WHAT’S MISSING FROM THE FRANK RIZZO STATUE DEBATE? A HISTORY OF WHERE IT STANDS
In hindsight: Philadelphians have been debating a controversial mayor’s statue, but the history of the plaza on which it stands has yet to be part of the conversation.
Like many Americans, Philadelphians are wrestling with how to memorialize, or de-memorialize, certain historical figures in their city. Some have called for a rethinking of a large monument to Christopher Columbus on the Delaware River waterfront. Others have questioned the lack of public monuments to African Americans: the recently unveiled memorial to Civil Rights activist Octavius V. Catto is the city’s first. And many residents have discussed the temporary monuments installed by Monument Lab, a project that aims to cultivate a “citywide conversation about history, memory, and our collective future.”
The hottest monument debate centers on the city’s memorial to one of its recent mayors: Frank L. Rizzo. Erected in 1998, the nine-foot statue depicts a man who served as Philadelphia’s police commissioner and mayor during the late 1960s and 1970s. Citizens have sparred over the mayor’s controversial legacy and debated whether his statue should remain in its prominent position across from City Hall. Yet none have drawn attention to the ways that Rizzo’s statue resonates in histories of urban renewal that shaped the plaza on which it stands.
Rizzo’s legacy reflects the controversies he cultivated as a municipal official. His proponents today celebrate him as a champion of law-and-order policing that diminished crime and urban unrest and made him a local hero of Philadelphia’s Italian-American community. Others remember Rizzo as an enemy of civil liberties who promoted racist and homophobic policing, violent attacks on protestors, and intimidation of the press. The political immediacy of these issues, as well as Rizzo’s presence in living memory, inflame debates over his legacy and statue with particular urgency.
Rizzo’s statue resonates in histories of urban renewal that shaped the plaza on which it stands.
Many Philadelphians have formed their opinions about the statue by assessing its location as well as Rizzo’s legacy. Perched atop a flight of stairs in Thomas Paine Plaza, the memorial stands directly in front of Philadelphia’s Municipal Services Building. Arm raised, the figure faces City Hall across the street and towers over pedestrians in the symbolic center of Philadelphia. Some residents argue that the locus of municipal government suits a mayoral monument, even a contentious one. Others say that the prominence of the installation amplifies a celebration of brutality and discrimination.
Yet public debate has not considered what the Rizzo statue communicates about the history of the place where it was erected. The plaza and the building that forms its backdrop were built as part of a mid-century campaign to remake Philadelphia in the image of the modern urban ideal. The site’s construction was marked by the racial discrimination that often marred attempts to create democratic public spaces through “urban renewal.”
In 1962, the city of Philadelphia commissioned modernist architect Vincent Kling to build the 18-story Municipal Services Building in Reyburn Plaza. The new office building and raised plaza replaced a flat, open square where Philadelphians had gathered for concerts, speeches, and protests (and sometimes free parking). Kling’s design contributed to the downtown revitalization plan of Edmund Bacon, the famed city planner at the helm of Philadelphia’s planning commission. This plan melded modernist principles of architecture and urban design to develop high-rise buildings in concert with surrounding plazas of open space. These features aimed to foster a new type of urban public space that reversed city depopulation in an era of suburbanization and encouraged democratic gatherings during the Cold War.
Today’s Reyburn Plaza — since renamed Thomas Paine Plaza — arose from this optimistic vision for urban public space. But it was also shaped by the shortcomings of its execution. The renovation of Reyburn Plaza was part of a master plan that displaced many city residents and demanded demolition of many homes. One mile away, at a different symbolic core of Philadelphia, Bacon leveled blocks of nineteenth-century buildings to build the grassy expanse of Independence Mall. Southeast from there, he cleared Society Hill of “slums” and low-income residents to make way for high-rise apartment towers surrounded by green space. He also built new rowhouses intended to improve public street life. Modern highways, like I-95, broke up neighborhoods to speed automobile travel and welcome visitors’ cars into the city. African Americans disproportionately suffered the loss of home, community, and tangible markers of history wrought by the construction of these so-called public amenities.
Back at Reyburn Plaza, construction crews for the Municipal Services Building exemplified the racial discrimination prevalent in the building trades that built the city’s modern public spaces. Despite its nondiscrimination law, the municipality awarded contracts for the $18 million building project to labor unions with no African-American members. In 1963, Philadelphia’s chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality called attention to the lack of skilled black workers employed on municipal building projects. Their protests pressured Mayor James E. Tate to halt construction on the Municipal Services Building. Though N. A. A. C. P. leader Cecil B. Moore brokered an agreement with the building trades to hire skilled workers of color at municipal sites and offer them union memberships, black workers remained largely excluded. This lack of integration, union leaders insisted, resulted from loyalty to family and ethnic communities. Investigatory evidence showed otherwise.
The statue invokes Rizzo’s law-and-order, often violent, approach to shutting down protests in a space designed for public assembly and frequently inhabited for the expression of civil dissent.
Embodied in his memorial at the top of the plaza stairs, Frank Rizzo’s legacy weighs on these histories of urban renewal. The statue invokes Rizzo’s law-and-order, often violent, approach to shutting down protests in a space designed for public assembly and frequently inhabited for the expression of civil dissent. Characterizations of the statue as a celebration of ethnic history and neighborhood loyalty echo defenses of racist hiring practices during the site’s construction. And the statue evokes memories of discrimination and police brutality against African-Americans in a place whose very construction contributed to discrimination and displacement of the same communities — all in the name of public good.
Recent initiatives have tentatively begun to reshape Thomas Paine Plaza into better public space. The Philadelphia Art Commission is currently considering if, and how, to respond to public commentary on the Rizzo statue. A temporary Afro pick sculpture celebrates Black Power adjacent to the mayor’s figure. Next summer, an urban garden will transform the modernist slabs of concrete into productive green space to help fill city food banks. As city residents continue to test ideas about what to preserve, remove, and build in the plaza, they would do well to think about how their plans speak to the neglected history of how this site came to be.
Whitney Martinko’s column for the Lepage Center this fall focuses on how early histories of historic preservation in the U.S. can inform debates over historic monuments today. She is an assistant professor of History at Villanova University.