Allowing the statue of Christopher Columbus to remain in South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza would be “unacceptable” and “completely unsafe,” city officials told the Art Commission on Wednesday while presenting a proposal to remove the monument from the plaza, where it repeatedly attracted armed groups accused of assaulting protesters and passersby last month amid the national reckoning over racism and monuments to controversial figures.
“It is clear from the last several weeks and months that maintaining the Columbus statue at Marconi Plaza is unacceptable to the majority of the residents of Philadelphia, and, in fact, completely unsafe,” James Engler, Mayor Jim Kenney’s chief of staff, told the commission.
City officials suggested bringing in a qualified rigging team and sculpture conservator to remove the statue and place it in storage. Engler called the situation at the plaza a “tinderbox.”
The 144-year-old Columbus effigy has been boxed up in plywood since June, when uproar over the monument led to repeated bouts of violence as some supporters of the statue milled around the public plaza carrying weapons, claiming they were defending it. Observers said members of the group physically attacked people, while a crowd brawled later with protesters who marched to the plaza after a demonstration “against racist vigilantes and their cop allies.”
At least three people have been charged with assault at Marconi Plaza. A police cruiser is now stationed there to prevent further violence, officials said.
“Italian and Italian American history runs deep, and it is not tied to one man,” Engler added, noting that the city would be open to replacing the statue with another homage to Italian history. If the proposal is approved, the Columbus statue also could eventually be moved to a private location, which would require a separate Art Commission hearing, officials said.
City Public Art Director Margot Berg also presented preliminary findings from an online survey asking residents what they would like to see happen and how they wouldd reimagine public art at Marconi Plaza, where the statue has stood since 1976. Previously, it was in Fairmount Park.
In total, the city received 13,553 written submissions, Berg said. An analysis of 1,200 randomly selected submissions found that 80% stated that the Columbus statue represented “false history, genocide, racism, oppression,” while 20% said the monument symbolized “Italian American culture, American history, explorer, pride of neighborhood.”
Following the city’s proposal, for more than 5½ hours during a virtual Zoom meeting Wednesday, nearly four dozen people passionately testified on their visions for the statue. Over half of the testimony — delivered by residents, scholars, and politicians — was in favor of keeping the statue at the plaza, leading some to question the city’s polling methods.
Berg told the commission that the survey was designed similarly to past polls on public matters, and was publicized by local print media, TV, social media, and physical signs posted near the statue.
Those defending the statue said it celebrates Italian American heritage and represents family history and memories tied to Columbus Day festivities. Some questioned what precedent removing the statue would set.
Others, meanwhile, asserted that the area “needs more statues, not less statues,” suggesting that the city keep the Columbus statue and build a monument nearby as a tribute to Indigenous people.
The statue, said Rich Cedrone, president of the Friends of Marconi Plaza, “means the world to the Italian community.”
Michael J. Lewis, a leading architectural historian, a professor, and architecture critic for the Wall Street Journal, also voiced his support for keeping the statue, telling the commission it represents “the first monumental expression of the Italian presence in the population of the United States,” and “an inspiring symbol of the American capacity to accept and welcome new populations.”
But those against the statue say it’s a painful reminder of atrocities against Indigenous people directed by Columbus. Some called for the statue to be replaced by a monument to the Lenni Lenape, the tribe native to the Philadelphia region.
One member of the tribe said he and his son play in the park near Marconi Plaza, and he’s had to explain the statue’s painful origins to his child.
Several Italian American residents also said Columbus and his deeds do not represent their heritage and must come down.
“It’s not about erasing history, it’s about correcting it,” said Caitlin Borelli, an Italian American resident of Philadelphia.
The debate comes as cities across the nation continue to grapple with commemorations to controversial figures, including in Chicago, where officials have similarly covered and erected a fence around a city Columbus statue following clashes at the site. Columbus monuments have been vandalized in Boston and Baltimore and removed from public locations in Wilmington, Camden, and other cities.
If removed, it would be the second statue taken down in Philadelphia since the national uprising following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police. Officials in June removed a statue of former mayor and police commissioner Frank L. Rizzo from the front of the Municipal Services Building.
The Delaware River Waterfront Corp. also is reconsidering the Columbus monument at Penn’s Landing. In June, crews covered the base of the monument, also asking for public input on its future.
The Historical Commission will weigh in Friday on the city’s proposal for the Columbus statue. The Art Commission is then expected to vote Aug. 12.