July 31, 2020

Office of Mayor Marty Walsh
1 City Hall Square
Boston MA

Re: Columbus Park: Whose History?

Dear Mayor Walsh,

In response to the temporary mothballing of the Christopher Columbus statue after its beheading last month on June 10th, we demand its full and permanent removal in addition to the un-naming of the Park. Not only does the figure of Columbus represent racial oppression, but the history of the statue’s placement testifies to the corruption of public process across several municipal agencies of the City of Boston. The following letter (parked at confrontingcolumb.us) summarizes a context of events that have suppressed historical facts, weaponized the public sphere and racialized urban space along Boston’s waterfront in a pattern of deception dating back to events in 1979.

Columbianism: Skewed, Distorted Histories & Violent, Racist, Dehumanizing Symbolisms

First, from a symbolic perspective, the statue of Christopher Columbus is a glorified eurocentric representation of a genocidal murderer, colonizer, and slave trader; facts that are not only masked by the portrayal of Columbus as a great explorer or skilled navigator, but they are also triggers for intergenerational trauma and racial violence against Black, Indigenous, and Peoples of Color. Across the Americas (or what should be more accurately referred to as Turtle Island), the figure of Columbus is a longstanding symbol of oppression with over 200 standing monuments across the public realm in the United States alone.

Historical facts about the havoc wreaked by the so-called exploits of Columbus have been documented for well over 450 years. Most notably, as early as 1542, Spanish friar Bartolomé de las Casas reported to the Spanish Crown on the mistreatment of, and atrocities committed against, Indigenous Peoples that started in 1492 when Columbus hit the shores of the Caribbean Islands. Camouflaged by colonial narratives of exploration, those campaigns of violence were funded and financed by the Spanish Monarchy with orders given by then Queen Isabela La Catolica in the mid-15th century, sanctioned by the Catholic Church through papal bulls that formed the Doctrine of Discovery.

The accidental landing of Columbus off the Caribbean shores and subsequent violence against Indigenous Peoples and enslaved persons, have been further suppressed by overblown accounts of Columbus’ significance and ensuing veneration in the American imagination. There are at least four distinctive, definitive events to point out in this 528-year timeline of what we call ‘the rise of Columbianism’:

—1892: the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago (the eve of the 400-year commemoration of the so-called Columbus landing in 1492);

—1938-1942: Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison’s boastful and skewed accounts of Columbus’ exploits in 3 volumes;

—1975: National Geographic Magazine’s November issue on Columbus’ Voyages (Volume 148 Issue No. 5) that saw millions of copies distributed worldwide;

—1992: International events and statue erections across the U.S. leading up to and marking the 500-year anniversary of the 1492 landing.

In response to the edification of Columbus, American historian Howard Zinn has critically challenged the rise of Columbianism. In his 1980 book A People’s History of the United States, Zinn underscores the problems and dangers of distorting historical facts by underscoring the significance of accurately depicting the scale and magnitude of the violence that Columbus, and other explorers that followed him, inflicted on Indigenous Peoples throughout the Americas. More specifically, Zinn’s chapter on “Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress” debunks the half-truths, factual errors, and gross omissions in the former work of Columbus scholar Samuel Eliot Morison. Zinn’s scholarship is preceded by several other authors namely the work of Indigenous Scholar Jack D. Forbes (Powhatan-Renápe, Delaware-Lenápe) in his 1979 book Columbus & Other Cannibals. A long list of resources and books have been in circulation for decades now to set the record straight on Columbus. Notwithstanding the fact that Columbus never set foot in what is known as the United States today, the heroic idolization of Columbus is a distortion of historical fact, and thus, remains a myth.

Corruption of Public Process: A Political Quid Pro Quo

Secondly, from a public perspective, the renaming of the park and the placement of the statue of Christopher Columbus are more than just the result of circumvented public approvals. Together, they are deliberate outcomes of the corruption of a democratic institution and public process underlying the municipal governance of the City of Boston.

