Philadelphia is the “City of Firsts.” In 1959, the city launched the nation’s first Percent for Art program which requires some developers to “dedicate at least one percent of the total building construction costs toward the commissioning of original, site-specific works of art.” In the ensuing years, the city has commissioned hundreds of works of art, including the Philadelphia Courthouse Mural.
Contrary to popular belief, the city did not commission the Frank Rizzo monument. The monument was commissioned by the Frank L. Rizzo Memorial Committee which was led by Frank Rizzo, Jr. So the public was never given an opportunity to weigh in on whether his father deserved to be honored in a public space.
In the run-up to the 2016 election, the New York Times reported:
A former police officer who was nicknamed Big Bambino, Mr. Rizzo rose to power during the city’s crime-ridden 1960s and ’70s, cracking down on lawlessness with a legendary bellicosity.
After becoming police commissioner, he rounded up homosexuals late at night, forced the Black Panthers to strip down in the streets and once appeared with a nightstick stuffed in the cummerbund of his tuxedo. As mayor, he threatened to “break the heads” of criminals and boasted that his Police Department was strong enough to invade Cuba.
Timothy J. Lombardo, author of the forthcoming The Rise of Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and the Politics of the Urban Crisis, observed:
The difference between Rizzo and Trump is that Rizzo was the real deal. Rizzo has the authenticity, but Trump is really good at playing that role.
Given the parallels, New York City art dealer John Post Lee and I decided to introduce the pop-up Trump Rat statue to the pay-to-play Rizzo monument.
The idea that anyone in my native Philly ever thought that there should be a statue of Frank Rizzo, Philadelphia’s mayor from 1972 to 1980, is astonishing. He was, and remains, a human stain. If there is a statue of Rizzo, then we might as well have a statue of the inflamed Eagle fans who pelted Santa Claus with snowballs at Veterans Stadium.
It’s high time that Philly’s biggest rat came face-to-face with the rat who now threatens the very norms and decency of American civic life. The inflatable Trump Rat began as a mischievous art project but has evolved into an enduring sign of resistance, helping to lead protests against Trump’s policies.
The conversation between the pop-up and pay-to-play public art underscored the absurdity of Rizzo’s presence at the gateway to city services.
Public art should not be about nostalgists romanticizing a public figure. Public art is about public memory. The thin slice of supporters in South Philly notwithstanding, the collective memory of Frank Rizzo is that of a divisive politician who reigned over a city in decline. Rizzo left a legacy of police brutality, racism, sexism, homophobia and attacks on free speech. Rizzo’s legacy begs the question: Why is the monument still there?