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Rizzo statue's departure stirs old fears, new sorrows

The decision to move the statue of the former mayor and police commissioner from its place outside the Municipal Services Building unbottled a torrent of emotion.

John Blakla, 77, of Mayfair, said moving the Rizzo statue is “a waste of time.”
John Blakla, 77, of Mayfair, said moving the Rizzo statue is “a waste of time.”Read moreAnna Orso

Whenever 53-year-old Gilberto Gonzalez walked past the Rizzo statue, he felt the old fear.

"In my neighborhood, we were afraid of the cops, and they were Rizzo's cops," said the artist and community activist, who grew up in the city's Spring Garden section. "We were constantly harassed by the police."

He remembers being 7 or 8, playing with friends inside an abandoned house, when police ordered them all outside, telling the kids to get on their knees as if they were suspects about to be arrested. Neighbors kept yelling, "These are just kids, let them go!"

Finally, Gonzalez said, he and the other children were released. The memory stayed.

So on Friday, amid the torrent of emotion over the Kenney administration's decision to move the statue of the former mayor and police commissioner from its place outside the Municipal Services Building, Gonzalez was among those glad to see it go.

"He might have done good for some communities, but for communities of color, it was a different story for us," he said.

At the Italian Market in South Philadelphia, a neighborhood once synonymous with the Italian American mayor, some people seethed.

"Are they going to tear down the Sphinx next?" a woman near Ninth and Carpenter Streets said to no one in particular.

Epiphany "Pip" DeLuca, who owns Villa di Roma restaurant, said he wished Kenney's administration had provided more detail about where the statue might end up. Perhaps, he wondered, it will go to South Philadelphia. The neighbors, he said, would like that.

"Frank Rizzo," DeLuca said, "was South Philly."

Anna Marie Monacelli and Vanessa Dattilo sat outdoors near Ninth and Christian Street, digesting the news and coming to the conclusion that Rizzo was simply misunderstood.

"He didn't care about color," said Datillo, a 65-year-old South Philadelphia native. "It was more, 'If you do the crime, you do the time.' "

Monacelli, a 77-year-old retired crossing guard, said she worried the city will next try to take down the Rizzo mural — long a target of vandalism — that looms over the Italian Market. If the statue must be moved, she said, it should go to a museum, where it can be protected.

"It's a shame, because it's been there for years," she said. "I think it's stupid, but who am I?"

The Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler said he supported the move from public property. "It never should have been put there in the first place," he said.

Tyler said he viewed the Rizzo statue in the same way he would view a Confederate flag or a statue of a Southern Civil War hero.

"It's very easy for Northerners to see what's wrong in that picture," Tyler said. "It's hard for them to see the same thing in this Northern context. The ways in which the Southern general resonates with the heritage for some who long for the days of  the Confederacy to rise again, this statue is a representation to black people of terror."

Michael Coard, a lawyer, activist, and talk-show host, tweeted: "Rizzo statue going, going, GONE!"

In an interview, he said, "Good riddance to bad rubbish. And that's not hyperbole. He was a man who as police commissioner and mayor presided over the first city in American history to be prosecuted by the Justice Department for widespread police brutality. … And we're not talking about Philadelphia, Miss., we're talking about Philadelphia,  Pa."

After months of protests and public arguments — and amid a national debate over Confederate statues and symbols — the Kenney administration announced it would move the bronze statue from the spot where it has stood for nearly two decades.

Alan Greenberger, chair of the Art Commission, said the city government was working to "to figure out a site. When they figure that out, they'll come to us with a proposal and we'll work it out then."

William Minor, 50, of Center City, said he understands concerns about police brutality. If the statue has to move, he said, he thinks it should end up somewhere more distant, like Fairmount Park, a location less central than the Municipal Services Building.

John Blakla, 77, stood next to the statue on Friday and decried the city's decision as a waste of time.

"I actually liked Rizzo," he said.

Blakla, who lives in Mayfair, was a lifelong Democrat who supported Rizzo. If the city really wants to move the statue, he said, he knows the perfect spot: the City Hall courtyard.

Keith Townsend, a 54-year-old retiree who grew up in Wynnefield and now lives in Cobbs Creek, sat in the statue's shadow on Friday, waiting to catch the 31 bus home. Townsend said his older relatives were part of the 1960s civil rights movement and faced mistreatment by a Philadelphia police force dominated by Rizzo.

Where does Townsend want the statue moved to? "The junkyard."

For Dominique McCall, 27, the announcement showed that "people are finally opening their eyes and ears" to conversations about race, about the way public symbols can speak loudly even in their silence.

For others, emotions were complicated. Christopher Norris, a journalist and activist known as Flood the Drummer, called the decision "a bittersweet moment."

"Part of the community will be joyful and happy," he said, "and in other neighborhoods, it will be seen as a need to ramp it up and get riled up. To them, it will seem that the liberal mayor is caving in to the African American community."

Staff writers Cassie Owens and Stephan Salisbury contributed to this article