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VISUAL ARTS

How a temporary mural became Roxbury’s lost landmark

A bicyclist passed the "Roxbury Love" mural in 2015, one year after it was installed.  The mural commemorated Nelson Mandela's 1990 visit to Boston.
A bicyclist passed the "Roxbury Love" mural in 2015, one year after it was installed. The mural commemorated Nelson Mandela's 1990 visit to Boston.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/file

Nelson Mandela’s gentle face watched over the people of Roxbury for six years. But then, one day last week, the Warren Street mural featuring the anti-apartheid revolutionary suddenly disappeared.

Gone, too, was the bold lettering that spelled out “Roxbury Love.”

The mural’s July 23 demolition represented a sobering loss for a neighborhood inhabited mostly by Black Americans and other people of color. And its destruction — in the midst of a national reckoning on race, just days after a “Black Lives Matter” billboard went up at Fenway Park — inspired community-wide outrage through social media and in-person demonstrations.

“To me, that mural meant home,” said Roxbury native Toy Burton. “It just really captured Roxbury. It’s like if they were to take away Exit 18 [from the Massachusetts Turnpike]. Every time I go out of the city and then return, seeing that exit means I’m back.”

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Roxbury-based Cruz Companies scrapped the artwork, which spanned 100 feet along a low building, to make way for a scheduled project promising two structures: one with 55 housing units and a 102-car parking garage, the other with 44 apartments set aside for senior citizens. Also on the docket? A coffee shop, restaurant, and more than 11,000 square feet of office space for Cruz Companies and other tenants, according to the Boston Planning and Development Agency (or BPDA).

As far back as 2014, community members were warned that “Roxbury Love” would meet its end. The mural was conceived as a temporary work in the first place, commissioned as part of the city of Boston’s “Pop Up! Dudley Connections” program. But over time, “Roxbury Love” became an artistic staple — a landmark children biked by, a monument visitors admired, and a conversation starter for families.

For Nakia Hill, director of the Writers’ Room at the 826 Boston youth writing nonprofit, it was the face of Nelson Mandela that left a lasting mark. Mandela visited Boston in 1990, shortly after his release from a South African jail. (He would become the country’s president four years later.)

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“As a Black American woman, when I saw that, it reminded me how connected we are throughout the African diaspora,” Hill said. “When we think of Roxbury, we think of Malcolm X, of [Martin Luther King Jr.] ... but putting together a Mandela mural helps us remember all the figures who are significant.”

Over time, the temporary nature of “Roxbury Love” eroded from public consciousness. Perhaps that explains why emotions ran high when the mural came down.

“There was no ‘Hey, we’re about to take this down. What are your thoughts?’” said 16-year-old Qadir Muhammad. “It was just gone.”

Artist and community organizer Rachel Domond said nothing was posted to notify the public that a wrecking ball was on the way. If there was, she said, residents could have stopped a moment to appreciate the piece. They could have thrown a final celebration, or maybe even rallied against the action.

“I live on this street right here and didn’t have any notice of the fact that this mural was going to be destroyed,” Domond said. “This is an ongoing issue of the destruction of Black culture and Black arts across the city.”

A view of Ricardo “Deme5” Gomez's Warren Street mural in Roxbury,
A view of Ricardo “Deme5” Gomez's Warren Street mural in Roxbury,Thomas "Kwest" Burns

The situation didn’t sit well with the mural’s creators, Ricardo “Deme5” Gomez and Thomas “Kwest” Burns. Gomez posted a video to Instagram the day after the demolition in which he surveys the rubble from a car and says he feels “disposable.”

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Gomez says he met with Cruz Companies CEO John B. Cruz in December 2019 and again a month later to discuss incorporating the mural into the apartment development. But the artist claims he was never looped into any final decisions. Nor was he given a demolition date.

“I was under the impression that the mural would remain intact until we officially finalized a design idea,” Gomez wrote in an e-mail to the Globe. “Additionally, I requested notification of the planned date of demolition in the hopes to document the mural a final time, unfortunately a notification never came.”

Construction fencing and concrete barriers enclosed the space once occupied by the mural at 284 Warren Street.
Construction fencing and concrete barriers enclosed the space once occupied by the mural at 284 Warren Street. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

As for the $8,000 budget for a new onsite mural (approved by the BPDA last year), Gomez said he learned of it only last Friday when Cruz released a public statement via his company’s website.

In his statement, the CEO ensured the community that the mural would be incorporated into the development’s final design. He also defended the work of his Black-owned business, a company he says employs 95 percent people of color. “I have always strived to give back to my community,” Cruz wrote. “That is why I took steps three years ago to incorporate this mural as part of the redevelopment of this dilapidated site.”

A spokesperson for Cruz said he was not available to talk to the Globe.

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Several activists and residents said the issue of the mural’s demolition transcends current conversations about monuments and public art. It instead speaks to how severely gentrification has ravaged Roxbury as it slowly follows in the footsteps of its neighbor to the north, the economically inaccessible South End.

“The tumbling of that mural is like putting the issue of gentrification in bold face and then underlining it,” said Ekua Holmes, vice chair of the Boston Arts Commission.

The site’s forthcoming buildings will provide the neighborhood with nearly 100 income-restricted and “much-needed” housing units, according to a statement by Kara Elliott-Ortega from the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture. Per BPDA documents, the developers have not yet released costs for the apartments but are considering pricing a third of the units at affordable. One-third to one-half of the units will be priced at market rate.

The definition of affordable housing varies under BPDA guidelines, but Domond noted that the new apartments may be inaccessible for Roxbury residents, where the median income hovered around $35,000 in 2017 (almost half of the city-wide median of $69,616 for the same year).

“We are in a global pandemic, an economic crisis, and the city is worried about building housing that isn’t for anyone here,” she said. “That may be ‘affordable’ somewhere else but not here. Here, people can’t pay their rents, and they’re going to be facing evictions as soon as the evictions moratorium is up in October. And it’s like the city’s priorities aren’t with the people. They’re with profit.”

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Byron Rushing, who served as state representative for a portion of Roxbury from 1983 to 2018, countered that Cruz is a “righteous developer.” Cruz should have involved the community before the demolition, Rushing said, but the developer largely took a rightful course of action.

“Anything that gets moved, torn down, redone becomes an example of the neighborhood being gentrified,” Rushing said. “But this project is not that. This project is an example of adding to the stock of decent housing that’s affordable.”

The fallout also leaves the community to rethink proper ways of creating, maintaining, and destroying temporary art. Unlike with permanent pieces, ephemeral works are subject to a different city permitting process.

Kate Gilbert, executive director of public art curator Now + There, said this impacts everything from budgets and maintenance to community involvement. “Temporary art allows us to have those moments of very strong expression,” she said. “What we need to learn for those artists and organizations who are putting out temporary art — we need to borrow from the process of permanent work and take a pause. If we put up this mural, who’s going to take care of it? Do the neighbors know about it? Do the neighbors want it?”

Yes, it seems, the neighbors wanted “Roxbury Love” for keeps. In the end, many said, all they can do is look forward to the promised return of Gomez’s work in some shape or form. And they hope to be more involved the second time around.

“This piece was an integral part of our neighborhood,” said Roxbury native Gian Martinez, 17. “So yes, bring it back but involve the artist, the community.”

Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohl