A day after city workers covered up a statue of Christopher Columbus in South Philadelphia, crews made similar moves Wednesday on a 106-foot-tall Columbus monument along the Delaware River.
The Delaware River Waterfront Corp., which maintains the monument but was not responsible for its construction, said in a statement Tuesday that the statue “does not align with DRWC’s mission to create and maintain a safe and welcome space for all.”
The nonprofit organization said the base of the monument is being covered “in an effort to protect public safety” and “reduce continued pain” as it launches a public process to consider the fate of the statue, which could lead to its removal. The group declined to comment on what the public engagement process will look like, but said in its statement the monument “fails to address atrocities committed against indigenous peoples.”
On Tuesday, city workers covered up a statue of Columbus in Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia. Since Saturday, the statue has drawn dozens of people who claim to be protecting it from being torn down as the nation grapples with its history of racism and how to handle monuments to controversial figures. The group has at times grown violent, and some observers say police allowed them to assault people who took issue with their stance.
While some in Philadelphia, particularly its Italian American community, herald Columbus as an explorer with a special connection to their heritage, his likeness causes pain for others. Most historians agree there’s no evidence that Columbus ever set foot in mainland North America, but he did make several trips to the Caribbean, where he directed the enslavement and killing of thousands of natives.
Indigenous people have asked officials for years to reconsider monuments, holidays, parades, and other celebrations of Columbus. Donna Fann-Boyle, who is of Choctaw and Cherokee descent and led an effort asking the Neshaminy School District to change its mascot, said that when she sees a monument to Columbus, “it feels like everybody else is celebrating somebody who did such horrific acts.”
She said that because of George Floyd, the black man whose death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May kicked off a national reckoning over America’s history of racism, two statues honoring Columbus are now essentially boxed up in Philadelphia.
“He is finally in solitary confinement for his crimes against humanity,” she said of the statue in Marconi Plaza. “So we don’t have to look at him anymore.”
The Columbus monument at Penn’s Landing cost more than $1 million to construct and was funded by a group called America 500 Anniversary Corp., which was made up primarily of Italian American businessmen and politicians and has since dissolved.
It was designed by the famed Philadelphia architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, and built in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ initial voyage. The same year, the portion of Delaware Avenue south of Spring Garden Street was renamed Christopher Columbus Boulevard.
Venturi died in 2018. His son, Jim, said he loves the design of the monument and hopes “an appropriate solution can be found that is respectful of everyone.”
Jeremy Tenenbaum, director of marketing and graphics at VSBA Architects & Planners., which was founded in 2012 when Venturi and Scott Brown retired, said the agency loves the work of their namesake architects but “wholeheartedly agrees with the protesters.” He said there’s now a chance to rethink the monument, the base of which could be seen as an empty canvas.
“Architects fundamentally deal with change,” he said. “We understand that very often things don’t change fast enough.”
Controversy over the monument is not new. Protesters staged a demonstration outside the dedication ceremony in October 1992, and the statue was vandalized the same day when a group of people dressed in traditional Native American garb allegedly splattered red paint on it.