The Debated Origins of Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park
You'll get a different answer who built the North End Boston park depending on who you ask. If you ask the Massachusetts State Council of the Knights of Columbus they'll say they built it. If you ask anyone else they'll likely say it was the work of Frank S Christian and the Boston Redevolpment Authority (BRA).
Christian had been advocating for the revitalisation of North End's waterfront since 1959. Over the decade that followed he raised considerable interest in the project, not to mention funds. He died in 1970 but his work was continued by the BRA and, at last, in 1976 the Waterfront Park was opened in his honor.
Why then is it called 'Christopher Columbus' Park? To answer that we need to look at warmonger and provocateur Arthur Stilvetta.
The Renaming of Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park
Despite having little association with North End, Stilvetta, a resident of Dedham, had gained a degree of notoriety in the area ( and across the city) for his protests in favor of the Vietnam war. These included hiring a plane to drop 10,000 pro-war flyers and organising a rally of 20,000 people.
In 1979, war now over, he turned his attentions towards Waterfront Park. First he commissioned a statue of Columbus to be placed there and after that he solicited the support of Mayor Kevin White in a bid to change its name. This change was made official in October 1979, the park ostensibly being rededicated to North End's large Italian American population. It has been a subject of controversy ever since.
Beheadings in Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park
Stilvetta remained a frequent visitor of the park, using it as a base for his protests. In 1979 he burnt an Iranian flag next to the statue of Columbus and in 1981 he followed this up with the burning of a Soviet flag. The statue, to him, symbolised a certain ideal of America, but some objected to this. Objected violently.
In 2004 the statue was painted red with the word 'murderer'. In 2006 it was beheaded for the first time. In 2015 the red paint came back, this time accompanied with the slogan 'Black Lives Matter'. Finally, in 2020, it was beheaded and the head stolen. The statue was then removed and put in storage. It has since been repaired and given to the Knights of Columbus to use in their North End affordable housing development.
The Ever-Changing Legacy of Columbus
Why make such a fuss over a statue? Columbus was not so long ago seen by many as the father of America, but his true story is more complicated and darker than this might make out.
In 1492 he landed in the West Indies whilst trying to find a new route to China and India. Immediately he was impressed by the physiques seen in the local population, writing in his diary they should make 'good servants'. He enslaved them and forced them to mine gold. After a matter of years their numbers had been decimated, lives claimed by both brutal mistreatment and foreign illness.
In 1499 the Spanish monarchs got wind of what was happening and arrested Columbus, stripping him of his title. His legacy tarnished, the history books of the next century viewed him as a minor figure, if they mentioned him at all. He might even have been forgotten if, in the 16th century, Italian and Spanish writers hadn't started using him as a character in poems and plays. As it was however he gradually became part of the western narrative of colonialisation and empire building.
In the 18th century, following the American revolution, he was adopted by the newly founded United States as a national icon and incorporated into the country's fledgling mythology. His legend was altered again, shortly after, by Irish, Jewish and Italian immigrants, to whom he became an ethnic hero.
This notion of Columbus, 'father of America', remained largely unchallenged until the late 20th century when a new narrative was formed, one that holds him accountable for the genocide of indigenous people and for environmental destruction.
As such, we today have four competing views of him. He is either: 1) a pioneer and hero, 2) an evil murderer, 3) a combination/compromise of/between the two, or 4) a man of little relevance beyond the mythology built around him. The contrast between these views makes him a provocative symbol that some champion and others would rather behead.
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