Italian flag painted on box of controversial Columbus statue in South Philly, court cases still pending

As Philadelphia celebrates its second official Indigenous Peoples Day, the fate of the Marconi Plaza monument is still up in the air.

The box surrounding the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza, still the subject of several lawsuits, now bears the colors of the Italian flag

The box surrounding the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza, still the subject of several lawsuits, now bears the colors of the Italian flag

Emily Neil for Billy Penn
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On what was once its eponymous holiday, the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza will remain sealed in a box — though this year, it sports a fresh coat of paint.

The monument’s plywood home, which has hidden it for 2½ years, is now emblazoned with vertical stripes in the green, red, and white colors of the Italian flag. The makeover happened Friday night, three days before the commemoration officially known in Philadelphia as Indigenous Peoples Day.

City officials carried out the initial paint job at the request of Councilmember Mark Squilla, his office confirmed. But that was only to paint the whole thing green.

How’d it get the other colors? No one seems to know.

“Our office asked that it be painted, and Philadelphia Parks and Rec workers painted it green. We do not know who added the red and white stripes,” Squilla Chief of Staff Anne Kelly King told Billy Penn.

Squilla’s district borders Marconi Park, and though it doesn’t include the plaza with the statue, he’s been a steady ally of the group trying to unbox the figure of the slave-trade explorer and celebrate the man they see as a symbol of Italian American heritage.

“I was hoping we’d have it before Columbus Day, and the Columbus Day Parade, so that we could unveil the box and have a big ceremony there, as part of the Columbus Day festivities,” said attorney George Bochetto, about unboxing.

Bochetto has been arguing in court for the statue to remain in place since it was first boxed up, shortly after June 2020 protests spurred Mayor Jim Kenney to announce it would be removed.

The legal battle over that action has persisted for nearly three years.

Over that period, pro-Columbus graffiti, art, and signage appeared. Wire representations of the Pinta, Niña, and Santa Maria ships sit alongside the monument’s fence. Before it was painted, “Free Columbus” had been scrawled in green spray paint on the plywood container. Signs taped to the temporary barricade read “Don’t re-think the name of Columbus Day … Re-think the names you call Columbus,” and offered a take on how the holiday came into existence.

By Saturday afternoon, the messaging all surrounded a box bearing the colors of the Italian flag. A police car was stationed next to the whole thing.

The City of Philadelphia told Billy Penn they still plan to take the statue down. “The timing of the removal remains dependent upon resolution of the ongoing litigation,” said spokesperson Kevin Lessard.

Original plans called for moving it into storage, but last year Lessard said the city was open to “inquiries from individuals or organizations interested in working to find an appropriate home for the statue.”

Signs taped around the boxed Columbus statue advocate for the explorer and the holiday named after him to be treated with more respect

Signs taped around the boxed Columbus statue advocate for the explorer and the holiday named after him to be treated with more respect

Emily Neil for Billy Penn

The city has ping-ponged court appeals back and forth with the Friends of Marconi Plaza and others in favor of keeping the statue in place, represented by attorney Bochetto.

At issue is not just whether the statue gets to remain, but whether the current box hiding it from view is legal. Commonwealth Court heard oral arguments on June 23 in three pending cases on the matter, without making any rulings.

Decisions on the pending cases could come at any time, per Bochetto. “It could be today, could be a week from today, could be six months from today,” the lawyer said.

Bochetto, Councilmember Squilla, and others filed a separate lawsuit against Kenney last year, alleging discrimination against Italian Americans due to the mayor’s executive order renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, among other actions. The city filed a motion to dismiss that lawsuit, and the court’s decision is still pending.

The pivotal statue case is the city’s appeal of Judge Paula Patrick’s August 2021 decision in the Court of Common Pleas. Patrick found that the Board of License and Inspection Review’s approval of the Historical Commission of Philadelphia’s decision to remove the statue was “devoid of any legal foundation.”

A few days ahead of Indigenous Peoples Day/Columbus Day last year, Judge Patrick ordered the box be removed. The city appealed that decision, and filed an emergency application to stay the order, which the Commonwealth Court upheld.

The box previously sat unchanged for two and a half years

The box previously sat unchanged for two and a half years

Emily Neil for Billy Penn

Bochetto said he believes his side’s recent arguments “went very well.” If the court does rule in favor of the city, allowing the statue to be removed, he said he plans to appeal that decision to the Pa. Supreme Court.

The attorney has several other ongoing cases centered on Columbus statue removals in Pittsburgh and Syracuse. A judge ruled in Pittsburgh that the city’s mayor does have the prerogative to remove the statue if he wishes, and Bochetto has appealed the decision there. Courts in Syracuse, N.Y., ruled in favor of Bochetto’s case that the Columbus statue there should remain, though the city has since appealed that decision and activists in the city continue to call for its removal.

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