Court ruling allows plywood box over Christopher Columbus statue in Philadelphia

Court ruling allows plywood box over Christopher Columbus statue in Philadelphia

A state court ruling will allow a plywood box to remain — for the moment — over a statue of Christopher Columbus that the city has been trying to remove from a south Philadelphia park since the explorer became a focus amid protests last year.

The Commonwealth Court ruling late Saturday night vacated a decision earlier in the day by a Common Pleas Court judge to allow immediate removal of the box covering the statue on Marconi Plaza.

City representative Kevin Lessard said Saturday night that removal of the covering during the holiday weekend “would pose a serious public safety risk.” He earlier said officials would stop any attempt to remove the covering prior to the state court hearing.

Common Pleas Court Judge Paula Patrick issued a ruling Friday in response to a request by the Friends of Marconi Plaza. Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration quickly filed notice that it would appeal — and said it won’t remove the box in the meantime, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Attorney George Bochetto, who represents supporters of the 144-year-old statue, had vowed that it would be visible by the time a scheduled Sunday parade concluded at the plaza.

“If the city doesn’t take it down, we’ll take it down for them,” he said.

Kenney spokesperson Kevin Lessard said the statue should remain boxed up “in the best interest and public safety of all Philadelphians” and any destruction of public property would be a crime.

In Philadelphia, a city with a deep Italian heritage, supporters say they consider Columbus an emblem of that heritage. Kenney said Columbus was venerated for centuries as an explorer but had a “much more infamous” history, enslaving Indigenous people and imposing punishments such as severing limbs or even death.

Kenney earlier signed an executive order changing the name of the city’s annual Columbus Day holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day. Monday will be the first city holiday under the new name.

After the unrest following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd last year, Kenney characterized removing the statue as a matter of public safety. Patrick, however, wrote that the city had failed to provide evidence that the statue’s removal was necessary to protect the public, calling the confrontations “isolated civil unrest.”

The judge ruled in August that the statue could remain in the plaza, calling the decision to remove it “baffling” and unsupported by law and based on insufficient evidence. The ruling overturned a decision by a city licensing board that upheld a July 2020 decision by the city historical commission to remove the statue.

Meanwhile, another 106-foot-tall Christopher Columbus monument at Penn’s Landing on the Delaware River will be allowed to remain in place with coverings removed for the foreseeable future under a lawsuit settlement announced last month, the paper reported.

The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, a nonprofit that manages the park, and America 500 Anniversary Corporation, which had raised funds to donate the monument in 1992, said panels placed around the monument’s base following the unrest would be removed as part of the settlement.

The coverings included chalkboards intended “to allow the public to express themselves during a time of civil unrest,” waterfront corporation president Joe Forkin said. He said officials would remove them “and continue our contractual obligation to maintain the monument as it is” but remained committed to public outreach and allowing expression of a variety of viewpoints. Another public engagement campaign would soon begin, he said.

The Robert Venturi-designed work is “a reimagined obelisk” topped by a weather vane representing the colors of Italy, the country of the explorer’s birth, and Spain, the country for which he sailed. It also was intended to represent “the role that all immigrants played in shaping Philadelphia and the United States,” according to the nonprofit group’s website

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