Legitimation by Deception. The renaming of the park itself, from its original 1976 “Waterfront Park” title, was performed through circumvention of public process without due consultation, community consent, or required public approvals by municipal agencies. More precisely, our research shows that the renaming of the park was the result of a political quid pro quo. In effect, it was the mobilization of private interests of one person to leverage and influence public power of another, and vice-versa. The racial motivations of staunch nationalist Arthur Stivaletta intersected with the political aspirations of incumbent Mayor Kevin White (in a close run-up against mayoral opponent Joe Timilty) in late 1978. To do this, Arthur Stivaletta singlehandedly formed the private, ad-hoc, and largely illegitimate Friends of Christopher Columbus Committee in 1978 that is carved in stone at the top of the statue’s granite base (Stivaletta’s committee should not be confused with the current Friends of Christopher Columbus Park, or FOCCP, a legally registered, non-profit organization that programs seasonal events at the park today). As a committee of one, Stivaletta’s deceptive and coercive efforts were aided by two other people, in government and in the media: City Councilor Fred Langone (with longstanding, internal connections to City Council) and Post-Gazette Editor-in-Chief Phyllis Donnaruma (with external cultural connections to the Italian-American élite).

For a park that was originally conceived over a 30-year process of planning of waterfront revitalization with over 60 million dollars in public funds (originally dedicated in 1976 to the memory of community advocate Frank S. Christian), the original name and space of the park was suspiciously coopted in a rather expeditious way. The original park planners, Sasaki Associates, led by Stuart Dawson had originally conceived of the park as an urban, multicultural, children’s playground through an extensive, multi-year process of design, planning, and community consultation that led up to its dedication and opening in 1976. Just a few years later in the Spring of 1979, the name of park was officially changed by City Council with an expedited proposal and council order led by Langone on April 25th 1979 and expeditiously approved by Mayor White on May 10th, less than 3 weeks later. That process took place without the proper approval of the Boston Parks & Recreation, nor any consultation with the Boston Arts Commission who normally review proposals for public art submitted for final approval by the Mayor.

The rush towards renaming the park prior to the summer of 1979 was the result of the convergence of several events and intended outcomes. The rushed vote was primarily an exchange intended to leverage votes from theItalian-American community to secure the re-election of then-incumbent Mayor White later that Fall on November 6th, 1979. It is for this reason, among several others, that the unveilingand inauguration of Christopher Columbus took place on October 21st, 1979, three weeks before the mayoral election.

Furthermore, to prop up the illusion of the significance of the Columbus figure in this effort, Stivaletta commissioned local, self-educated, neo-impressionist painter Diane Leonard to paint the portrait of Columbus as a showpiece for an Italian-owned art gallery in the North End and as propaganda for the park, featured on the front cover of the Post-Gazette a few days before its inauguration. According to the artist’s testimony, her then-boyfriend was used as the model for the life-size painting of Columbus and his hobbyist father lent a hand with the rendering of the Santa Maria, one of Columbus’ ship floating in the painting’s background. Although the artist was never paid for their work, the lackluster painting now hangs in the lobby of the Dante Alighieri Society of Massachusetts, an Italian-American cultural center across the water in Cambridge.

To understand the significance of this timeline of events, it is also worth noting that this expedited process strategically coincided with another much larger event: Pope John Paul II’s trip to the United States and visit planned for Boston on October 1st, 1979. Even though the Pope’s planned route did not bring him to Christopher Columbus Park, the Pope’s speech was an accolade for another organization associated with Stivaletta and his ‘committee’: the Knights of Columbus who provided funding (undisclosed and unrecorded) for the Columbus statue (as well as many others across the United States).

As the world’s largest Christian brotherhood and Catholic fraternal service organization originally founded in the U.S. in the late 19th century, the namesake and patron of the Knights of Columbus(KoC)—Christopher Columbus itself—was intended as nothing more than a religiously-motivated and politically aimed rebuke at Protestants when they were founded. The Knights’ influence across the United States in the 20th century is extensive. They were not only the original proponents of Columbus Day (the so-called day of national pride observed since 1934), but also regular, financial contributors to the Vatican. Lending the appearance of credibility as a ‘right arm’ of the Pope (‘his Knights’) was sought to bring symbolic legitimacy from the Catholic Church by way of proximity. The strange but strategic enunciation of Columbus’ exploits in the opening lines of Pope John Paul II’s speech in the Fall of 1979 at the Boston Common for example, testify to the extent of the appearance of that influence:

“Dear brothers and sisters, dear young people of America, earlier today, I set foot on the soil of the United States of America. In the name of Christ I begin a pastoral journey that will take me to several of your cities. At the beginning of this year, I had the occasion to greet this continent and its people from a place where Christopher Columbus landed; today I stand at this gateway to the United States, and again I greet all of America. For its people, wherever they are, have a special place in the love of the Pope.”

