Italian Americans in Syracuse will gather in Columbus Circle Monday, to pay tribute to the Italian explorer, possibly for the last time. And they’re not happy about it.
After years of controversy and discussion, Mayor Ben Walsh made the final decision on the future of the controversial statue last week. The statue will be coming down.
“The city of Syracuse will move forward with steps in local and state law, to remove the Columbus statue, the heads of Indigenous people of the Plains, the bas relief plaques, and have them removed to a private site,” Walsh said during a press conference Friday. The press conference was held remotely because Walsh, and several other upstate mayors are quarantining after Binghamton mayor Rich David tested positive for COVID-19 after appearing at a press conference in Syracuse last week.
Walsh said the remaining fountain and obelisk monument will honor Italian Americans. That doesn’t appease Micheal Vavonese, a past president of the Columbus Monument Corporation.
“I think that’s the least that can be done, given the pain this decision, which I believe is unfair has made.”
Some members of Syracuse’s Italian American community say they intend to take legal action to stop the monument from being removed. They’re also angry at the timing, coming shortly before Monday’s annual wreath-laying ceremony that celebrates Italian heritage and the monument.
“I believe it sets us back 100 years and continues the discrimination of Italian Americans.”
Walsh said Friday expected the backlash.
“I acknowledge that I am causing pain with this decision,” he said. “I don’t take that lightly.”
But he also said he considered the pain of the Onondaga Nation and others who find Columbus representing a racist past that led to oppression and genocide.
“I don’t want people who view that statue as a symbol of oppression to feel not welcome in this city,” he said. “It has to be noted this is a significant public space in the heart of our city, and it’s critically important that it be an inclusive space where everyone is acknowledged and respected.”
Columbus Circle will also be renamed. A year-round education and learning site will focus on the contributions of the Onondaga’s and other immigrants. Even if Columbus’s likeness doesn’t loom over a public circle in Syracuse, Onondaga Historical Association Executive Director Greg Tripoli said his legacy remains.
“The landfall of Columbus really connected two worlds, for better and worse,” Triploi said. “But from that moment, the world changed, and I think we will not lose the history.”
Walsh said moving the statue will be paid for with a mix of public and private funding. A commission will be appointed in the coming months to design the changes that will take place at the site of the monument.