Appeals court keeps alive challenge to Pittsburgh’s efforts to remove Columbus statue

Columbus statue
There has also been controversy surrounding a Christopher Columbus statue in Philadelphia, seen here at South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza.

PITTSBURGH — A Pennsylvania appeals court has kept alive an Italian heritage group’s challenge to efforts by the city of Pittsburgh to remove a statue of Christopher Columbus from a city park.

The Commonwealth Court on Friday sent the dispute over the 13-foot bronze and granite Schenley Park statue back to Allegheny County Common Pleas Court for further consideration of issues raised by opponents of the removal.

The Italian Sons and Daughters of America filed suit in October 2020 after the Pittsburgh Art Commission voted to remove the statue and then-mayor Bill Peduto also recommended its removal. The group argued that the mayor could not override a 1955 city council ordinance that cleared the way for installation of the 800-pound statue. City attorneys argued that the legislation was more akin to a resolution accepting a gift and no council action to rescind it was needed.

Common Pleas Judge John McVay Jr., after urging both sides for two years to work out a solution such as relocation, ruled in 2022 that because the statue is in a city-owned park, it represents government speech. But the Commonwealth Court wrote Friday that McVay erred in concluding that the group’s claims “are barred in their entirety,” rejecting what it called the idea that claims of violations of the city’s charter, code and ordinance were “irrelevant procedural quibbles.”

The appellate court did reject the group’s challenge to McVay’s refusal to remove himself from the case.

Philadelphia attorney George Bochetto, who filed the lawsuit and subsequent appeal on behalf of the group, hailed the ruling and called on the new mayor to “sit down with me to reach a resolution without further costly litigation.” A message seeking comment was sent Sunday to a spokesperson for the Pittsburgh mayor.

The Schenley Park statue, vandalized several times, was wrapped in plastic in 2020, but local news reports indicate that much of the covering has since worn away or perhaps been removed, although the head remains covered.

Disputes over Columbus statues have roiled other cities across the nation, including Philadelphia on the other side of the state, where supporters in a city with a deep Italian heritage say they consider Columbus an emblem of that heritage. Former Mayor Jim Kenney, however, said Columbus, venerated for centuries as an explorer, had a “much more infamous” history, enslaving Indigenous people and imposing harsh punishments.

After 2020 protests about racial injustice and the statue, Kenney ordered the 1876 statue’s removal, calling it a matter of public safety. But a judge reversed that decision, saying the city had failed to provide evidence of a public safety need for removal. In December 2022, a plywood box covering the statue was removed by judicial order. The group that fought for retention of the statue and removal of the covering filed suit last year alleging that officials conspired to abuse the legal process in trying to remove the statue.

Columbus statues have been removed in nearby Camden, New Jersey, and Wilmington, Delaware. In Richmond, Virginia, a statue of Christopher Columbus was torn down, set on fire and thrown into a lake. In Columbia, South Carolina, the first U.S. city named for Columbus, a statue of the explorer was removed after it was vandalized several times. Another vandalized statue in Boston also was removed from its pedestal.