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After Charlottesville, spotlight falls on Rizzo memorials

City Councilwoman Helen Gym is arguing for Rizzo's retirement. Jane Golden, head of Philadelphia Mural Arts, said she intends to initiate discussions about the Rizzo mural.

Black Lives Matter  member Asa Khalif berates Philadelphia police after the hood he placed atop the head of the Frank Rizzo statue outside the Municipal Services Building was removed Aug. 12, 2016.
Black Lives Matter member Asa Khalif berates Philadelphia police after the hood he placed atop the head of the Frank Rizzo statue outside the Municipal Services Building was removed Aug. 12, 2016.Read moreAVI STEINHARDT

As many Philadelphians watched in horror as protests over the planned removal of a statue memorializing Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va., turned to deadly violence, a number of them had the same thought.

They turned their attention to Center City's Thomas Paine Plaza and its statue of Frank L. Rizzo, the former law-and-order mayor and police commissioner known for tough, even brutal, tactics aimed at minorities including African Americans and homosexuals.

Now, several members of City Council are calling for the Rizzo statue's retirement. City Councilwoman Helen Gym said she intends to initiate a public process as soon as Council comes back to session in September to explore whether the statue should be relocated or decommissioned. She said it was not clear how that process would unfold.

"These very real issues — these wounds of racism that exist — we have to confront those," Gym said. "The question really is whether the statue belongs in the center of our city."

Meanwhile, a second likeness of Rizzo, in South Philadelphia's Italian Market, has over the last several years become the most frequently defaced mural in the city. Jane Golden, head of Philadelphia Mural Arts, said that she intends to initiate discussions about whether the Rizzo mural ought to be removed, too.

"The mural has been both beloved and reviled since its creation in 1995 by the artist Diane Keller," Golden said. "Given our history of community-driven projects, I think it's time to have a conversation about the future of the mural.

"Our next step is to talk to our colleagues in the city and rapidly make some decisions. We are going to do this right away," she added.

For City Councilwoman Cindy Bass, the conversation is long overdue. She said that, growing up in North Philadelphia, Rizzo loomed large. She believes his statue has no place on municipal grounds.

"He was not a beloved figure," she said. "He saw our communities as one-dimensional, without value or merit, not worthy of attention or resources. … So that statue has for a long time been a point of conversation in terms of: Why is it downtown for all to see, without a thorough accounting of its history? Frank Rizzo with a nightstick in his cummerbund — why isn't that the image that was cast into a statue?"

"There's a reason why: because people don't want to remember," she added. "But for those of us who are Philadelphians who were there at that time, we remember it all."

Mayor Kenney also indicated he is open to discussing the statue's removal.

"We think now is a good time to have that conversation about the statue's future," Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said in an email. "We need to figure out the proper forum for that conversation in a serious, structured way, but now is the right time."

Last year, City Council President Darrell L. Clarke also said he had questioned the location of the statue, near City Hall, since it was installed in 1998.

Councilman Derek S. Green said he wouldn't have supported siting the statue at the Municipal Services Building if he had been in office back then. Now, though, he thinks it's a conversation that must bring in a broad range of voices.

"I agree with the mayor the conversation needs to be had," he said. "Because of  the events of this weekend, it brought up a lot of debate regarding public figures in art in various cities around the country. But Frank Rizzo is not the same as other statues that were put up in parts of the country, especially in the South, that were put up in specific reaction to civil-rights laws being passed. It was put up to honor a past mayor and police commissioner."

Black Lives Matter and Coalition for Real Justice activists last year called for the statue's removal, holding protests and collecting hundreds of signatures on an online petition. There's also now a petition urging the statue's preservation.

The outcry comes as cities are rethinking their monuments: In Maryland, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh outlined plans to remove four Confederate memorials, while House Speaker Michael Busch called for the removal of the statue of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney, who penned the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision upholding slavery (and for whom Philadelphia's Taney Street is named). Officials have outlined similar proposals in Memphis; Lexington, Ky.; and Jacksonville, Fla.

Failing to remove Taney's statue, Busch told the Baltimore Sun, "would send a message that we condone what took place, that slavery is all right."

Not everyone agrees with that approach.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in May argued against removing such memorials. "When you start wiping out your history, sanitizing your history to make you feel better, it's a bad thing," she said on the Fox News show Fox & Friends.

The situation in Philadelphia is a little different. Civil War heroes here were Union generals. There are some statues of slaveholders, George Washington among them, as well as a monument to the man who invented Columbusing. But there hasn't been a movement to discard those. The city's Bill Cosby murals have since been painted over. So, the spotlight is on Rizzo.

The Rizzo mural was created in response to popular demand, after Mural Arts created a portrait of Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr.

"We received a petition that had literally thousands of signatures asking for a Frank Rizzo mural," Golden said.

The organization hesitated but ultimately chose the Italian Market as a place that at least seemed to have an affinity to the former mayor.

One of those Rizzo champions is Ken Mugler, who served as Rizzo's press secretary from 1976 to 1978.

"He certainly was an excellent mayor for eight years," said Mugler, who now lives just outside Doylestown. "I think he represents to many Philadelphians of that era and that age — I just turned 81 — he represents a time when Philadelphia was a very safe place to live. The streets were clean, people weren't afraid to go into Center City at any time in the day or evening for entertainment. You have a situation now where people are getting shot in Rittenhouse Square. It seems to me that there isn't a safe place in Philadelphia now."

Former City Councilman Frank Rizzo Jr., now 74, said his father was an advocate for all law-abiding Philadelphians. Many former police officers contacted him on Tuesday, he said, worried the statue was at risk. The thing about his father was, above all, "he loved this city," Rizzo Jr. said. So much so that he died in his campaign office on July 16, 1991, running to be elected again as mayor.

Rizzo Jr. said he once encountered an African American woman paying her respects to the statue. The woman had walked into the mayor's office seeking help for her son, who was spinning out of control. Rizzo Sr. personally called him on the phone, and told him to come to City Hall. He got him a job that day. "She said, 'He helped me out, and saved my son's life.'"

Gym, who spurred the conversation with a Monday night tweet, drew praise as well as backlash — including a widely shared post from Marc Ferguson, administrator of the Facebook group Taking Our South Philly Streets Back, that called the movement to take down the statue hateful and divisive.

Still, the protests and nearly annual appearance of spray-painted epithets and paint balloons marring Rizzo's likeness in the Italian Market bespeak a different view.

"I think it's clear that Frank Rizzo means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and I understand that," Gym said. "But I don't think there's any question that his legacy is one that's been seriously tainted by racism, and by his attacks on African American students who were peaceably marching. It's also important for people to remember that memorials aren't just about a frozen past. It's about what we choose to honor in our present."

Golden said the issue had been on her mind. Mural Arts is running a project this fall called Monument Lab, addressing the question: What's an appropriate monument for the city? Panel conversations include one, on Oct. 18, about removing Confederate monuments in the South.

Penny Balkin Bach, executive director of the Association for Public Art, last year said there was a process for relocating or decommissioning public artworks.

"It's always an option, but it needs to be considered in a very thoughtful, careful way," she said. "It's complicated to even site a sculpture anywhere in the city, and it should be equally complicated to remove it."