Supporters of the 106-foot, 28-year-old, $1 million Christopher Columbus monument in the park at Penn’s Landing have sued the park’s nonprofit manager, which they say broke an agreement to maintain the monument. .
America 500 Anniversary Corp., which raised funds to donate the statue in 1992, is seeking a Common Pleas Court preliminary injunction “enjoining the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. from moving, damaging or destroying the Columbus Monument and requiring compliance with the Grant Agreement” that it made with the group’s predecessor, Penn’s Landing Corp.
The suit says the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. violated the agreement when it covered street-level references to Columbus and said it may alter the marble base of the stainless-steel obelisk so it no longer causes “continued pain” to protesters who blame the Italy-born, Spain-backed explorer for attacks on indigenous peoples.
Waterfront corporation spokesperson Almaz D. Crow said it would not comment on the suit. The corporation’s lawyer didn’t immediately respond to inquiries.
The lawsuit was signed by Dominic Sabatini. A Philadelphia resident, Sabatini, 80, was previously head of Penn’s Landing Corp., which agreed to the monument in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the Caribbean. Sabatini later was chairman and an executive of the former North Philadelphia Health System. (He is not the person of the same name who is an official of the architecture firm STV Inc.)
The suit was filed by Philadelphia lawyer George Bochetto, who also has filed a city lawsuit seeking to delay what he calls Mayor Jim Kenney’s illegal rush to move a 144-year-old Columbus statue out of Marconi Plaza, where it was placed in 1976; and a federal complaint seeking the return of a statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo in front of the Municipal Services Building to its donors after the city took it down following attacks by protesters.
The Columbus and Rizzo monuments were testaments to the clout of the city’s Italian American community, whose elected officials adopted both men as symbols of the community’s rise from immigrant poverty.
Both have been denounced by civil rights protesters who see them as symbols of white supremacy. Columbus monuments have been vandalized in Boston and Baltimore this summer and removed from public locations in Wilmington, Camden and other cities.
Bochetto last month sued on behalf of South Philadelphia residents seeking to block removal of the Marconi Plaza statue. Kenney urged people to comment to the city Art Commission, whose members he appoints, by Monday.
Kenney has also said he plans to ask the commission to agree to the statue’s removal on Tuesday. That has provoked Bochetto to call the process “a kangaroo court.” Bochetto has asked Judge Paula Patrick to hold a hearing reviewing the city’s process before the Art Commission makes its recommendation, and to ensure the Historical Commission also reviews the city’s plan.
The Philadelphia Art Commission plans a virtual public meeting on the topic next Wednesday, July 22, said city spokesperson Paul Chrystie. More information about the hearing should be posted by this Wednesday, July 15, at the commission website, Chrystie added.
Two days later, the Philadelphia Historical Commission plans its own remote special meeting, Friday, July 24th, 9 a.m., to consider Kenney’s application to take down the Columbus statue from Marconi Plaza. This commission, which is also soliciting comment before the meeting, had unanimously approved historical designation for the statue in 2017, after Philadelphia historian Celeste Morello testified it had been funded by members of the city’s Italian immigrant community and was part of a group of ethnic-themed statues assembled for the Centennial of American independence in 1876 before moving to South Philly 100 years later.
State Rep. Martina White (R., Phila.), last month asked Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Idee Fox and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office to review whether the city has allowed political interference with monuments since a 2008 vote to disband the former Fairmount Park Commission. She also asked whether the city failed to get required state permission for that move, in an attempt to set the stage for possible state intervention on the side of statue supporters.
Fox responded in a letter that the city’s Home Rule Charter allowed for the move.
Shapiro, a Democrat, also gave Republican critics of the statue removals little encouragement: “The City of Philadelphia owns this statue,” he said of the Marconi Plaza monument. “This is a local decision that will need to be made by the community and its leaders.”