The surge of online petitions and marches to remove Columbus monuments across New York City has come to Astoria Boulevard.
Over a hundred people, including state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria), marched from Astoria Park to the neighborhood’s Columbus monument on June 17 to demand that it be removed as a way of reckoning with his legacy of murdering and enslaving indigenous people in the Americas.
Now the call to take the monument down has gained the support of Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria), and some civic leaders, under the condition that it be replaced with another Italian-American figure.
For the past month, police have barricaded the statue in Columbus Square. Passersby have noticed the near-constant presence of a police cruiser hovering next to the memorial.
The history of the city’s Columbus monuments carries with it a complicated relationship with the Italian community, many of whom embraced the explorer and colonizer as a hero in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in order to combat anti-Italian and anti-Catholic xenophobia.
The Federation of Italian-American Organizations of Queens runs the annual Astoria Columbus parade that winds up at the statue where electeds and others give laudatory speeches about the significance of Columbus Day. In previous years the celebration brought out Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria), Gianaris and Constantinides — all of whom are now in favor of taking it down.
Jerry Iannece, vice president of the FIAOQ and chairman of the Columbus Day Parade, said he is categorically against the removal of the statue.
“To come out and just say we want to rip the statue down — it’s just the wrong approach. It’s offensive. It’s disrespectful to the Italian community,” Iannece said. “History is history, period, warts and all. If you start with Columbus where do you end?”
Iannece added that the history of the statue itself, which was provided by the Works Progress Administration in 1941 and hidden to stop it from being used for scrap metal during World War II, made it too valuable to remove.
The group that organized the march in June, the Queens Liberation Project, formerly known as Justice for George Queens, wants the statue taken down as a way of contending with early America’s violence against native people and showing solidarity “between black, indigenous peoples and between all oppressed peoples.”
Trasonia Abbott, an organizer for the group, speaking personally, said that she sees no problem with replacing Columbus with another Italian-American figure “who wasn’t genocidal.” She referred specifically to Columbus’ interactions with the Ta’no population in Cuba and Haiti. On his second expedition, Columbus began requiring a tribute of gold from the population. If they did not deliver, the Spaniards would cut off their hands and leave them to bleed to death, according to historical accounts.
“Hopefully Italian-Americans see that the guy is not representing them the best way,” said Abbott.
Richard Khuzami, head of the Old Astoria Neighborhood Association, agreed that the statue should be replaced with another symbol of Italian-American pride.
Khuzami suggested Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia or Rep. Geraldine Ferraro as among other possibilities. “It could be someone like [Leonardo] Da Vinci or Michaelangelo.”
Meanwhile online commenters have suggested Astoria natives like actor Christopher Walken or singer Tony Bennett.
While Queens Liberation Project’s online petition only gained 84 supporters, the march itself brought out greater numbers of people and attracted the attention of electeds.
“There are more than two centuries of figures — from governors and vice presidential candidates to baseball stars and musicians — who better represent Italian-American values of hard work, community service, and family,” said Constantinides in a statement.
Constantinides went on to demand that the city must expedite the recommendations of the Monuments Commission, a group that Mayor de Blasio formed in 2017 to address calls to take down memorials connected to racist or imperialist views. Since then, de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo both have resisted the call to replace Columbus statues in the city.
In 2018, the Monuments Commission recommended against replacing the statue in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle. Instead, it emphasized “additive measures” like signs with historical context, and the commission of a new monument recognizing indigenous peoples, at a different location by 2022.
Constantinides criticized the mayor’s failure to show that he’s making an effort to follow through on this promise.
“We have seen little action in the last two years to honor both the Lenape and other indigenous groups,” he said.
This article has been updated to amend Richard Khuzami's suggestions for possible replacement statues; he initially had suggested Nikola Tesla, someone he mistakenly thought was Italian but was actually Serbian.