Aug 23, 2023
Box must come off South Philly's Columbus statue, court says, because the city didn't follow its own rules
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The box has come off the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza, where the controversial monument is likely to remain for the foreseeable future — unless Mayor Jim Kenney's administration decides to try to convince the Pa. Supreme Court to take up an appeal.
A Commonwealth Court panel on Friday ruled against the city in two pending cases, the latest decisions in the legal battle that has surrounded the statue for nearly three years.
On Saturday morning, the red, white, and green plywood remained, though Friends of Marconi Plaza attorney George Bochetto told Billy Penn that city officials had notified him following the court's ruling on Friday that it would be removed "promptly."
"It's a wooden box that should take two carpenters about 20 minutes to take down," Bochetto said.
On Sunday evening, that dismantling began, according to 6ABC and videos posted to social media, and was complete shortly before 11 p.m.
Full Christopher Columbus statue along S. Broad Street is now revealed. Crews just finished removing the plywood box— the process took about 2 hours. @6abc pic.twitter.com/ifS3bnjKOq
The city is "disappointed in the court's ruling," said spokesperson Kevin Lessard, and still believes that the statue should be removed, but is "working to comply with the court's orders, including unboxing."
Various city commissions had voted to remove the statue, but Bochetto and allies filed suit to stop it. The box went up as the sides argued over whether Columbus's presence in a public space calls to mind his ties to slavery and oppression of Indigenous Peoples, or represents a proud part of Italian-American heritage.
Bochetto claimed many are anxious for the unboxing to happen.
"I think a lot of eyes, particularly in South Philadelphia, are on that statue and that box," he said, "and a lot of people want to know from the mayor what's holding things up."
News of the potential change was met with a lukewarm reception among some South Philly residents strolling in the brisk Saturday morning air, however.
Frank Fish, a lifelong South Philadelphia resident, said he's "happy" about the court's ruling that will allow the statue to stay because he's of Italian-Irish heritage. "Just let it stay," Fish said. "It's not bothering anyone."
Mark DiVento, another lifelong resident of the area, said whether or not the statue stays isn't important to him. "Does that make a difference in my life?" the 37-year-old said.
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One of the Commonwealth Court decisions issued Friday rested on what it said were procedural missteps by the Kenney administration.
Philadelphia's Office of the Arts didn't allow the 90 days of public input required by the city's existing directives before starting the removal process, the court found.
Erecting the box in the first place may also have been the wrong move, the decision said, suggesting that alternate actions could have included "protecting the statue with video surveillance."
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In the other decision issued Friday, the court addressed the Kenney administration's complaint that keeping the statue in place would force it to display "a message" it doesn't endorse. The monument doesn't explicitly include anything related to slavery or exploitation, the court decision noted, suggesting the city could just "complete the message with its own plaque."
It's unclear as yet whether the city will try to appeal the Commonwealth Court's ruling. It would have to petition the Pa. Supreme Court to take up the case.
"We are continuing to review the court's latest ruling," city spokesperson Lessard said. "While we will respect this decision, we will also continue to explore our options for a way forward that allows Philadelphians to celebrate their heritage and culture while respecting the histories and circumstances of everyone's different backgrounds."
Attorney Bochetto said he thinks it would be "foolish" of the Kenney admin to try to take the case to the Supreme Court. He wants to see "adequate security" provided by the city once the box is removed for "an orderly transition back to the status quo."
South Philly residents Fish and DiVento both said they think the focus on the controversy is misplaced.
"People want to complain about statues when there's crooked politicians," DiVento said.
"People need to focus on more important things," Fish said. "There's things that need to be looked at other than a statue."Get Philly smart