For the past two years, I was forced to look at a vertical wooden coffin standing in the middle of beautiful, tree-lined Marconi Plaza. Across from the coffin was the sober statue of Enrico Marconi, the Italian genius who gave the world the wireless radio.
Marconi used to be able to look across south Broad Street and see his fellow Italian icon, Christopher Columbus. But in June of 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement and shortly after George Floyd had been killed in Minnesota, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney decided to remove the statue of the founder of the western world. He did so because he was under the impression that Columbus was a genocidal maniac who had destroyed the indigenous populations that had decamped for the ”New World” centuries before the Genoese explorer had accidentally discovered it.
Had it not been for the valiant work of George Bochetto and many members of the Italian community in Philadelphia, particularly South Philly, that statue would have been spirited away to an undisclosed location, similar to what Kenney did with another famous Italian, former Mayor Frank Rizzo.
Rizzo was removed under the cover of darkness, which was exactly what Kenney tried to do with Columbus. But someone at City Hall tipped Bochetto off that there were plans to use non-union workers to remove the statue, and when the news got out crowds of people flooded the plaza to protect the statue and defend the heritage of an extremely important ethnic community.
More importantly, Bochetto, who is a legendary Philadelphia attorney who understands how to fight, given his previous incarnation as Pennsylvania’s Boxing Commissioner, sprang into action and filed an injunction against the city. That prevented the removal of the statue, and gave the defenders of both Columbus and Italian history and traditions some breathing space. In fact, there were two years of breathing space, during which time lawsuits were filed, dismissed, appealed, and ultimately granted in favor of the defenders of Columbus.
But in an act of petulance, vengeance and the most obvious form of anti-Italian bigotry, Jim Kenney boxed the statue up for more than two years, forcing the residents of the city to wonder what was under Box Number One (cue Monty Hall and Carole Merrill.) It was an eyesore, it was unnecessary and it was a slap in the face to the Italian-American community in Philadelphia. When asked why he’d placed the statue in a box pending the resolution of the litigation, Kenney floated the unsubstantiated theory that leaving it out in the open would invite violence and protests.
To be clear, the only people committing violence up to that point were the BLM protestors, who had set fire to buildings, vandalized businesses and terrorized residents of communities just like the placid neighborhoods of South Philadelphia.
To understand the frustration of people who had even a measure of Italian blood in them, you only have to remember that in addition to boxing up Columbus and removing the statue of Rizzo, Kenney presided over the erasure of a mural of the former Italian mayor at the, wait for it, Italian Market. While that famous city market was originally called the “9th Street Market,” it had become known by the ethnicity that had essentially made it a flourishing heart of the city it served. It seemed as if Philadelphia, under this particular administration, was doing everything in its power to erase the impact of this rich and substantial heritage on our streets, in our churches, from our buildings, in our parks, from our calendars and from our memory banks.
That is why the legal victory from the Commonwealth Court last month is so important. In November, the state appellate court ruled that the city could not remove the statue. As of this writing, the city has not appealed that ruling to the highest court.
Which means, in laymen’s terms, the statue stays. Shortly after the ruling came down, the city was forced to take that ugly wooden coffin down, and the statue was revealed to the public for the first time in over two years. This was a victory for everyone who cherishes their history and heritage, the rule of law, and the principle that you fight for what belongs to you.
We fought. We won. And that is a very satisfying end to a bitter battle, that should never have been waged in the first place.
Christine Flowers is a Philadelphian who loves the Eagles but can leave the cheesesteaks. She writes about anything that will likely annoy the majority of people, and in her spare time practices immigration law (which is bound to annoy at least some people).