In mid-June, people armed with guns, baseball bats, and other weapons gathered in Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia. These people were there to defend the Christopher Columbus statue on the east side of the plaza, which they believed would be targeted by Black Lives Matter protestors. After outbreaks of violence, including an instance in which defenders attacked an independent journalist, Mayor Jim Kenney issued a proposal to remove the statue. Now, the statue is one step closer to being taken down following the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s vote in favor of removal.
The commission ultimately had to weigh in on the removal because of a city preservation ordinance that prohibits the demolition of a designated structure, which also includes removal from its site. The commission was tasked with determining whether removal would negatively impact the historical value of the statue.
The Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza was originally installed in Fairmount Park as a part of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition and was moved to Marconi Plaza one hundred years later. In 2017, the statue was placed on the Philadelphia Historic Register. The statue qualified for the register under criterion A and B– for its association with the “heritage or cultural characteristics of the City,” and its association with “an event of importance to the history of the City.” The commission, therefore, was not required to consider that statue within its current location, despite repeated attempts by attorney George Bochetto, who represented groups interested in keeping the statue, to convince the commission otherwise. Bochetto also falsely claimed that the statue’s location was intimately connected to its historical designation, a fact which was refuted by the person who designated the statue herself.
The City argued that removing the statue was justified on the basis of public safety. Many speakers also argued that the statue itself would be endangered if it remained standing. Commissioner Kim Washington said that both these concerns impacted her to vote in favor of removal.
“If any public art comes to the point where you have citizens who are coming with guns, with baseball bats, with hammers … remove the public art, and I hate to say that. As a member of the Commission, of course we respect history and public art, but above all I respect life, human life … what happens to it in the future, if it comes back, that’s a very different conversation,” Washington said.
After an hour of deliberation, the Historical Commission voted 10 to 2 to approve removal. The approval stipulated that the statue must be placed in an undisclosed, secure location in the city, that an established conservator handle its removal, that the city file annual reports to the Commission on the statue’s condition, and that the statue be documented using a digital scan.