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August 18, 2021

Christopher Columbus statue can remain in Marconi Plaza, Philly judge rules

The city's Historical Commission voted to remove the monument after it was a site of flaring tensions in 2020

Controversies Monuments
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The controversial statue of Christopher Columbus can remain in South Philadelphia's Marconi Plaza after a judge ruled the city's efforts to remove the monument in 2020 were not supported by law or sufficient evidence.

The controversial statue of Christopher Columbus could soon be on display again in South Philadelphia's Marconi Plaza after a judge on Tuesday ruled that it can stay at the park.

In 2020, Philadelphia's Board of License and Inspection Review upheld a vote from the city's Historical Commission to remove the statue after it was a site of flaring tensions during the civil unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. Common Pleas Court Judge Paula Patrick said the board's decision was not supported by law, however, and lacked sufficient evidence.

"It is baffling to this Court as to how the City of Philadelphia wants to remove the statue without any legal basis," Patrick wrote in a seven-page decision. "The City's entire argument is devoid of any legal foundation."

Kevin Lessard, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney's office, told PhillyVoice: "While we are very disappointed with the ruling, we're reviewing it now and exploring all potential options — including a possible appeal. The statue remains in Marconi Plaza and will continue to be secured in its existing box."

The Columbus statue was boxed up in June 2020 after an armed group of individuals protecting the monument, saying it should be preserved as a cultural symbol of their Italian heritage, clashed with a group protesting for its removal as a symbol of oppression. Other Columbus statues around the country were defaced during racial justice protests spurred by Floyd's murder, and some cities, including Camden, had the monuments removed.

In August, the Philadelphia Art Commission joined the city's Historical Commission in voting to have the Marconi Plaza statue taken down and placed in storage.

"As Philadelphia — and the nation — continue to reckon with the deep legacy of racism and oppression in America, it is critical that our public spaces are seen as safe, welcoming and inclusive for all people," a city spokesperson said at the time of the votes. "Philadelphia's public art must reflect the people and spirit of our city, not divide us."

But Patrick on Tuesday called the altercations at the statue "isolated incidences." She wrote that the city cannot deem its removal "necessary in public interest," per Philadelphia code, because it did not provide evidence of ongoing safety concerns in the area. She also said the public was not given sufficient time to offer their input on the statue's fate, and the city failed to produce a "detailed expert report on the process and effect" of relocating the century-old statue. 

"This is clearly an abuse of discretion as well as arbitrary action," Patrick wrote.

A lawsuit opposing the statue's removal was brought by the volunteer group Friends of Marconi Plaza, the group's president, Rich Cedrone, and South Philly resident Joseph Mirarchi. Their attorney, George Bochetto, told PhillyVoice that his clients were "ecstatic" with Tuesday's ruling, and he'll soon file a petition in court for an order to compel the city to unbox the statue. 

Bochetto said he sympathizes with protesters who have issues with the statue but that he decided to take the case on pro bono to oppose what he called a lack of due process from Kenney's office in orchestrating its removal. The attorney also welcomed an appeal from the city. 

"Bring it on," he said. "With those factual findings, they've got no chance of winning an appeal."