After months of protests and public arguments, Mayor Kenney’s administration on Friday announced that it would move the bronze statue of former Mayor Frank L. Rizzo that has stood outside the Municipal Services Building for nearly two decades.
In a brief statement, Michael DiBerardinis, city managing director, didn’t say where or when the statue would be relocated, but cast the emotionally and politically freighted decision as part of a planned remake of the surrounding Thomas Paine Plaza.
It was an anticlimactic moment considering the passions the Rizzo statue aroused during a summer of protests, forcing sometimes uncomfortable questions about which leaders of the past should be honored and which should not. Statues of heroes of the Confederacy were removed in city after city.
To his Philadelphia detractors, Rizzo oppressed black citizens as police commissioner in the 1960s and was elected mayor in the 1970s in part by appealing to the racial fears of white Philadelphians. To those who admired him, the activists demanding the statue’s removal were maligning a good man who protected all people from crime.
“This decision comes at a time when we have begun the preliminary stages of planning to re-envision Paine Plaza as a new type of inviting and engaging public space,” DiBerardinis’ statement said. Similar efforts have been completed at Dilworth Park, on City Hall’s western apron, and are underway at JFK Plaza — LOVE Park — just to the northwest.
Frank Rizzo Jr., a former City Council member, complained Friday that Kenney and his administration did not tell him or his 101-year-old mother of the decision before announcing it. Rizzo, who is chairman of a nonprofit that raises money for cleaning and maintenance of the statue, said they both learned the news from reporters.
Rizzo also suggested that the tone of the announcement makes clear the outcome of the process, even though the City Charter requires approval from the city’s Art Commission for any change to the statue.
“People who support the monument probably won’t even waste their time going [to an expected Art Commission hearing] based on the stacked deck,” Rizzo said. “This is not a very professional process.”
Ajeenah Amir, a spokeswoman for Kenney, blamed the failure to inform Rizzo on an “internal miscommunication.”
Asked if he planned to resist the statue being moved, Rizzo brought up the 2019 election, when Kenney will seek a second term.
“I’ve been around politics all my life,” Rizzo said. “I don’t think there’s a reason to raise an objection, other than [to note] the supporters of Frank Rizzo remember this on Election Day.”
Once news of the city’s decision circulated, some reacted with intense emotion. The Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, an activist pastor in Philadelphia, compared the bronze Rizzo to a Confederate flag.
“This statue is a representation to black people of terror,” he said.
The 2,000-pound, 10-foot-tall statue of Rizzo, who rose through the Police Department and served as mayor from 1972 to 1980, was erected on Jan. 1, 1999. Rizzo, who changed from Democrat to Republican, was campaigning to return as mayor when he died in 1991. The sculptor said he believes the statue it shouldn’t be moved.
City Councilwoman Helen Gym sparked a conversation about the statue with a tweet in August, calling for its removal after white supremacists and neo-Nazis clashed with counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va., over the planned removal of a statute of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
All around the country, we're fighting to remove the monuments to slavery & racism. Philly, we have work to do. Take the Rizzo statue down.
— Helen Gym (@HelenGymAtLarge) August 14, 2017
Gym praised Friday’s announcement, saying Rizzo “tells us a lot about who Philadelphia was, and now our public spaces tell a different story about who we aspire to be and what our future holds for us.”
“Relocating the statue is not and has never been about erasing history,” she said in a statement. “It’s about acknowledging how complex and complicated our history is, and being thoughtful and deliberate about what images we uphold in our public spaces.”
DiBerardinis said the responses to a city website seeking advice on the statue helped officials find potential new sites. He said the next step will be feasibility studies for those locations, followed by a proposal submitted to the Art Commission, which will take at least six months.
Amir refused to identify the locations. “We’re exploring multiple options for a new site,” she said in an email, “though we would certainly engage with the surrounding community before deciding to locate the statue there.”
The City Charter gives the Art Commission the final say.
The nine-member commission, according to the charter, must include a painter, a sculptor, an architect, a landscape architect, a member of the Parks and Recreation Commission, an experienced business executive, and two faculty or governing board members from schools of art or architecture.
Chairman Alan Greenberger, a professor at Drexel University who served as a deputy mayor during Michael A. Nutter’s two terms, said Friday the commission will hold at least one public hearing on that proposal and possibly more, depending on how many people hope to testify. He also emphasized that Friday’s announcement was just the beginning of the process.
“They haven’t really declared a result in a formal sense,” Greenberger said. “They’ve declared an intention to make a proposal.”
Staff writer Andrew Seidman contributed to this article.
A previous version of this story misspelled the name of the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler.