‘People are angry’: A Roxbury mural was destroyed to make way for new housing, spurring a wave of backlash

"Things are changing, the demographics (are) changing. It still represented the Black neighborhood."

The demolition of a Roxbury mural that placed Nelson Mandela’s gaze above Warren Street generated swift condemnation Thursday, as a local developer cleared the property to bring in a 99-unit housing complex.

Videos and photos posted online show crews breaking up the “Roxbury Love” installation — a multi-colored display that prominently featured an image of the first Black president of South Africa.

The mural, created by Richard Gomez, who goes by the street art name Deme5, and Thomas Burns, also known by the moniker Kwest, was painted over four days in 2014 as part of a program by the city’s Office of Arts & Culture and the Boston Art Commission.

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The wall sat on the site of a church and several vacant buildings in poor condition, where Cruz Companies, a Roxbury-based and minority-owned development company, is slated to bring in a blend of family and elderly housing units and office and commercial space to a 54,670-square-foot property, city records show.

The plans, which include removing and replacing the mural, were approved in 2016 by the Boston Planning and Development Agency.

Gomez and others, even with the plan in place, say Thursday’s tear-down still cut deep.

“I’ve been wrestling with my thoughts on all of this,” Gomez said in a statement posted to Instagram Friday. “If I think rationally, I can say I knew this mural wasn’t going to be permanent. But if I go with my heart, to say that this mural meant a lot to me is an understatement.”

 

 

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I’ve been wrestling with my thoughts on all of this. If I think rationally, I can say I knew this mural wasn’t going to be permanent. But if I go with my heart, to say that this mural meant a lot to me is an understatement. It was a layout that just came to me one day and I knew it needed to be on a wall in my neighborhood. I was trying to secure one in Grove Hall, but the bureaucracy of it all halted that idea. Then came this wall. I was brought in by another party, whose idea was just to tag it up with graffiti, but I knew Roxbury Love belonged there. With the help of Kwest and support from Byg, and the neighborhood folks who supported us from afar, we were able to paint Roxbury Love on that wall in 4 days. It was a battle getting Mandela just right, using just my eyes and a reference image about the size of a Polaroid. I can’t adequately express what seeing and hearing people’s feelings about Roxbury Love means to me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I painted this for the community I love. And it was a source of pride to see people taking pictures in front of it, to have it be listed as one of the city’s top public works of art. Y’all don’t know this but I would routinely clean up around that wall – pick up trash, rip out weeds and touch up what I could on the painting itself. A lot of people don’t even know I painted this. And that’s fine because I did this more for the people of Roxbury than for me. I made the choice not to sign it so the community of Roxbury could claim ownership. Unfortunately, The people of Roxbury didn’t own it. And though I had been in touch with the developer, to potentially work out a way to preserve it, or possibly create a new piece for the new building, or at least be notified of when the demo was gonna happen, none of these thing came to fruition. This is sappy as fuck, but I would’ve liked to have had the chance to say goodbye. #roxburylove is a #toughlove #boston #roxbury #artist #mandela #gentrification

A post shared by Deme5 (@deme_phive) on

On Twitter, others said the move represented another casualty in a gentrifying neighborhood, and lamented that the mural wasn’t preserved or worked into the forthcoming project.

Many said they didn’t know the mural was even being removed, at least this week.

“People are angry,” Toy Burton, founder and executive director of DeeDee’s Cry, a suicide prevention and family support organization, and the Roxbury Unity Parade, told Boston.com Friday. “People are surprised because I’m not sure if there was a date for the demolition to happen, but what I’m seeing online, people didn’t know.”

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Burton, who grew up on nearby Waverly Street, had seen that wall throughout her life. When the mural graced it a few years after she moved back to the area, she immediately fell in love with the painting, she said.

She even put photos of it on her flyers for the Unity Parade — the most recent one was held last week, by caravan, she said.

There was something about the painting that was quintessentially Roxbury, according to Burton.

“Things are changing, the demographics (are) changing,” she said. “It still represented the Black neighborhood.”

City Councilor At-Large Julia Mejia, on Twitter, wrote the mural’s removal “felt like someone poured rubbing alcohol on an open wound.”

