Columbus statue removal on hold as city responds to legal challenge; Kenney admin says plan will not ‘change’

Workers box up the statue of Christopher Columbus in Marconi Plaza. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Workers box up the statue of Christopher Columbus in Marconi Plaza. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Updated: 4:10 p.m.

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The Philadelphia Art Commission voted Wednesday morning to approve a Kenney administration proposal to remove the Christopher Columbus statue from Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia — the site of a violent confrontation in June — and to place it in storage in the interest of public safety.

While the Commission voted 8-0 in favor of the Kenney plan to move the controversial icon, some in South Philadelphia are prepared to continue the fight. Within hours of the hearing, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Paula Patrick ordered the removal of the statue to be temporarily stayed as a legal battle to keep the statue at the plaza continues to play out in court.

The judge ordered the city to respond to the legal challenge by attorney George Bochetto, who represents a group called Friends of Marconi Plaza, within 10 days. The statue may not be removed in that timeframe.

Lauren Cox, a spokesperson for the Kenney administration, said the legal challenge would not disrupt plans. “This should not change our plans as we were still in the process of ensuring the conditions set forth by the Historical and Art Commissions were met,” Cox said in an email.

Wednesday’s Commission meeting was a continuation of a special meeting held on July 22, where the Art Commission heard the city’s proposal for the statue’s removal, along with 70 individual public testimonies spanning more than six hours, which were taken into account when making the decision.

The Art Commision vote came after the Historical Commission voted 10- 2 in July to approve the mayor’s proposal to remove the statue with the stipulations that the statue be stored in an undisclosed location within Philadelphia, that it be removed by a qualified professional, that the city provide annual reports on its condition, and that it be properly documented via three-dimensional, digital laser scan prior to its removal.

As commissioners deliberated, many expressed that they had gained insight from the public testimony, particularly around the wide range of opinions and diversity of experiences represented.

“There were a lot of learning moments for me during the public testimony that we heard,” said Commissioner Natalie Nixon. “A large takeaway for me was the diversity in the Italian-American community … at the same time we have to be cognizant and mindful of the context of art. Art is not in a vacuum.”

“I think that the recommendations of the Historical Commission are all very sound,” Commissioner Carmen Febo San Miguel said, suggesting that the Art Commission add further stipulations regarding the duration of the statue’s time in storage.

The commission voted to add the stipulation, proposed by Chair Alan Greenberger, that the city report back in six-month intervals on potential resolutions, such as relocating the statue on private land.

The commission also agreed to add the stipulation that the city use Marconi Plaza as an opportunity to explore new methods of storytelling, informed by the broader community.

“There are a lot of ways to tell stories,” said Greenberger, “and all of them are, frankly, very practically achievable in comparison to a new piece of bronze or marble … I would really want to encourage the city to take this moment and to use it as an opportunity to rethink how to tell these stories.”

All of the commissioners voted to approve the motion with the exception of Joe Laragione, who abstained.

The Art Commission’s vote marks the final regulatory hurdle for the mayor’s proposal.

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