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Philly’s Battle of Columbus

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Philly’s Battle of Columbus

Two monuments to the explorer are hanging on—for now. October 11, 2021
The Social Order

Philadelphia has two Christopher Columbus monuments. The older and more famous is Italian sculptor Emanuele Caroni’s 20-foot-tall statue of the explorer, located in Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia. Caroni’s statue was originally made for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in the city’s Fairmont Park section, where it stood outside the U.S. Government Building. Dedicated on October 12, 1876, the statue was viewed by thousands of visitors to the Centennial, including poet Walt Whitman, a frequent attendee and champion of the expo despite his losing out to Bayard Taylor in the event’s poetry competition.

In April 1959, Caroni’s statue was moved to Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia, where it was placed inside a railing bearing original wire from the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. For decades, the Columbus statue was a focal point for tourists, neighbors, and children who played ball or rode bicycles around the tableau. The George Floyd riots of June 2020 changed everything, however. Decades of activist nitpicking about the viability of honoring Columbus suddenly came to a head, resulting in the city’s enclosing Caroni’s masterwork in a box—confining it in a stand-up coffin, really—to protect it from protesters intent on its destruction. The boxed-up Columbus also had another purpose: to hide the face of the father of “genocide and native abuse” until the city decided what to do with him.

Meantime, on the other side of town, at Penn’s Landing, activists set their sights on another Columbus monument, a tall structure that looks like it was built with Lego blocks. In fact, it’s the work of world-famous Philadelphia architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, erected in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s maiden voyage (with funds raised by disgraced politician Vincent Fumo and then-mayor Ed Rendell). The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, the owner of the monument, announced in a statement that it would cover up the statue’s base, where the words “Christopher Columbus Monument” are visible, until further notice.

“DRWC recognizes that the Columbus Monument is a focus of controversy and pain for many people in the Philadelphia region and around the country as it fails to address atrocities committed against indigenous people,” the statement read in part. “With this understanding, the monument does not align with DRWC’s mission to create and maintain a safe and welcome space for all.”

Both Columbus monuments seemed as doomed as the Frank Rizzo statue on Thomas Paine Plaza, directly across from City Hall. Woke activists had been campaigning for years to get the Rizzo statue demolished or moved to another location, such as the Mummers Museum on 2nd Street. Rizzo, activists contended, had fostered racial unrest, such as when he had police strip and handcuff members of the Black Panther Party in August 1970. Opposition to the Rizzo monument finally crystallized during the Floyd riots, when what was formerly a topic for debate—Was Rizzo really a racist?—became permanently enshrined as fact because Black Lives Matter said so. During the summer of 2020, rioters spray-painted the statue, dressed it in a bra and panties, and set it on fire. Mayor Jim Kenney, in a move that seemed to mimic Baltimore’s removal of Confederate statues, orchestrated the statue’s removal in the middle of the night. It’s currently in storage by the Department of Public Property until it can be donated or relocated.

With the Rizzo statue gone, Columbus became the city’s Public Enemy No. 1. Columbus statues were already being removed and beheaded around the country. Across the Delaware River, Camden, New Jersey had dismantled (and smashed to pieces) its Columbus statue in Farnham Park.

The self-righteous fury with which activists destroyed Columbus statues in 2020 traces its origins to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, a book filled with half-truths and historical distortions where Columbus is concerned. Zinn’s portrait of the fifteenth-century explorer as a perpetuator of genocide and rape and the mutilator of natives is by now part of the Left’s catechism. When demonstrators arrived at Marconi Plaza to protest the statue, or perhaps even to topple it, neighborhood groups came out to defend it, some armed with bats and guns.

Mayor Kenney’s hatred of these vigilante groups, many of whom supported President Trump, led to the boxing up of Caroni’s Columbus after a reporter from an anarchist group, Incite to Riot, claimed that he had been harassed and attacked by some of the statue’s defenders.

Because the Caroni statue stands on public land, the city wanted it moved out of the public eye. To do that, it had to get the approval of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, once a trusted board of learned and knowledgeable public art connoisseurs but now a woke political arm with appointees hired to follow City Hall’s every whim. This once-venerable commission had helped save the priceless Maxfield Parrish mural, The Dream Garden, in 1999 when the city wanted to sell it to Steve Wynn for a Las Vegas casino. Commissioners voted 10–2 to remove the Caroni statue.

Commissioner Kim Washington, in explaining her vote for removal, said, “I hate to say that as a member of the commission, because of course, we respect history, we respect public art, but above all I respect life. . . . We’re talking about people showing up with . . . guns and baseball bats and hammers.” Commissioner John Mattioni, one of the two to vote against moving the statue, said that it should remain in the plaza as a recognition of American history, however painful, and referred to Columbus as “a product of his times.” Though it approved the removal, the commission cautioned that the statue should be moved to a secure location by an organization adept at relocating important works of art.

Mayor Kenney then added insult to injury by changing the city’s official designation of Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. Things could not have looked worse for Columbus’s defenders, until two important court cases were resolved in September 2021. In the first case, a lawsuit settlement confirmed that the Venturi–Brown Columbus monument in Penn’s Landing could stay put and that the coverings around the base of the statue would come down. In the second case, Common Pleas Court Judge Paula Patrick ruled that the city’s decision to remove the now-boarded-up statue of Columbus from Marconi Plaza was “unsupported by law and based on insufficient evidence.”

“It is baffling to this court as to how the city of Philadelphia wants to remove the statue without any legal basis,” Judge Patrick stated. “The city’s entire argument and case is devoid of any legal foundation.” The city had failed to provide an adequate opportunity for public input about the statue’s future, Patrick wrote.

The city plans to appeal Judge Patrick’s ruling. Defenders of the 144-year-old statue are equally determined—they want the wooden box removed, and they are working to secure funding for protective Plexiglass walls and surveillance cameras. The Columbus battles rage on.

Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

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