Water from a new splash fountain soared into the air Wednesday as Wilmington officials showcased improvements to Rodney Square including colorful fresh landscaping and lighting. They talked about plans for terraced seating and more upgrades.
At one end, the downtown Farmer’s Market was back in business after a long pandemic break.
Yet one historic centerpiece was conspicuously absent.
It’s the hulking bronze statue of Caesar Rodney on a horse, which commemorates Rodney’s 1776 ride from Dover to Philadelphia to cast the deciding vote for the Declaration of Independence.
#WilmDE & Rodney Square Conservancy celebrated the completion of Phase One of the renovation of Rodney Square. A new lighted fountain highlights the revised look & feel of central open space in the Downtown neighborhood. Enjoy the fountain day & night! pic.twitter.com/wYNfjXeMt3
— City of Wilmington (@cityofwilmde) June 2, 2021
The monument had loomed above the square for nearly a century before Mayor Mike Purzycki took down the icon last June amid protests and violence downtown after George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Rodney owned slaves, and with activists toppling Confederate monuments elsewhere, Purzycki feared the statue could be damaged. He promised an “overdue discussion about the public display of historical figures and events.”
Nearly a year later, Rodney is still AWOL, tucked away in a storage facility. So while celebrating the square’s enhancements Wednesday, Purzycki told WHYY News that the time hasn’t yet come to talk about bringing the statue back.
“My preference would be to have it restored,’’ Purzycki said. “But that’s me. Ultimately, I will make the call, but I want to make sure that there’s consensus around the decision.”
Asked when he would decide, the mayor demurred. “There will be the right time,’’ he said, “to either restore it or have a more serious conversation about storing it. Now’s not the time.
“The whole country is so animated over these racial issues. Now’s not the time to say, ‘Let’s just pour gasoline on the fire’. I just don’t want to do it. I think this will get discussed with the right temperament at the right time and now is not the time. Hopefully it won’t be too long.”
Bank executive Samira Aird chairs the Rodney Square Conservancy that’s raising money and guiding the project in concert with the mayor.
Does she want the statue back?
“Personally, I’m indifferent,’’ Aird said Wednesday. “This is still Rodney Square and we’re focused on revitalizing the square. So regardless if Caesar Rodney’s here or not, it doesn’t really make a difference to what our cause is. If Caesar Rodney does not come back, we’ll do something else where the statue was.”
As a jazz band blared on the square, Wilmingtonian Sharon Shelton raved about the new look but noted the missing horse and rider.
“It looks empty without it,’’ she said while looking up at the empty podium. “Because of the controversy behind it, I guess they could wait a while. It’s kind of a fixture. I know the history behind a lot of these statues, but I think, yes, you could bring it back, make the square look like the square again.”
Stephanie Williams had supported taking it down. She has no interest in seeing the Rodney statue return.
“It’s not there now so I really don’t miss it,’’ she said.
Regardless of what’s decided, Purzycki said he’s ecstatic that the park that he called “degraded” when he took office in 2017 is getting the critical facelift.
“We think it’s beautiful,’’ the mayor said, “and we’re very happy with the direction it’s taking.”
Purzycki said the fountain is a critical piece of that rejuvenation.
“The other day, someone took a photograph of kids out here playing in the fountains, which really warmed my heart because that’s what we want it to be,’’ he said.
“We want people to come here and start to own this public space and feel as if the downtown and the riverfront are all theirs, too.”
“It’s nice. It’s beautiful,’’ she exclaimed. “Yes it is.”
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