After a tense two days of political and legal sparring over whether the plywood box around the Christopher Columbus statue in Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza would be removed, hundreds of people gathered in the South Philadelphia park Sunday to celebrate Italian heritage.
The controversial Italian explorer was not part of the party. Orders by a Philadelphia judge Friday and Saturday morning gave supporters of the statue hope that it would be unboxed before the annual parade in Columbus’ honor. But a late-night ruling Saturday from a higher court ordered that the statue remain concealed. The city had asked for such a directive, citing concern for public safety on a weekend when a celebration was planned around the divisive statue and the Broad Street Run would bring thousands of runners past it.
Parade-goers expressed disappointment, anger and frustration at city officials for their efforts to remove the statue and for renaming Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. But as the parade started up, all eyes were on Broad Street, where a string band plucked out tunes with Italian flags in between their frets, and children decked in red, white and green clothing skipped and waved. The event, they said, is about celebrating Italian heritage.
“I don’t think you should celebrate any one person. You should celebrate family and celebrate traditions,” said Richie Ridolfi, 38, of South Philadelphia, whose grandparents were born in Italy. “For as long as I’ve been alive, this has been a tradition.”
Ridolfi, who brought his young son to the festivities, said he doesn’t care that the city changed the name of the holiday. He said that, for him, the day is about celebrating his family’s heritage.
Earlier this year, Philadelphia joined several other cities in renaming the holiday Indigenous Peoples’ Day, in honor of the groups Columbus and other European explorers displaced and enslaved.
The holiday and South Philadelphia statue in Columbus’ honor have been controversial for years. Though Columbus is known in school textbooks as an explorer who “discovered the New World,” his legacy includes enslaving Indigenous people and using violence against those who went against him.
Philadelphia’s Historical Commission gave city officials approval to remove the 145-year-old statue in Marconi Plaza in July 2020, after it became a focal point of protests that summer.
On Friday, Common Pleas Court Judge Paula Patrick ruled that Philadelphia had to remove the box around the statue, and on Saturday issued an order that allowed a contractor to do the work immediately.
But the city appealed the decision in an emergency petition to Commonwealth Court, which vacated Patrick’s ruling and ordered the plywood covering to remain.
On Sunday, people stopped to look at the boarded-up statue, where signs that read “Free Chris” and “Viva Columbus Parade” hung on the metal fence and temporary barricade that encircled its base.
“I’m very disappointed in the city,” said Terry Dintino, 67, who grew up on one side of Marconi Plaza and now lives on the other. “Hopefully, we’ll see him again,” she said, referring to Columbus — the statue, that is.
Regardless, Dintino said, she planned to celebrate Columbus and her Italian heritage as she does every year, by handing out miniature flags at the parade and chatting with people she knows.
“You can’t keep our spirit down,” she said.
Pasquale Colavita, 53, rode down Broad Street in the parade dressed as Columbus, with gold-colored buckles on his shoes and a brown velvet cape.
Colavita, whose parents are from Italy, has fond memories of playing in Columbus’ shadow in Marconi Plaza, and of his father and his father’s friends rushing to the park after Italy’s soccer team won the World Cup in 1982 to pose for photos with the statue. He said he is offended that the city has boarded it up.
“He’s not the monster everyone has made him out to be,” Colavita said of Columbus.
Colavita thinks the city should unveil the statue, but include an information station where people can learn about Columbus — the good and the bad, he said.
Drizzle started to fall just as the last marching band and gaggle of flag-waving children passed through the parade’s finish line. Dozens of people lingered, finishing up the snacks and drinks they’d brought from home. Others made their way to the other side of the park, where someone on stage crooned Frank Sinatra songs, kids played carnival games and the festivities continued.
“I don’t care,” Ridolfi shrugged. “I’m just going to celebrate.”