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Commission Votes To Remove Columbus Statue, But Its Fate Remains Uncertain

Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
The bronze Columbus monument has overlooked Schenley Drive since 1958.

Pittsburgh’s Art Commission voted unanimously today to remove the statue of Christopher Columbus that has stood in Schenley Park for generations.

But that might not be the end of the story.

Critics of monuments to Columbus cite his enslavement and mistreatment of the indigenous people he encountered in the New World. Wednesday, the commissioners echoed those concerns.

“Christopher Columbus doesn’t uphold the values of our Constitution and of who we are as Americans and as human beings,” said commissioner Kilolo Luckett at the commission’s monthly meeting, which was held virtually.

Commissioners also addressed the concerns of supporters of the statue, who call Columbus an icon of Italian-American heritage.

“As a city, I am confident that we can find many great Italians, or better yet, Italian-American individuals, who may be better examples of this pride,” said commissioner Andrew Moss.

The commission voted 5-0 to remove or replace the statue, and to safely store it afterward.

In the midst of the social-justice protests that swept the country this summer, more than a dozen U.S. cities have removed their own monuments to Columbus.

The art commission asserts that Pittsburgh's city code gives it sole authority over what's done with public artworks. However, whether and when Pittsburgh's Columbus monument will actually be unseated remains uncertain.

For one, Mayor Bill Peduto continues to dispute the commission’s reading of the law. In a letter sent to the commission Wednesday, and read aloud at the meeting by Director of City Planning Andrew Dash, Peduto reiterated his belief that no public artwork can be removed without his approval. (At the commission’s August meeting, that reading of the law was the subject of a heated debate between commissioners and an assistant city solicitor in Peduto’s law department.)

Also on Wednesday, during a brief public-comment period preceding the commission’s vote, an attorney for the head of a Pittsburgh-based Italian fraternal organization threatened legal action if the commission chose to remove the Columbus monument.

The speaker identified himself as George Bochetto, attorney for Basil Russo, national president of the Italian Sons & Daughters of America. Bochetto also represents Friends of Marconi Plaza, a group that in August fought Philadelphia’s art commission when it voted to remove that city’s Columbus monument.

Russo persuaded a Common Pleas Court judge to halt the removal; the Philadelphia statue’s fate remains up in the air.

Wednesday, Bochetto told Pittsburgh’s art commission that the 1955 city ordinance permitting the installation of this city’s Columbus monument provided for its care “in perpetuity,” thus prohibiting its removal by either the mayor or the art commission. He said the only way to remove the statue was through City Council changing the ordinance, or by a court ruling it unenforceable.

The art commission did not respond to Bochetto's assertion.

The debate over the Columbus monument attracted an unusually high degree of interest for a public artwork. Tony Cavalline, an art, culture and history specialist with the city, said as of Tuesday, the city had collected nearly 5,300 public comments. Nearly two-thirds favored the Columbus monument’s removal or replacement. Among the 3,131 commenters residing in the City of Pittsburgh, 86 percent favored removal or replacement, said Cavalline.

The towering bronze statue is located on Schenley Drive, near Phipps Conservatory. It was sculpted by Frank Vittor, an Italian immigrant residing in Pittsburgh. It was funded by contributions from Italian-American fraternal organizations.