Schenley Park's veiled Columbus statue is losing its covering as legal challenges hold up removal

click to enlarge Schenley Park's veiled Columbus statue is losing its covering as legal challenges hold up removal
Photo Courtesy: Richard Varner
The Christopher Columbus statue in Schenley Park has been covered over since the city's art commission voted to remove it in 2020. Recently, it's been spotted with much of the wrapping damaged or removed.

Close to a year after a judge ruled that the Schenley Park Christopher Columbus statue could lawfully be removed, the statue remains in place. The monument has been covered over since 2020, but it has recently been sighted with large parts exposed.

“It seemed like more and more of it was being uncovered, and now, the last time I went by… it was kind of weird… almost like an executioner,” says Richard Varner of Wilkinsburg. “They put the hood over the head.”

Local Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 that erupted from the killing of George Floyd led to questioning over the place of the Columbus statue, due to a reevaluation of his character as a symbol of colonialism and slavery. Some locals who claim Italian heritage opposed removal of the statue due to Columbus’ Italian origins, but the city's art commission decided to remove it in a decision later affirmed by a judge in October of 2022.

Immediately after the ruling, the Italian Sons and Daughters of America, a Pittsburgh-based, political group representing Italian-Americans, appealed the decision in court.

In a press release announcing the appeal, the group’s lawyer, George Bochetto, claims former Mayor Bill Peduto lacked the authority to remove the statue.

“The Pittsburgh Home Rule Charter is clear that some rule-making authority is reserved for City Council, and the Mayor must comply with those rules once enacted. In this case, the City Council passed a binding ordinance to keep the Columbus Statue in Schenley Park, Bochetto said. “Unless and until that ordinance is repealed, the Mayor must comply with it.”

Since then, it has progressed in court behind the scenes, with both sides filing briefs before a judge issues a ruling.

Olga George, press secretary for Mayor Ed Gainey, told City Paper there are no updates to share about the statue and declined to detail any plans for removal of the statue. “If the statue is mostly uncovered, it's probably due to the elements or someone removing the covering,” she wrote.

In October, a spokesperson for Gainey told CP the administration is "looking into our options and reviewing the opinion before announcing any next steps in regards to the statue."

The Italian Sons and Daughters and its attorney did not respond to questions from City Paper about the progress of the appeal.

Seeing the statue still standing frustrates Varner, he says. He emailed a photograph he took of the partially exposed statue to some friends of his, including Emily De Ferrari, who has been involved in local activism for years and spoke at the 2020 Art Commission Special Hearing about the statue. An Italian-American herself, she opposes the statue, and has been taken aback by the Italian-American backlash.

“It’s just embarrassing to listen to other Italian-Americans talk about Columbus in an unaware way, or unsympathetic way, to the effect that that might have on other people besides Italian-Americans,” she tells CP.

Seeing the statue mostly uncovered alarmed Varner, not just because he opposes the statue for what he believes it stands for, but because it seems to him like the energy behind removing it has died down.

“I kept thinking, is this someone trying to uncover it? Forget about it. That was my biggest fear,” Varner says. “The more time passes from 2020, when this all came about with George Floyd, it seems like people forget.”