Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philly grapples with statues of Frank Rizzo, Christopher Columbus, and more a year after protests

The city is still grappling with place names and monuments that honor people whose legacies many find offensive — and how to implement a better system of commemoration going forward.

Protesters attempt to burn and bring down the Frank Rizzo statue outside of the Municipal Services Building in Philadelphia last year.
Protesters attempt to burn and bring down the Frank Rizzo statue outside of the Municipal Services Building in Philadelphia last year.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

The protesters who made their way through Center City on the first day Philadelphia saw mass demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd were looking for places to direct their anger.

They came upon the statue of Frank L. Rizzo, the late mayor and police commissioner whose legacy so perfectly captured the style of policing they were fighting against that the monument could have been placed there for the occasion. Rizzo supporters got the statue installed outside the Municipal Services Building in 1999. Mayor Jim Kenney ordered it removed in the middle of the night amid the sweeping protests last June.

A year later, Philadelphia is still grappling with place names and monuments that honor people whose legacies many find offensive — and how to implement a better system of commemoration going forward.

There has been a renewed push, for instance, to rename Taney Street, which is believed to be named after the U.S. Supreme Court justice who authored the racist Dred Scott decision denying citizenship rights to African Americans. Meanwhile, significant questions remain about the two statues that became flashpoints last year: the Rizzo statue, which the city is storing at a secret location, and the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza, the fate of which remains before a state court.

After the protests, the Kenney administration launched a commission to review current commemorations and formalize a process for green-lighting future ones.

“Who the city visibly commemorates is important to the mayor,” Kenney spokesperson Kevin Lessard said in a statement last week. “The mayor would like to see more influential Philadelphians of color represented in public monuments.”

‘The social consciousness is changing’

Adam Waterbear DePaul, a member of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania’s tribal council, has long hoped for greater awareness of the history and current experiences of indigenous people in the Philadelphia area.

He didn’t anticipate that such a moment would be sparked by the police killing of an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis. But ever since then, the Nation has been inundated by people “curious about us, about indigenous issues, really about all human rights issues.”

Consistent controversies in cities across the country have included renaming Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day — as Kenney did this year — or removing statues of Columbus, who founded slave colonies at the outset of the genocide against the Americas’ indigenous populations.

“Obviously, it comes out from an incredibly unfortunate circumstance, but it’s a great thing to see that the social consciousness is changing in this way,” DePaul said.

» READ MORE: The Rizzo statue disappeared. Philadelphia is still unpacking its legacy.

The Nation hasn’t taken a stance on whether governments should get rid of Columbus Day or remove monuments. But it supports the celebration of Indigenous People’s Day and wants to see more accurate portrayals of the area’s indigenous communities, in education and monuments.

“Every part of Lenape history in current life has been incredibly erased, especially here in our Eastern woodland homelands, and all of it needs to be brought more into the public consciousness through education,” DePaul said. “And it would be great for the city to have a part in that.”

That could mean a physical monument, he said, but only if the city works with the Nation to shape the design, “because so many monuments are problematic.”

“They tend to root us in the past,” DePaul said. “They foster the narrative that the Lenape and all Native Americans are a people who once lived long ago, rather than a people today who drive cars and have jobs and have iPhones and walk among you.”

A new approach

Such an inclusive process is what the Kenney administration hopes to achieve with its Landmarks and Monuments Review Commission. The commission has created a database of 7,000 place names, public art, and memorials, and is crafting a process to review the commemorations.

The city’s chief cultural officer, Kelly Lee, who is leading the effort, was unavailable for an interview, Lessard said.

The commission should be careful not to move too quickly to erase potentially problematic names or monuments, said Ken Lum, cofounder of the Philadelphia-based Monument Lab, a “public art and history studio” that says it facilitates “participatory approaches to public engagement and collective memory.”

“That needs to be done with great sensitivity because it could be misconstrued as some sort of extreme [political correctness] project or something like that,” said Lum, an artist and University of Pennsylvania professor. “The exercise could be a very worthwhile pedagogical learning time for the city.”

Lawsuits still unfolding

The fight over the statues isn’t over, despite the monuments being out of sight. Lawyer George Bochetto has filed lawsuits on behalf of groups upset with the city’s handling of the Rizzo and Columbus statues.

The Frank L. Rizzo Monument Committee, which raised money to commission the statue, is challenging the Kenney administration’s handling of the removal, and seeking to have it returned to them. Bochetto said he knows where the statue is but can’t disclose the location due to a confidentiality agreement in the federal case.

It’s “in a city warehouse, sitting on a flatbed truck in a prone position, somewhere damaged,” he said in an interview.

Bochetto also represents a group suing the city over the Columbus statue. The 145-year-old statue is still at Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia, but has been encased in plywood since last June. With Kenney’s support, the city’s Art Commission and Historical Commission voted last year to remove it.

» READ MORE: Philly lawmaker and Italian American groups sue Mayor Kenney for renaming Columbus Day

Bochetto accuses the city commissions of failing to follow their own rules and procedures when it comes to the removal of statues.

”Both of them are kangaroo courts,” Bochetto said of the two commissions that sided with Kenney’s administration.

The city is preparing to remove the Columbus statue even as the court battle unfolds.

“While these matters work their way through the court system, the city is laying the groundwork to prepare for the statue’s eventual removal,” Lessard said in a statement. “In addition to satisfying any requirements set forth by the two commissions or the court, the ultimate timing will also depend on availability of the conservation team and execution of the contracting process.”

The Rizzo statue still carries political weight.

On the campaign trail this year as he seeks a second term, District Attorney Larry Krasner, a criminal justice reform advocate, has framed its removal as evidence of the progressive direction in which many Philadelphia voters have gone in recent years. Krasner won a primary challenge last month in a landslide.

“There is one factor that’s going to be very hard for anyone to get around, which is that the Frank Rizzo statue is gone,” he said early in the campaign. “And that says a lot in the city, where Rizzo’s influence even now continues, but where his shadow has been disappearing more and more over time.”