Judge to decide if South Philly Columbus statue can be uncovered

Columbus statue_02
Workers put up plywood to cover the Christopher Columbus statue last year at Marconi Plaza.
PHOTO: Metro File

Organizers of Philadelphia’s Columbus Day Parade are hoping they will be able to see the likeness of the Italian explorer in time for the October holiday’s festivities after a judge ordered the city not to remove the contentious statue.

The Christopher Columbus sculpture at Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia has been enclosed in plywood since clashes last summer between factions at odds over the future of the monument.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration, which has sought to remove the statue, is appealing last week’s ruling reversing the decision of the Philadelphia Historic Commission and a zoning review board.

Lawyers for the Friends of Marconi Plaza filed a motion Monday asking a judge to compel the city to get rid of the plywood in favor of a plexiglass box paid for by a local Italian American group.

The plywood structure violates the city’s code because it alters the historically-designated statue without approval from the relevant commissions, attorney George Bochetto writes in the petition.

While court proceedings continue, the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania Sons and Daughters of Italy has offered to fund the construction of a plexiglass covering to protect the sculpture and restore its visibility, according to the court documents.

“Columbus Day is quickly approaching and Appellants intend to hold a parade and gathering at the Statue to celebrate their Italian heritage,” a footnote in the motion says.

Kevin Lessard, a Kenney spokesperson, said the city does not intend to remove the plywood. He called the recent motion “misguided.”

“We continue to believe it is in the best interest and public safety of all Philadelphians that the statue remains secured in its box,” Lessard said in an email Tuesday.

Kenney signed an executive order in February replacing Columbus Day, to be celebrated Oct. 11 this year, with Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the city’s calendar. That change is being challenged through a separate federal lawsuit.

The Sons and Daughters of Italy did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday; however, on their website, the organization celebrated last week’s ruling, calling it “the first step in reclaiming our heritage and dignity as Americans of Italian descent.”

Kenney’s administration is asking the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court to reconsider the decision, made by Judge Paula Patrick.

Patrick, in an order issued Tuesday, Aug. 17, wrote that the city’s “entire argument and case is devoid of any legal foundation.” She found that the administration didn’t follow its own procedure or draw up a detailed report on the process of removing the statue.

She referred to last summer’s violence at Marconi Plaza as “transient and isolated incidents,” noting that there has been no trouble historically or since June 2020.

Following the unrest in response to George Floyd’s killing and national criticism toward statues of Columbus and others, vigilantes showed up to “protect” the statue. They allegedly assaulted a cameraman from a left-wing alternative media outlet.

About 700 police officers responded to the plaza June 23, when a Black Lives Matter march collided with a pro-Columbus group. A Black photographer told Metro he was punched and called a slur.

The Philadelphia Art Commission approved a request from Kenney’s office in August 2020 to relocate the monument.

The statue was commissioned by an Italian American organization for the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 and moved from Fairmount Park to Marconi Plaza in 1976.


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