Those glorifying words of the Pope came amidst an intensely divisive and racialized atmosphere in the city. The Pope’s speech, and the park’s inauguration later that month, came just days after the shooting of Darryl Williams (1964-2010) in late September 1979. The 15-year old, African-American football player from Roxbury, was shot in the back during a high school football game in the white neighborhood of Charleston, just north of Boston, leaving him paralyzed for life.

Illegal Statue on Public Land. If the park’s renaming was a political exchange, the statue was the prize. The privately-funded artifact was unlawfully placed on public land in less than an afternoon by AJ Norwood of Norwood Monumental Works in 1979 that since then, has been maintained and repaired with public funds. According to the chronology we have put together from the Public Archives and Public Records of the City of Boston (see Addendum: “A Chronology of Christopher Columbus Park”), the statue was installed through expedited means without necessary approvals from the City Departments of the Boston Arts Commission nor the Department of Parks & Recreation. In spite of the extensive records, design plans, and construction drawings that Sasaki Associates holds as the original park planners of Waterfront Park, not a single record (financial, architectural, logistical) exists for the purchase, commission, or installation of Columbus statue.

Despite the claims made on the plaque of the statue, our research on the original marble source and sculptor further shows that it has little to no artistic merit nor artisanal value. Acclaimed author, urban critic, and landscape architect Jane Holtz Kay even dubbed it “a piece of soap sculpture” back in 1998 akin to cheap statues that are typically of low quality and poor workmanship. In spite of the famed region of Carrara in north-west Italy from where the marble originates, the region had become by the middle of the 20th century a sweat-shop of milquetoast replicas and global factory of exploited labor that annually produced a massive amount of mediocre sculptures like the studio of Professor Nelli who reportedly created the statue in Boston. Information from testimonials of descendants from the marble suppliers (Benedetti & Bonatti) and statue installers (Norwood Monumental Works) commissioned by Arthur Stivaletta confirm this. Ironically, even in the October 21st, 1979 Inauguration Pamphlet, a comparative analysis between the cover image and the actual statue illustrates the extent of lies and consistent pattern of deception of Columbus Park: the public pamphlet displays a completely different image of a famed Columbus statue from the 19th century on its front cover. It was a sculpture from one of the oldest cathedrals in Cuba, Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion, whose image used to make the cheap copy for the park in Boston.

The renaming of ‘Waterfront Park’ to ‘Columbus Park’ that took place on Inauguration Day, October 21st, 1979 and the placement of a statue at the very center of the park was thus not only oppressive, it was and still is divisive. It is a contradiction to all the past efforts of desegregation made to integrate diverse cultures and bring communities together, it was a direct affront to the racial justice initiatives that were desperately and urgently needed at the time. Even the original park planners publicly objected to the renaming and were never consulted on the choice or location of the Columbus statue. In fact, Mr. Dawson, Principal Emeritus of Sasaki Associates, stated in a personal interview “that the location of the statue sits precisely in a location of the park that was always intended to remain open and unobstructed, with views to the water. This is one of the main reasons why the historical plaque dedicated to Frank S. Christian sits flush with the ground, off the main pathway…it is completely unobtrusive.”

In other words, the central towering statue of Columbus, standing on top of an oversized granite base, was a trophy of Stivaletta’s ‘committee of one.’

