After nearly three months of continuous community debate sparked by the removal of the Christopher Columbus monument in Wooster Square on June 24, New Haven is now looking to its Italian American citizens for ideas for an “appropriate” replacement, according to a Sept. 16 memo sent out from New Haven Major Justin Elicker’s office.
The Wooster Square Monument committee, which Elicker appointed after the statue’s removal, has met several times in recent months to discuss a substitute for the monument, according to Bill Iovanne, the committee’s chair. He said the committee has resolved itself to find an idea for the replacement of the Columbus statue from within the city’s Italian American community. Until now, proposals for the new monument have included figures like Giuseppe Garibaldi, the famed Italian general, more abstract depictions of the Italian American family and a representation of a slice of pizza.
“The message and the story to be told is of the Italian immigrant experience,” Iovanne said. “This is an opportunity for our community to have an opinion and open a dialogue. This has been a learning experience for all of us, and that’s the exciting part of this.”
Iovanne said the committee has already recorded over 50 submissions for the monument and said community interest in the project is no surprise given Wooster Square’s long-time nickname as “Little Italy.” Until now, the committee has not evaluated the propositions it has received. The committee will judge the proposals beginning on Oct. 12, the deadline for suggestions, and decide what to commission to artists.
For Iovanne, the project hits close to home.
“I was born and raised in Wooster Square, so anything that happens here is personal for me,” Iovanne said.
Frances Calzetta, President of the American Italian Women of Greater New Haven, was born and raised in Wooster Square, immersed in the Italian culture of New Haven all her life. As the daughter of an affluent Italian merchant who came to America in 1913, she told the News that she cares deeply about her heritage, as well as the ways her hometown might help to preserve it.
Calzetta said she joined the committee to bring a background of both Italian and Italian American knowledge to judge the submissions from a historical context. She told the News that the very existence of a committee formed to replace the Columbus statue, which some did not want to be removed, has split local members of the Italian American community.
“In my conversations with other American Italians, some are very, very upset, and some are not at all in favor of the committee, and that’s a substantial number of people,” Calzetta said. “On the other hand, there are some who are thinking ‘well, if we can’t have Columbus, then I’m willing to make suggestions.’”
In their September announcement, the Mayor’s Office emphasized that the project would be funded entirely through private donations. Calzetta noted that under different conditions, the project would likely be easier to fund from within the Italian American community, but due to the highly contentious debate surrounding the statue’s removal, she imagines many are going to be less likely to contribute financially.
Many outside the Italian American community have also followed the committee’s actions closely. Meghanlata Gupta (Bahweting Anishinaabe) ’21, President of the Association of Native Americans at Yale, emphasized that as an Indigenous person, she was happy to see the statue of Columbus removed this summer and is thankful for the activists in New Haven who fought for these changes. To Gupta, Columbus has represented the beginnings of violent settler-colonialism in this country.
“Statues of him only work to romanticize his racist and oppressive legacy.” Gupta said, “The United States must fully confront its centuries-long history of slavery and genocide.”
As for the work of the committee, Gupta stressed that the Mayor’s Office should consult New Haven’s Indigenous population as submissions continue to come in for the new monument. She said the city should commit to centering new voices, the voices of Native communities in New Haven, going forward.
“Since New Haven was founded on stolen land, it’s important that the Mayor’s Office acknowledge this history,” Gupta said. “I would personally like to see a statue commemorating local Indigenous presence, strength and resistance.”
Ward 10 Alder Anna Festa said this process has been one of mixed emotions for her and the Italian Americans of New Haven as a whole. Her parents were both born in southern Italy, and came to the United States in the early ’60s. Festa told the News that many in her community see Columbus as someone who “took a chance,” a representation of the journey Italian Americans took to find a better life. Festa added that under a modern context, there are important issues with his legacy everyone should reflect upon.
“There’s lessons to be learned,” Festa said. “There should be no disrespect to Indigenous people. No one deserves to be treated any less than a human.”
Festa also stressed that whatever should replace Columbus would need to reflect the strong symbols of immigration and the hope that many Italian Americans saw in the previous statue. Iovanne said the committee is not taking this task lightly, and recognized that even though the committee itself is a temporary body, its impact will be permanent on the place he, like so many other Italian Americans, has called home for so many years.
Wooster Square is home to over 3,000 of New Haven’s 130,000 residents.
Thomas Birmingham | firstname.lastname@example.org