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Philly removes box covering controversial Christopher Columbus statue

Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled Friday the statue must be uncovered, the latest chapter in a lengthy battle that began as soon as the statue was covered with plywood in June 2020.

Complying with a court order, the City of Philadelphia removed a plywood box that has covered the Christopher Columbus statue on Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia since June 2020.
Complying with a court order, the City of Philadelphia removed a plywood box that has covered the Christopher Columbus statue on Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia since June 2020.Read moreElizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer

Complying with a court order, the City of Philadelphia late Sunday night removed the plywood box that has concealed the statue of Christopher Columbus in South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza for 2½ years.

With the aid of a cherry picker and several spotlights, workers disassembled the box around 9:30 p.m. to the jubilation of passing motorists on Broad Street who honked car horns and whistled. Some stopped to take pictures of the exposed statue.

About five to 10 onlookers gathered in a stiff, cold breeze to take in the latest chapter in a lengthy battle that began as soon as the statue was covered with plywood amid racial justice protests in June 2020 and subsequent conversations surrounding polarizing landmarks throughout the United States.

The Historical Commission had voted to remove the statue, and Italian American groups have fought to preserve it ever since.

On Friday, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled the statue must be freed from the box. The court’s decision also upheld a previous ruling saying the city didn’t follow the legally required process to remove the statue. The city has not decided whether to appeal.

» READ MORE: Box around Christopher Columbus statue in South Philadelphia must be removed, Commonwealth Court rules

What followed was a weekend watch for the dismantling, given that the city would not say if and when it intended to do it. Speculation was it certainly would not happen during the Eagles game and would most likely occur at night to minimize the chances of protests among groups for and against the statue that have played out at the site in the past.

Supporters of the statue say it celebrates Italian American culture in a city with deep Italian heritage, while critics say the monument is a painful reminder of the harm Columbus perpetrated toward Indigenous people.

» READ MORE: For local Native Americans, a reckoning over hurtful images goes way beyond one South Philadelphia statue

Friday’s ruling issued by Commonwealth Court President Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt reversed a 2021 decision that allowed the city to keep the box standing. Since October, it has been painted green, white, and red, the colors of the Italian flag.

“We continue to believe that the Christopher Columbus statue, which has been a source of controversy in Philadelphia, should be removed from its current position at Marconi Plaza,” city spokesperson Kevin Lessard said Friday in response to the court order.

He said the city intended to continue “to explore our options for a way forward that allows Philadelphians to celebrate their heritage and culture while respecting the histories and circumstances of everyone’s different backgrounds.”

That may include adding more context to the statue in the future, Lessard said Monday, perhaps by attaching a plaque or sign “that recontextualizes Columbus’ complex history.”

George Bochetto, the attorney representing Friends of Marconi Plaza, had hailed the court’s decision as “not just significant for the Columbus statue and Italian Americans, it’s significant for every ethnic group in this country.”

In September 2021, another Columbus monument at Penn’s Landing was uncovered following a lawsuit by a group also represented by Bochetto. Following the 2020 protests, the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. placed chalkboard panels around the obelisk, inviting people to write their hopes for the future of the statue. The boards were removed after the lawsuit’s settlement.

Two supporters of the South Philly statue who watched the activity Sunday night said they were concerned someone might try to damage it. A fence that has surrounded the statue remained up. As of 11:30 p.m. there was no police presence, as there has been at times in the past.

At Marconi Plaza early Monday afternoon, several small American flags fastened to fencing whipped in the winter wind as dog walkers and passersby occasionally paused to peer up at the newly unboxed monument.

Nearby metal barricades held poster boards reading: “Don’t rethink the name of Columbus Day!” and “Re-think the names you call Columbus.”

One resident, Frank Criniti, came to lay a potted poinsettia near the monument’s base.

“Normally every Christmas I buy flowers to give out to friends and family, so I figured, ‘Why not put one over here?’ So this kind of just shows the Christmas spirit.”

Criniti, who immigrated from Italy to South Philadelphia when he was a child in 1958, said he visited the 146-year-old marble effigy Monday “to show appreciation to the people for all the efforts made to get the boards out.”

“Last night, I think [the city] admitted, ‘Our mistake,’” he said.

Staff writer Nick Vadala contributed to this article.