum in 1977 as the Italian American Boxing Hall of Fame in Elmwood Park, according to the museum’s website. The museum moved to Arlington Heights in the late 1980s before moving to Taylor Street in 2000.
The 1431 W. Taylor St. building was built in 2003 especially for the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame at a cost of $12 million, according to a real estate listing.
Moving to Rosemont?
While a deal has yet to be finalized, the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame is “in talks” with Rosemont officials to relocate the museum to the nearby suburb, Mirabelli said.
“We are basically taking property that we brought [to Taylor Street] when we came and we are leaving with it. It belongs to us, it’s our property,” Mirabelli said.
In 2010, the museum faced foreclosure before the property was eventually purchased by Nasser Kazeminy, who allowed the museum to “pay little to no rent” for years before he decided to sell the property, Mirabelli said.
Now that the building has sold, Mirabelli said they had no choice but to leave.
“It was painful, we really liked the location,” Mirabelli said. “Putting the Italian American Hall of Fame on Taylor Street is like the perfect place for it.”
But financially, the location “just did not work out,” he said.
“I understand this sparks some emotion. People are used to seeing the statue,” Mirabelli said. “It’s with a heavy heart that we had to close and move from Taylor Street. There really was no option of leaving the statue which has been a part of the hall for approximately 30 years.”
Mirabelli suggested community members come together and use this opportunity to erect a statue of unofficial “Mayor of Little Italy” Oscar D’Angelo or someone more closely identified with Taylor Street than DiMaggio.
Dennis O’Neill, executive director of the Connecting 4 Communities and former executive director of the University Village Association, a group D’Angelo founded, said it makes sense the hall of fame is moving the statue. They own it, of course.
O’Neill called the move “unfortunate” and the museum an “asset to this community.”
“The museum was one of the very few things that even indicates this was ever an Italian neighborhood,” O’Neill said. “Aside from some Italian restaurants, and the Shrine of our Lady of Pompeii.”
But the neighborhood never supported the Hall of Fame, he said — not enough for it to stay.
“No one in this neighborhood ever went into the hall of fame. They couldn’t make it here,” he said.
But for Bernardoni, taking away the DiMaggio statue is like removing the arched Puerto Rican flags from Paseo Boricua on Division Street. It’s a community marker, he said, and a point of pride.
“This isn’t about Joe DiMaggio. This is about what he meant for Little Italy,” Bernardoni said. “He was a source of Italian-American pride.”
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