In his defense of Christopher Columbus Park and the Columbus statue yesterday, state Rep. Aaron Michlewitz made it sound like both projects were always meant to honor the proud "North End people" of Italian descent, and that nothing should be done to either without their consent.
In fact, the park's origins have little to do with the good people of the North End and more to do with efforts by the then BRA and some downtown businessmen to do something about the decayed morass of ramshackle buildings and train tracks along the waterfront where Atlantic Avenue curves into the North End.
When the park was formally dedicated on May 9, 1976 - in time for the city's celebrations of the American bicentennial - BRA Director Robert Kenney had somebody else in mind for the park: Frank S. Christian, a senior vice president at New England Merchants National Bank and chairman of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, who had begun advocating for a new waterfront of residences and parks and other attractions in 1959.
In 1961, Christian raised $200,000 for a study to bolster his ideas, which the BRA then adopted in 1964. Christian also helped finance a new produce marketplace in Everett for the remaining produce vendors in the area to move to, so their tired buildings could be torn down, and he helped convince the New England Aquarium to move to its current location on what was then called Central Wharf.
So when Kenney spoke at the park's formal opening, he said:
To commemorate Mr. Christian's tireless efforts on behalf of waterfront renewal, the BRA is dedicating the new Waterfront Park on Atlantic Avenue to his memory.
Christian did not live to see the dedication - he died in 1970.
The 4.5-acre park - created in part with a federal grant and designed by Sasaki Associates of Watertown - remained simply Waterfront Park through at least 1979. Listings for events as part of the city's former Summerthing arts festival all refer to Waterfront Park. Waterfront Park was also designated as the last stop on the city's official Walk to the Sea, a sort of Freedom Trail meant to link Government Center to the water.
Then Arthur Stivaletta happened.
Stivaletta was not a North End resident, he lived in Dedham. But he was well known locally, and even nationally, for his pro-war "Wake Up, America" campaign. In 1969, he hired a plane to drop 10,000 fliers in support of the war in Vietnam over an anti-war rally on the Common. Then, a few months later, he organized a pro-war rally - featuring Bob Hope, no less - at City Hall Plaza that attracted some 20,000 people.
Stivaletta began a campaign to rename the park as Christopher Columbus Park, and he commissioned a statue - the one that had its head lopped off this week - to be placed there. The statue was placed in the park in 1979 and it was formally re-named on Oct. 21, 1979, in a ceremony led by Mayor Kevin White, with comments by North End City Councilor Fred Langone and former Gov. John Volpe.
Although he didn't live anywhere near the park, Stivaletta made a point of visiting it for political protests. In 1979, a month after the park's name was changed, he burned an Iranian flag in front of the Columbus statue. In 1981, he burned a Soviet flag there.
In 1999, William Fowler, president of the Massachusetts Historical Society, called the statue a mistake, starting with the fact that many of the Sicilians who made up most of the Italian migration to the North End were fishermen and Columbus never fished a day in his life. But he also objected to the statue - and the nearby trellis - because it blocks access to the water, which missed the whole point of the spot's history as a wharf and place for fishermen to gather. He proposed renaming the park as T Wharf Park, in honor of that history, and the wharf next to Long Wharf where fishing boats once tied up.
H/t Adam Balsam for prompting this all.