Commission unanimously approves city’s removal of Columbus statue from Marconi Plaza

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The Philadelphia Art Commission has unanimously decided to approve the city’s request to remove the Christopher Columbus statue in South Philadelphia and place it in storage, at least temporarily.
The Marconi Plaza statue was a gift from the Italian government in 1876. The commission said it deserves to be on display somewhere, and not in storage permanently. 
The commission instructed the city to find a new place for the statue — explicitly not on city land. 

Chairman Alan Greenberg said the commission understands it may take a while to determine where the statue should ultimately reside, but it will require updates every six months to make sure the process moves forward.

“We want to see this statue have a place somewhere,” he said. “It shouldn’t be on public land — that was made very clear — but there are plenty of opportunities to move it elsewhere, and the city now needs to embark on a process to make that happen.”

In hearings regarding the future of the statue, protesters said they felt threatened by its presence, adding that is not the purpose of art. About 70 people testified both about the pain of seeing Columbus glorified — given the modern understanding of his flaws — and the pride that Italian-Americans take in his achievements. 

“It’s not to suggest that one side is right or wrong, but it is to suggest that there is a bona fide dispute that is leading to tension, potential violence, and that’s not what the function of public art ought to be,” said Greenberg.

The uproar began in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Anti-racist protesters across the country started to tear down or deface statues of historically racist figures, like the 15th-century Italian explorer. In June, for instance, the statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo was defaced and ultimately removed from the Municipal Services Building, along with the mural of him in the Italian Market.

A few weeks later, angry South Philadelphians, some armed, swarmed the Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza to defend it from protesters. 

As the outrage became violent, the city decided to box it up, in the meantime, as to “preserve it.” 

Depending on where you stand you can still see part of the head but most of the Columbus statue is no longer visible @KYWNewsradio

— Andrew Kramer (@Philly_Kramer) June 16, 2020

Mayor Jim Kenney had previously acknowledged the complicated history behind the sculpture, and he was in favor of removing it, as it had become a safety issue. He involved the Art Commission to help conclude the fate of the statue.

Now, the commission is looking into replacing the statue with another figure in Marconi Plaza, as supporters of the statue argued it was an important symbol of Italian-American history. 

“The park is not the statue, but the statue is meaningful in that place,” Greenberg said. “There was a lot of discussion about the journey of the Italian-American immigrant community, and that’s a story worth telling, but the heroes of that one may be ordinary people rather than a selected icon.”

The commission intends to host a robust public discussion about a replacement figure that would best honor Italian heritage. There is no timeline yet for the removal or replacement.