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‘Staff Error’ Led to Padlock on Bronx Home to Contested Columbus Statue, Says Parks Dept.

A statue of Christopher Columbus in D’Auria-Murphy Triangle in the Little Italy section of The Bronx, Aug. 24, 2020.
A statue of Christopher Columbus in D’Auria-Murphy Triangle in the Little Italy section of The Bronx, Aug. 24, 2020.
Ese Olumhense/THE CITY

The city Department of Parks and Recreation says that “staff error” led to the repeated padlocking of a green space in the Little Italy section of The Bronx where petition-signers are demanding the city remove a statue of Christopher Columbus.

That statue has been assigned a police guard, the Norwood News reported earlier this month, with a two-person unit outside the D’Auria-Murphy Triangle since June — one of a number of NYPD posts at Columbus statues in the city, including at Columbus Circle.

The park has been locked when police are not at the scene, said Felix Cepeda, 39, a Castle Hill resident who started the petition last month to take down the bust, citing Columbus’ legacy of slavery and brutality in the Caribbean, long documented by historians.

Activist Felix Cepeda started a petition to remove the Christopher Columbus statute from D’Auria-Murphy Triangle in the Little Italy section of The Bronx, Aug. 24, 2020.
Activist Felix Cepeda started a petition to remove the Christopher Columbus statute from D’Auria-Murphy Triangle in the Little Italy section of The Bronx, Aug. 24, 2020.
Ese Olumhense/THE CITY

When contacted by THE CITY earlier this week, a spokesperson for the parks department had said that the closure was “not a Parks effort,” while a police spokesperson said: “the NYPD does not open or close the D’Auria Murphy triangle.”

THE CITY found the park locked on a Monday afternoon visit this week. It was opened a day later, the Parks Department said.

“The park is being opened daily. Its closure prior was a staff error that has been addressed,” said Crystal Howard, a spokesperson for the Parks Department, in a Friday email.

Symbol for Italian Community

The Columbus statue in Little Italy — one of five in New York City and the only one in The Bronx — was installed in 1992. The bust was carved in 1925 by an Italian immigrant and sculptor who settled in The Bronx and was initially located at a nearby school.

While backlash has mounted against Columbus for his decision to enslave some of the indigenous Caribbeans living in the places he ventured, Italian-Americans continue to celebrate him as an icon.

“It’s a symbol of the history of the Italian community in our area,” said Frank Franz, a longtime Belmont resident who serves as treasurer of the local business improvement district.

Although the community has changed demographically over the decades, with fewer Italian families calling the Belmont area home, the presence of the statue has not been a problem before, Franz said. It’s been in the community for almost 100 years without incident, he noted.

“We’ve got real problems in the world and this isn’t one of them,” said Franz.

But “for many Indigenous and Black people Columbus only represents oppression,” reads the Bronx petition, addressed to Mayor Bill de Blasio. “All the Columbus statues need to be removed in NYC.”

The mayor’s office referred questions from THE CITY to the Parks Department.

“We recognize the importance of a contemporary reevaluation of historical figures,” a Parks spokesperson told NY1. “Parks will engage in conversation with those who express concern.”

Similar efforts across the country have resulted in the removal of other Columbus statues. In some cases, the figures were forcefully brought down by protestors.

Cepeda doesn’t want the statue to be pulled down in a violent confrontation, he said.

“It doesn’t have to happen,” he told THE CITY. “No one wants violence and chaos. We don’t want that.”

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