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Plans to move Columbus statue to temporary storage get Art Commission approval, but judge orders stay

An attorney who represents a group of South Philadelphia residents fighting to keep the statue in place called the temporary stay “a victory for civilized society.”

The Christopher Columbus statue, which has been encased in wooden boards, is pictured at Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. The city's Art Commission voted to remove the controversial statue and place it in temporary storage.
The Christopher Columbus statue, which has been encased in wooden boards, is pictured at Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. The city's Art Commission voted to remove the controversial statue and place it in temporary storage.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

The Philadelphia Art Commission voted Wednesday to remove the statue of Christopher Columbus from Marconi Plaza, placing it in temporary storage while the city deliberates on a new permanent home for the controversial monument. But the action was later halted when a judge ordered the statue’s removal ceased as a legal battle to keep the marble figure at the plaza continues to play out in court.

The removal will be paused until the judge rules on another motion to prevent moving the statue while the case — in which attorneys say the city cut legal corners and rushed the process to dismantle the statue — is appealed. City spokesperson Lauren Cox said that the Law Department is reviewing Wednesday’s order but that it is unlikely to change plans for moving the monument, which are still being finalized.

Attorney George Bochetto, who represents a group of South Philadelphia residents fighting to keep the statue where it stands, called the temporary stay “not just a victory for the Columbus Statue, [but] a victory for civilized society.”

By pausing the process to remove the statue, Bochetto said, Judge Paula Patrick made it “crystal clear that she will not tolerate mob rule or kangaroo tactics.”

The commission voted 8-0 — with Commissioner Joe Laragione abstaining — in favor of relocation, with the caveat that the city report every six months on its progress in finding a new location that is accessible to the public.

“It’s a serious piece of art, it was a gift of the Italian government in the 1800s. It needs to be stored and protected so that something can be figured out,” said Commission Chair Alan Greenberger. “The worst thing in my view that can happen, as many of you said, is that it stays in storage and is forgotten.”

The commissioners — noting the six hours of impassioned public comment they listened to last month — also recommended that the city engage in a broader discussion about the future of Marconi Plaza, and the physical space that the statue will leave behind. City officials will engage the community if plans move forward for a new project at the plaza, Cox said.

» READ MORE: Keeping Columbus statue at Marconi Plaza would be ‘completely unsafe,’ Philly says in removal proposal

Some commissioners questioned whether removing the statue would set a precedent for taking down other pieces of public art in Philadelphia.

But Greenberger reminded the commission that the proposal was coming from city government, and not simply “an Athenian democracy ... where individuals get to decide every issue.”

The commission’s deciding vote comes two weeks after the Philadelphia Historical Commission also endorsed a city proposal to remove the statue on the grounds of public safety. Commissioners said that if it were allowed to remain at Broad Street and Oregon Avenue, it would continue to be a flash point for protests, making the statue itself susceptible to damage.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia Historical Commission votes in favor of moving Christopher Columbus statue from Marconi Plaza

The city covered the statue in plywood in June, when, amid a national reckoning over racism and controversial monuments spurred by the death of George Floyd, it repeatedly attracted armed groups accused of assailing protesters and passersby. A police cruiser is stationed there to prevent further violence, officials said.

In July, city officials proposed a plan to remove the statue, arguing it threatened public safety and should be relocated “in recognition of the fact that Columbus’ legacy includes the enslavement, forcible removal, and the devastation of the Indigenous people that he encountered, and that in this current moment in our country’s history, the statue can no longer be displayed on public property.”

Those in favor of keeping the statue at Marconi say it celebrates Italian American culture in a city steeped in Italian heritage. Those against it say it’s a painful reminder of atrocities against Indigenous people directed by Columbus. The statue has been at the plaza since 1976.

» READ MORE: The Christopher Columbus statue: Why it’s an issue right now

For Jack Thomas Johnson, a South Philadelphia resident and an enrolled member of the Delaware nation of Western Oklahoma, the Art Commission’s vote comes as “a relief.”

Johnson said he plays soccer in the park with his 7-year-old son, and hasn’t fully told his son what the statue represents to their family and ancestors.

“Columbus, he represents everything bad to me,” Johnson, 52, said. “The Lenni-Lenape presence is here, and that statue kind of diminishes that.”

He said he would like to see the statue replaced by two figures, one Native American, and the other Italian American.

In a statement Wednesday, Cox said city officials were grateful to both the Art Commission and Historical Commission for approval in relocating the statue.

“As Philadelphia — and the nation — continue to reckon with the deep legacy of racism and oppression in America, it is critical that our public spaces are seen as safe, welcoming and inclusive for all people,” Cox said. “Philadelphia’s public art must reflect the people and spirit of our city, not divide us.”

Cox said the city does not yet have a budget for the statue’s removal.The Parks and Recreation Department will assess the possible removal of fencings surrounding the statue, and any landscaping or other changes to the site.

The vote comes as cities across the nation continue to grapple with monuments to Columbus and other controversial figures, including in Chicago, where in July officials temporarily removed three city Columbus statues following clashes between police and protesters. Columbus monuments have been vandalized in Boston and Baltimore and removed from public locations in Wilmington, Camden, Pennsauken, and other cities.

In June, Philadelphia officials removed a statue of former Mayor and Police Commissioner Frank L. Rizzo from the front of the Municipal Services Building, and later committed to a review of all public landmarks and street names.

The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation is also reconsidering the Columbus monument at Penn’s Landing. In June, crews boarded up the base of the obelisk as the public was asked for its input on the monument’s future.