As Philadelphia prepares to celebrate its third Indigenous Peoples Day, several monuments, statues, and commemorations of explorer Christopher Columbus remain throughout the city.
It’s a subject of intense debate, in Philly and elsewhere, as Columbus is held by some Italian Americans as a symbol of cultural pride, and seen by others as representative of the genocide and violent human rights abuses perpetrated against Indigenous peoples in the Americas.
There are not many monuments in Philadelphia to the Lenape people, the original inhabitants of the region, and scholars say many that do exist are based on inaccurate stereotypes. The Tedyuscung statue in Wissahickon Valley, for example, wears a Western Plains headdress rather than the traditional clothing used by the Lenape people, as does “The Medicine Man” statue in East Fairmount Park.
Confronting the continued presence of Columbus in public spaces is part of that reckoning, local Indigenous leaders say — while some of Philly’s Italian American residents remain adamant Columbus remains an important figure who represents the discrimination Italian American immigrants faced after arriving in the U.S. some four hundred years after him.
Here’s a look at the most prominent markers to Christopher Columbus in Philadelphia, and an update on efforts to change them.
Columbus statue at Marconi Plaza
Perhaps the most well-known of these monuments in Philly, the 147-year-old marble Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza appears here to stay, at least for now.
Petitions to remove the statue from its public display in South Philly near Broad Street and Oregon Avenue date as far back as 2015, but it was the racial justice protests in 2020 that spurred action.
Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration initiated a removal process that led to a legal back-and-forth. It continued for three years until ending last December with a Commonwealth Court ruling in favor of George Bochetto and the Friends of Marconi Plaza, who fought to keep the statue in place — without being hidden by a box the city had erected around it.
The court found that Philly’s Office of the Arts failed to observe a required 90 days of public input before deciding to remove the statue. The city could appeal the decision to the Pa. Supreme Court, but with Kenney leaving office in January, it appears unlikely. (We’ve reached out for official comment, and will update if we hear back.)
Columbus obelisk at Dock Street on the Delaware
The 106-foot-tall monument to Christopher Columbus at Penn’s Landing, designed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, was included in a 2015 petition to then-Mayor Michael Nutter calling for its removal.
It had been met with protests from the very start, at its dedication in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ journey to the Americas.
Amid the racial justice protests of 2020, the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., which maintains the monument, covered its base with chalkboards and said it wanted to start a public engagement process to consider the monument’s removal. The America 500 Anniversary Corporation, which helped to fund the more than $1 million monument, sued the DRWC over the move.
In 2021, the groups reached a settlement, with the DRWC agreeing to remove the chalkboards but still suggesting that a public engagement process on the monument would occur — at some point.
Delaware Avenue/Columbus Boulevard
The roadway running along Philadelphia’s eastern waterfront was originally called Delaware Avenue from start to finish. In 1989, then-Councilmember Anna Verna introduced a bill to rename it after Christopher Columbus.
Many Indigenous people and leaders voiced their opposition, citing the fact that the avenue bearing the English name for the Lenape people, Delaware, would be erased by the name of a man who enslaved and killed Indigenous people.
So the city came up with a compromise. They would only rename half the street.
In 1992, the same year the Columbus obelisk was dedicated at Penn’s Landing, City Council voted to rename Delaware Avenue south of Spring Garden Street as Columbus Boulevard.
PennDOT reportedly didn’t immediately update the street signs, unsure of whether the name would hold, but signs today do say Columbus, and that’s what’s used for official street addresses. Efforts to change the name back have so far been unsuccessful — but in everyday conversation, Delaware Avenue is still widely used.