The events of 1979 thus trace a deceptive campaign of disinformation, a deliberate covering up of private interest, utter corruption of public process, and contempt for community consent. All this, to impose a figure of Columbus on the City of Boston, in spite of numerous monuments on private and public lands that already existed throughout the region by 1979: a statue at Louisburg Square (c.1849), the Columbus Avenue in Downtown Boston (c.1860), the Young Columbus sculpture at MFA Boston (c.1870), and a statue at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Revere (c.1892, relocated in the 1920s from the South End’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross). These examples, among several others (like Columbus Park in South Boston renamed Joe Moakley Park in 2001), were identified later on and compiled in what we consider to be an important green file’ that was created by then Boston Arts Commission Director Sarah Hutt (BAC, 1995-2007). In this file, the Director raised important questions and considerable concerns about mounting costs associated with conservation and restoration, as a result of the first known beheading of the Columbus statue back in 2002, and again on 2005, notwithstanding countless other incidents. The file on record even includes ideas about the relocation of the statue, raising critical questions about the statue, and its ownership, as private property on public land.

Weaponization of Urban Space: White Supremacy & Racial Division during an Era of Desegregation

Thirdly, from an urban perspective, the corruption of public process occurred during a period of heightened racial tensions in Boston as mentioned earlier. As you may already be aware, those tensions were largely fueled by white fears of cultural integration and white opposition to social equality during the 1970s; a crisis triggered by the school desegregation program and busing policies that were federally-mandated in 1974 and 1975.

According to the Federal Justice system, “desegregation was a long time coming to Boston, a Federal Court Order finally bore through two decades of resistance. Boston was found willfully creating and perpetuating a segregated school system.” Not only did this white boycott lead to a backlash of violence against young Black students by instilling fear and emboldening racism throughout the city, it increased spatial and cultural division across the city; places that were intended to be reconnected with the desegregation of City’s educational infrastructure. As you may also be aware, the intention of desegregation was to achieve social justice and racial equality through just and equal access to public education everywhere.

By 1975 and 1979, the social climate of Boston was heated and politically charged. In the absence of any meaningful action to address white aggression by then Mayor Kevin White, Senator Bill Owens from the newly-formed
Black Political Task Force 
went so far as to declare, that “Boston is not safe for People of Color.”

Forty-one years later, those same words were similarly spoken by Monica Cannon-Grant, founder of Violence in Boston, during the organized vigil for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at Franklin Park, earlier in June. As you probably know, the grounds of Franklin Park occupy an extremely important part of Boston’s African American community and its Black landscapes. Historically, Franklin Park was also the location where the Black Panther Party rallied in 1969, echoing similar demands in their fight against the chronic urban problems of systemic racism, under-representation, and over-policing. They, too, called for the renaming of that historical space.

The renaming of the park and the placement of the statue (including its location and its representation) serve to divide the space and the city politically, ideologically, spatially, and culturally. It goes against everything the city, and arguably the country, have been advocating and fighting for since the rise of the Civil Rights movement. For four decades, the illegitimate park and statue have also legitimized a false understanding of history under the illusion and ideological pretense of political endorsements from the Church, the Pope, the Knights of Columbus, business merchants, news media, all of which are historically tied to a part of the Italian-American community and the Catholic Church.

Honoring Indigenous Lands & Black Landscapes

The divisive nature and racialization of the park that took place in 1979, although has since remained relatively unquestioned by news media and local scholars, is completely and historically unacceptable. The park’s name and statue are public displays of racist shame. The statue isthe vandalism that tarnishes this space form its imposition in late 1979. It is a stain on spatial democracy now, as it was then. The statue and the base should, therefore, be permanently removed. Renaming the park is paramount.

We believe that the acknowledgement and the recognition of historically repressed and oppressed Indigenous Nations must be centered on lands of the Massachusett Peoples, traditional home to Nipmuc and Wampanoag Nations. Not only is this historically important and culturally essential, it is politically vital in the 21st century and it is long overdue.

The City of Boston is currently in a period of tremendous change not unlike the 1970s as we have seen before. Extremely visible are racial and spatial injustices that target communities of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, and further marginalize communities of 2SLGBTQIAS+. As we have shown, calls for racial, social, and economic justice are long overdue; they are the frontlines of the movement for change, as they have been for decades, not to mention, Indigenous Peoples’ resistance against white supremacy and settler-colonial violence that are centuries old.

Any representation in the public realm that perpetuates the myth of the discovery of America and Columbus’ civilizing mission is not only wrong, it is oppressive and it is dehumanizing. These representations and these monuments trigger the recollection and the embodiment of extreme racial violence inflicted on Indigenous Peoples from these lands that are entangled with Black, Enslaved Peoples from Africa. That’s what the visibly-combined opposition to the Columbus statue in 2015 represents.