“While I am relieved that a developer of color is building affordable housing here, like others I am mourning the loss of this mural! Hoping we can all walk away with lessons learned,” she wrote.

In a video, Gomez is asked how it feels to look at the construction vehicles chopping the mural up. He responds, “Disposable.”

“A lot of people don’t even know I painted this. And that’s fine because I did this more for the people of Roxbury than for me. I made the choice not to sign it so the community of Roxbury could claim ownership,” he said in the statement.

“Unfortunately, the people of Roxbury didn’t own it,” Gomez continued. “And though I had been in touch with the developer, to potentially work out a way to preserve it, or possibly create a new piece for the new building, or at least be notified of when the demo was gonna happen, none of these thing came to fruition. This is sappy as f***, but I would’ve liked to have had the chance to say goodbye.”

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According to final plans for the housing project — which will include a mix of affordable and market rate units — the developer will work with the Office of Arts & Culture to “replace the existing site mural with an object of public art that would be erected or installed, either on-site or in the vicinity of the site.” The installation has a proposed budget of $8,000.

Kara Elliott-Ortega, the city’s chief of arts and culture, told WBUR her office knew the mural was supposed to be torn down but did not know it would happen Thursday.

The coronavirus pandemic put discussions officials were having with property owners about recommissioning the mural somewhere else on hold, she said.

“We’re still really interested in getting that done — it’s an important landmark and should have a second life,” Elliott-Ortega told the news station.

Burton, in response to the mural’s removal, is organizing an event for next week titled, “Roxbury Lost,” which is framed as “a candid discussion about Roxbury’s history, culture, and landmarks going away and how do these things affect our mental health,” according to its Facebook page.

Additionally, another event, organized by the Party for Socialism and Liberation Boston, also puts the mural’s demolition front and center. Artists, residents, and organizers are slated to take to the street outside the site on Monday from 6:30 to 8 p.m. to rally for an end to gentrification and for investment in the arts, culture, and social services, according to a Facebook page.

“Despite a limited input process in 2016, no clear notice or outreach was given to nearby residents notifying people about the demolition this past Thursday,” the event page says. “The demolition of this cultural landmark in Roxbury is a continuation of ongoing disinvestment and destruction of arts and culture in historically Black neighborhoods of Boston.”

Burton’s event, which will be held over Facebook Live, is currently slated for Wednesday from 7 to 8:30 p.m., although Burton said the date and time are subject to change as the event comes together.

According to Burton, while the loss of the “Roxbury Love” mural is a catalyst for the conversation, discussion will center on the emotional and mental impact of Roxbury’s rapid changes in recent years.

“We are hurting right now,” she said.

Update: Cruz Companies released a statement on behalf of President and CEO John B. Cruz regarding the mural late Friday afternoon.

“As a Black-owned company that has been in Roxbury for more than 70 years, Cruz Companies is deeply committed to the economic and civic life of our neighborhood. Our first development project in Boston in 1972, Taurus Apartments on Humboldt Avenue in Roxbury, still continues to provide affordable housing to this day.

“As a Black-owned business with approximately 75 employees, of which 95% are people of color, I have always strived to give back to my community. That is why I took steps three years ago to incorporate this mural as part of the redevelopment of this dilapidated site. In fact, this site was in such disarray that the roof had collapsed into the basement; the building was uninhabitable. I signed a cooperation agreement with the City to provide mitigation for this mural and establish an $8,000 budget. Moreover, I met and have had discussions with the original artist about replicating the artwork and incorporating elements of it into the building.

“We are committed to employing at least 75% workers of color and 75% businesses of color on this site. We are also bringing an additional 40 permanent employees to this site which will be the new home to Cruz Companies. 90% of these people are folks of color. Moreover, we have hired a development team that is 100% Black, including the developer, contractor, management agent, attorney, and architect. We are number one in the city of Boston for providing employment and business opportunities to people and organizations of color. These folks will utilize the businesses and restaurants in the Warren Street corridor and hopefully serve as a role model to young people observing a successful Black firm.

“We are committed to incorporating this mural into the design of this development. We are committed, as we always have been, to working with our community.”

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