Christopher Columbus statues in front of municipal buildings in Meriden and Southington could have different futures.
The Columbus monument outside Meriden City Hall appears headed for removal from city property. The City Council, which has a Democratic majority, is working on how the monument might be removed.
“If we’re looking to foster supportive, non-discriminatory encouragement to our residents, we want to make sure we’re reflecting uplifting messages, not necessarily someone who is increasingly being seen as an oppressive figure in history,” said Sonya Jelks, a City Council Democrat.
The Unison Club gave the monument to the city in 1992 for the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. Jelks said she’ll ask the club if it wants the statue back.
Southington’s Town Council unanimously approved the placement of a Columbus bust in front of the Municipal Center on North Main Street in 2015. When the bust was set to be erected two years later, some town residents protested and opposed its placement.
Victoria Triano, Town Council chairwoman and leader of the Republican majority, said Friday that there were no plans to push for removing the bust of Columbus. She was among the council members who voted for its installation.
“This is relatively recent. This was voted on in 2015,” she said.
She’s not sure if other council members will bring up the issue at a meeting scheduled for Monday but said it’s not on the agenda.
“I think we’re just going to leave it open right now. Let people talk.”
Southington’s statue was bought by local Italian clubs.
Mayors of Hartford and New Haven, both Democrats, recently announced their intention to remove Columbus statues. More than 600 people have signed an online petition in Southington to remove the Columbus bust from the Municipal Center.
Moving the Meriden statue
Jelks is chair of the Meriden council’s parks committee and is looking into how the city would move the Columbus monument. She said taking it from city property would acknowledge the “current movement in the country.”
“We’re back with our new commitment as a council body to look at all the ways in which we can ensure that our residents in Meriden feel racially and ethnically appreciated and properly represented,” Jelks said.
She’s only received one email recently from a city resident wanting the statue removed, but said the issue has come up before. More important to Jelks is working on police brutality, discrimination and systemic racism and she doesn’t want contention over the Columbus monument.
“The statue is a symbol to many of some of those issues, but it’s not in and of itself causing the community extreme harm,” Jelks said.
City leaders have considered moving the monument in previous years, Jelks said. She’s not sure if moving the statue would require council action and public hearings or not.
David Lowell, City Council majority leader and a Democrat, said residents should be able to voice their opinions on the Columbus statue.
“I think it needs to have community engagement to determine what the disposition of it is,” he said.
Unaffiliated Mayor Kevin Scarpati said most residents probably don’t realize there is a monument to Columbus near City Hall, he said. City leaders would consider moving the statue off public property to another “meaningful and public location.”
“There’s obviously been a lot of discussion about the importance of our history and our Italian culture around the Columbus statue. We’re not saying we want to forget history or erase our history, but note that in light of current events, action is necessary at this time,” Scarpati said.
‘Thought it was going to be there forever’
Peter Novicelli is a past president of the Unison Club and was chairman for the city’s 500th celebration of Columbus’ voyage. At the time there were no objections to honoring the Italian explorer.
“It is disappointing,” Novicelli said. “Me, like every other member, thought it was going to be there forever. Times have changed.”
Meriden City Hall.
He said the club members will meet to determine what can be done with the monument. Moving it is a large undertaking and placing it somewhere else would require installing footings. The group doesn’t have a clubhouse.
“They do want it down. They do want it moved,” Novicelli said of city leaders.
The Unison Club was formed by Italian-American businessmen in 1952.
If the club can’t take the statue, Jelks said she’ll reach out to the North Italian Home Club which has a location at 43 Thorpe Avenue.
‘Different side of history’
Tom Lombardi, a Southington Town Council Republican, was one of those voting in favor of putting up the Columbus bust in 2015. He said opposition to the Italian explorer has come up recently.
“Now there’s a different side of history that’s being presented,” he said. “I think for a lot of people, it changes your perspective a little bit, learning about different parts of history.”
Those who see Columbus as a positive figure don’t agree with everything the man did, Lombardi said.
“It’s easy to paint someone as a villain by today’s standards. Obviously society has come a long way,” he said.
Vanessa Hawke, a Plantsville resident, signed the petition to remove the statue and said it had no place on town property.
“This land originally belonged to the indigenous people and the existence of a statue honoring a person who committed genocide against their ancestors is an insult to their heritage,” Hawke said.
Removing the statue wasn’t an attack on the Italian community, she said. Its presence on town land “sends a message about the town’s values.”
Chris Palmieri, council Democrat and minority leader, said he had no plans to bring the issue up but wanted to hear from residents.
“If people want to bring it up under public communication we can decide what to do from there,” he said. “I think it’s important to listen to what our residents have to say.”
Palmieri supported the statue’s placement in 2015.
Triano said the statue wasn’t on the agenda for Monday’s meeting and wasn’t aware of any efforts to get the issue on the agenda.
“No matter what the decision is, there are going to be people who are going to be dissenting,” she said. “We need to be true to ourselves and what we feel.”