- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 22, 2020

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - City officials told a city commission on Wednesday that a statue of Christopher Columbus in south Philadelphia should be removed because of public safety concerns and community feedback, while supporters strongly disputed any safety issues and called the statue a symbol of Italian heritage.

James Engler, chief of staff to Mayor Jim Kenney, told the Philadelphia Art Commission in an online hearing that the presence of the statue at Marconi Plaza was “unacceptable” to the majority of city residents and was “in fact, completely unsafe,” WCAU-TV reported.

Officials cited 13,553 public comment submissions, of which a random sample of 1,200 responses indicated 80% felt the statue represented “false history, genocide, racism, oppression” while 20% said it represented “Italian-American culture, American history, explorer, pride of neighborhood.”

But statue supporters such as Rich Cedrone, president of the Friends of Marconi Plaza, questioned those results, suggesting that older people who didn’t know how to use the online survey may not have responded and also questioning whether those who did respond actually live in the city.

Cedrone said the statue “means the world to the Italian community” and highlighted positive events at the park such as movie nights for kids, multicultural theater performances and spring concerts.

“I think this would be a travesty to have the statue taken down,” he said.

Engler said the mayor’s administration is open to a replacement monument honoring Italian history, which he said was “rife with artists, inventors, scientists and the like who are far more worthy of having their likeness made into a monument.”

City crews earlier built a wooden box around the statue, following clashes between protesters and residents, and the city later announced plans to seek its removal, something some south Philadelphia residents have sued to block.

After the base of a 106-foot (32-meter) Christopher Columbus monument at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia was covered in the wake of the protests, supporters filed a lawsuit accusing the park’s nonprofit manager of breaking an agreement to maintain the 28-year-old monument.

In Philadelphia, a city with a deep Italian heritage, supporters said they considered Columbus an emblem of that heritage. Mayor Jim Kenney said Columbus was venerated for centuries as an explorer but had a “much more infamous” history, enslaving indigenous people and imposing punishments such as severing limbs or even death.

Statues of Columbus were earlier removed in nearby Camden, New Jersey, and Wilmington, Delaware. In Richmond, Virginia, a statue of Christopher Columbus was torn down, set on fire and thrown into a lake. In Columbia, South Carolina, the first U.S. city named for Columbus, a statue of the explorer was removed after it was vandalized several times, and a vandalized statue in Boston also was removed from its pedestal.

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