Across generations, these representations embolden the sense of political self-righteousness and economic domination entrenched by European descendants of Americans, especially those with Italian, French, British, Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish imperial descent. These representations in the public realm reinforce the myth of racial superiority i.e. white supremacy. It breeds a climate of hate, much like the way that Arthur Stivaletta burned the flag of Iran in front of the Columbus statue a few days after the inauguration in 1979. These myths privilege the hierarchy of their European history over others, through the distortion of historical facts and truths. These myths favor illusions based on romantic fantasy and racialized ideology that have shaped and formed the founding of this settler-colonial nation. The myth of white supremacy also serves to erase the very real, daily existence and ways of living of Black and Indigenous Peoples (including their histories, ways of living, and patterns of political organization) that have been destroyed or continue to be subjugated by structures of colonization existing to this day; spatial and material structures that are visibly maintained and upheld across the urban landscape of the City of Boston by the descendants of colonial settlers, otherwise known as settler-colonialism.

The persistence of the myth of white supremacy in the egregious misrepresentation of Columbus across the United States, must stop. And Boston, of all places, is far behind in that transformative change. It is long overdue for the City of Boston to rethink Columbus (as much K-12 school curricula across the nation already does). The Mayor’s Office and the City Council must take a stand against these dangerous misrepresentations by taking these symbols down. They have to be permanently removed from the public realm, making room for the acknowledgement, affirmation, and actualization of historically marginalized communities and underrepresented nations whose voices have been silenced and existence erased for far too long.

If public investment will move away from over-policing and over-incarceration, it clearly needs to center restorative justice that counterbalances and affirms the support, in form of servicing the needs of historically under-serviced and marginalized citizens.

Boston is, of course, not alone in this socio-political challenge. We’re all implicated in this important movement of change but we all find ourselves in a unique, historical position to make unprecedented change and transformation.

In conclusion, we call upon you, Mayor Walsh, to take this moment, to harness the cultural momentum for social and racial justice, as well as the massive support for change that it represents, to right the wrongs of this park for the past 41 years. Permanently remove the entire statue and rename the park in honor of the Peoples of Massachusett who have not only been marginalized, but have been historicized and dehumanized in so many countless ways, including the state flag and school mascots. Every single Bostonian owes their very existence to the care for these lands and waters by the Massachusett Peoples for thousands of years. We have the human and legal responsibility to honor territorial treaties, to acknowledge and honor these lands in this place and in this time…as the sun rises above the city, the bay, and the ocean every single day.

Amidst increasing issues of climate change, these responsibilities unite environmental and social justice so that we can live on this ground not only for the next 40 years, but for the next 400 years. Is there not a better opportunity than the present to leave behind lands for the next generation and to open up a path towards more just, transparent, and humane future? Is this collective future not worth fighting for on the very same day that the State Legislature will be voting on the removal of the racist state flag and the No Mascot Bill in Massachusetts?

We implore you to consult with communities of Black, Indigenous, and Peoples of Color that have been historically and economically marginalized from this space (and who have advocated for change across decades) in order to make the right decision in an open, transparent, and honorable way. Across different communities, your action will help build relations for future generations and leave an important mark on the city. You action will leave a lasting imprint on the water’s edge, and commemorate the plurality of its Citizens and its Peoples, testifying to the hope that the design of the park and the care for these lands originally offered for its children.

Because if not now, then when?

Dr. Pierre Bélanger, Landscape Architect & Urban Planner (Project Co-Director)

Dr. Ghazal Jafari, Architect & Urban Designer (Project Co-Director & Editor)

Pablo Escudero, Architect & Urban Designer (Project Co-Director & Archival Research Lead)

Hernán Bianchi-Benguria, Urban Planner & Architect (Research Advisorial Board)

Tiffany Kaewen Dang, Landscape Architect & Territorial Scholar (Research Advisorial Board)

Alexander Arroyo, Environmental Designer & Landscape Architect (Research Advisorial Board)


Stuart Dawson, Landscape Architect & Urban Planner, Principal Emeritus, Sasaki Associates