Monday, October 14, 2013

Our Columbus Monument

I've never understood why Columbus has his own federal holiday. And I've never understood why Italian-Americans (at least, the ones in Norristown) are so enamored with the man. We could celebrate so many other great Italians--scientists like Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo, artists like Michelangelo, Raphael and Donatello (Italians before being ninja turtles), composers like Rossini and Puccini. You want an explorer? Marco Polo gave the western world pasta. You want an American connection? Caesar Rodney was the Italian-American who, in 1776, dragged himself out of his sickbed and rode to Philadelphia so he could cast Delaware's deciding vote for Independence, then sign the Declaration.

Columbus is said to have discovered America. Of course, there were indigenous people here thousands of years before 1492. The Vikings had settlements on Greenland and almost definitely as far west as New England between AD 800 and 1200. And now a Chinese map has been found, dated 1418, that clearly shows all of North and South America. We could call Columbus the guy who "brought Christianity to the New World," but he didn't do it in a very Christian way, so we probably shouldn't brag about it.

If Columbus had been an immigrant to Norristown in the early 1900s, a Genoan like him would have been shunned by all the Sicilians and Southern Italians here. As far as local Italians would have been concerned, Columbus was practically French.

But we've had a monument to him in Elmwood Park, of a sort, since 1926. The first was erected by the local Italian-American organizations. It looked kind of like a large granite tombstone, facing Harding Boulevard at the top of the path that comes up the hill. The plague read simply "On this site will be erected a statue of CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS." Then the stock market crashed, the Depression hit Norristown, and the plans for a statue were abandoned.

From the road, all you could read was the name. Norristonians took the monument for granted and forgot all about the statue.

In 1984, vandals broke the stone and carried off the part with the plaque. Hank Ciaccio (aka Hank Cisco--now Norristown's Ambassador) took it upon himself to find the rest. When he did, and saw what was written on the plaque, he started a new campaign for a Columbus monument.

It took 6 years to raise three-fifths of the money needed. In 1990, sculptors began work on the 15th century ship atop a framework of the world that we see today. The entire monument was designed by architect Alfred Panepinto. The rest of the money was eventually raised, and the monument completed, fountain and all, and dedicated on October 12, 1992. And this time, they put it behind a tall fence to protect it from vandals. Then again, it also keeps the public from enjoying it. Sort of the same concept as putting plastic slipcovers on the furniture--also a very Italian thing to do.

Does the story stop there? Of course not. The fountain was off more than on and, due to plumbing problems, shut off completely in little more than 10 years. In 2009, it was restored, with help from the Montco DA's Community Service Program.

So for now, we've got a nice monument in Elmwood Park. Hopefully it'll be maintained. As much as I don't like Columbus, or the historic tendency of Norristonians to build something, then walk away and forget they're responsible for the upkeep, I have to say, I like the Columbus Monument a lot. It's a lovely piece of artwork and it's nice to have a fountain in the park (I hope they're recycling water--does anyone know?).

As I've said before, I'd love to see more sculpture in Norristown. We have a 9/11 sculpture next to the courthouse, which many residents don't know about. We have a few monuments in the public square but they're rather limited in artistic appeal. Still, sculptures cost money and we need it for so many other things, that public artwork isn't feasible. But the Columbus Monument was built by the Italian-Americans of Norristown, so there's no reason why other segments of our population couldn't ban together to pay artistic tribute to some person or event or idea. Think about it.

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