The statue of Christopher Columbus, newly boxed in plywood to protect it from vandalism, will remain in South Philadelphia while the city Art Commission considers its “possible removal” using a “public process as soon as practical under the law,” according to an agreement reached Thursday between the Kenney administration and supporters of the statue.
“No decision has been made on whether to remove the statue,” according to the stipulation and order signed by City Solicitor Marcel Pratt and George Bochetto, a lawyer for supporters of the statue in South Philadelphia.
Bochetto had demanded that the statue remain visible. The agreement signed by Common Pleas Court Judge Paula A. Patrick, says city officials will negotiate with Bochetto over the next 10 days “to possibly modify the boxing apparatus.”
Bochetto has said that could include adding clear plastic or another feature that would again expose the statue to public view.
The deal means the statue will not be moved without a vote by the nine members of the Art Commission, presumably after public hearings. Mayor Jim Kenney, who has called Columbus’ record “infamous,” appointed all the members to the panel. The chair, Alan Greenberger, is an architect and former city official.
The marble statue became the focus of protest and counter-protest after Kenney ordered the removal of the statue of former Mayor Frank L. Rizzo from Thomas Paine Plaza early on June 3 amid mass protest over police mistreatment of black citizens.
Kenney had said in August 2017 that he would not move the Rizzo statute without the Art Commission holding hearings and taking a vote. “Not everybody will be happy, but everybody will be heard,” the mayor said at the time. Later in 2017, he endorsed moving it, but said it it would happen as part of a general reconstruction of the plaza.
Then this month, Kenney had the Rizzo statue removed in the middle of the night even though the Art Commission had not held the promised hearings. The mayor said he acted “because of the unprecedented emergency circumstances.” The statue had become a focus of protesters.
The pact signed by Pratt and Patrick presumably will be more binding.
The Columbus statue, like the one of Rizzo, has attracted anti-racism protesters. The demonstrators say Columbus enslaved natives, executed colonists and natives illegally, and committed other crimes.
Defenders credit Columbus with bringing European civilization to the Americas. Some supporters at the scene held baseball bats and rifles.
Many Columbus statues were erected by 19th century and early 20th century Italian American groups who saw him as a pioneering countryman who arrived before people from the British Isles came to dominate their adopted country. In recent weeks, statues have been vandalized in Minneapolis and Boston, and removed from public sites in Wilmington, Camden, and other cities when they became the target of protesters.
In complaints filed in court Sunday and Monday, Bochetto sought an injunction and a restraining order blocking a move. The effort came after members of Ironworkers Local 405 picketed the site Sunday to prevent what they feared was its impending removal by a nonunion contractor. The city has called that fear groundless.
After Pratt told the judge the city would not move the statue before soliciting public input as required by city law, no injunction was issued; instead the sides signed the agreement stipulating the city will follow the law in deciding whether to move it.
The Columbus statue was given to Philadelphia with the support of the government of Italy for Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition of 1876, according to later news accounts. Celeste Morello, a Philadelphia historian, says it was a gift of the Columbus Monument Association, which organized at Columbus Hall in South Philadelphia, a site that was granted city historic status earlier this month. (Added June 19)
Morello says the statue was one of several ethnic-theme sculptures assembled to mark the Centennial. Another, The Spirit of Religious Liberty, was later moved to the National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall. A third, a statue of Moses and four Irish American patriots, remains in Fairmount Park.
The Columbus statue was moved to its present site in South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza in the Bicentennial year of 1976, according to contemporary news reports.
In 2017, the Columbus statue was unanimously designated as historic by the city Historical Commission, in response to an application by Morello, who supports keeping it where it is.
Bochetto said the 13-member Historical Commission, headed by architect Robert Thomas, should be required to review and recommend any statue move. Its members, too, are appointed by the mayor. Like the Art Commission, it reviews applications to change buildings, and is supposed to hold public hearings before making recommendations to the mayor, said city spokesperson Paul Chrystie.