Mayor Agrees To Unseat Columbus Statue, But Group Seeks Injunction To Prevent Removal

Oct 9, 2020

The long-running battle over the Christopher Columbus statue in Schenley Park moved closer to a conclusion Friday when Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto announced -- on the eve of Columbus Day -- that he agrees with the city's Art Commission, which voted unanimously Sept. 23 to remove the monument.

Peduto said the city-owned statue should be returned to the Italian-American community for private display. He said the City is searching for a new home for the monument. A city spokesperson said crews might cover the statue until it can be taken down.

However, a national Italian-American fraternal organization said it is seeking a court injunction to prevent the statue's removal. Basil Russo, president of the Pittsburgh-based Italian Sons & Daughter of America, said his group filed for the injunction Friday, in Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.

The immediate effect of the injunction request is academic because Peduto provided no timetable for the statue to be taken down.

Peduto announced his decision in a letter to the Art Commission. He noted his own Italian ancestry and the pride many Italian-Americans take in Columbus. He also cited the history of prejudice against Italian immigrants that gave rise to the creation of Columbus monuments.

But Peduto acknowledged critics who see Columbus as a symbol of oppression because of how he enslaved and brutalized indigenous people in the Caribbean. He placed his decision in the context of nationwide calls for removal of the statues of Confederate generals, which have increased amidst this year's protests for racial justice. A copy of Peduto's letter is available here.

More than a dozen U.S. cities have removed monuments to Columbus this year. Several more statutes of the Genovese navigator were toppled by protesters.

In the letter, Peduto requested that the art commission schedule a hearing for a final vote on decommissioning the statue. The request recalled a dispute over the proper procedure for removing public artworks that played out at a special hearing of the commission, in September.

The five-member commission, which is appointed by the mayor, contends it can alter or remove artworks unilaterally. The mayor continues to assert that the commission is an advisory body, and that final authority rests with him. This contradicts the precedent established in the 2017 process when the art commission voted to remove a statue of composer Stephen Foster, in Oakland, that critics called racist.

At the special hearing, in September, an assistant city solicitor said that if the mayor chose to change the status quo regarding a given artwork, the commission would have to ratify that decision by an additional vote. However, the assistant city solicitor declined commissioners' request to show them where this procedure, or the mayor's authority over public artworks, was defined in the city code.

Peduto's decision to remove the statue was quickly denounced by Sam DeMarco, the Allegheny County Republican Chairman and an at-large member of County Council. In a written statement, he criticized Peduto as "a liberal mayor [who] bows in the face of political correctness and insults his own people on the eve of their own holiday,” a reference to Columbus Day. He said Peduto's decision betrayed "the aspirations and honor of Italian-Americans."

Public comment on the statue's fate, as tallied by the City, was in favor of removing or replacing it by a nearly two-to-one ratio.

Russo, of Italian Sons & Daughters of America, was among those most outspoken in support of the statue. During the public-comment period of the Sept. 23 commission meeting, held virtually, a speaker who identified himself as George Bochetto, an attorney for Russo, told the commission that the 1955 city ordinance permitting the installation of Pittsburgh's Columbus monument provided for its care “in perpetuity,” thus prohibiting its removal by either the mayor or the art commission.

Bochetto said the only way to remove the statue was if City Council changed the ordinance, or if a court ruled it unenforceable.

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

Russo, reached by phone Friday, was not immediately able to provide a copy of the request for an injunction.