‘Roxbury Love’ mural is bulldozed as new development gets underway

The "Roxbury Love" mural on Warren Street in Roxbury before its demolition. Joe Difazio photo for WBUR

Roxbury residents were shocked by the destruction of a beloved neighborhood mural last Thursday. The massive, black-and-white portrait of Nelson Mandela, bookended by the words “Roxbury Love” in block letters, stretched across a low building at the corner of Warren and Clifford streets.

Though it was commissioned by the city only six years ago, the mural was seen by many as a Boston landmark. It will be replaced by a mixed-use development.

“When I think of public art in Boston, I think of the Roxbury Love mural, first and foremost,” said Roxbury resident Rachel Domond, who appeared in a Facebook video decrying the mural’s destruction. “And the fact that it is being demolished is an example of cultural sites, specifically Black cultural sites, in Boston being completely eradicated, all for profit.”

The mural, by street artists Richard “Deme5” Gomez and Thomas “Kwest” Burns, was commissioned by the nonprofit Alliger Arts as part of the city’s “Pop Up! Dudley Connections” program in 2014.

The image of Mandela pays homage to the South African anti-apartheid leader’s visit to Boston in 1990. The mural quickly earned an iconic status in the neighborhood, helping usher in an explosion of public art in a city once notorious for its hostility to street art and graffiti. In 2017, the mural was at the center of a local controversy when Heineken appropriated the image in an ad campaign. The company apologized in response to public outcry.

Gomez, known by his street artist name Deme5, expressed regret at the mural’s destruction. “On one hand, I knew it was impermanent,” he wrote in an email. “But I think the motivation behind this particular piece is what has caused the sting of its demise. Who I created this mural for and how it was embraced by them. I’m proud to live here and am/was proud to have made a mark in the Roxbury community.”

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The site on Warren Street where the Roxbury Love mural formerly stood. Robin Lubbock/WBUR photo

The demolition had been in the works for a while. The nearly 55,000-square-foot plot at 280 Warren Street is being developed by Cruz Companies, a Black-owned real estate development and construction firm. Plans on the Boston Planning & Development Agency website describe the company’s intention to construct “99 units of new family and elderly residential housing units, with 11,334 square feet of new commercial office space, a coffee shop and restaurant, and 102 parking spaces in a two-level garage.”

A memorandum approving the project commits to coordinating with the Mayor’s Office of Arts & Culture to replace the mural with “an object of public art” on or near the site.

In a statement, Cruz Development president and CEO John B. Cruz echoed this commitment. “I met and have had discussions with the original artist about replicating the artwork and incorporating elements of it into the building,” said Cruz said, who also promised to give back to the community: “We are committed to employing at least 75 percent 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.”

Boston’s chief of Arts and Culture Kara Elliott-Ortega said her office was aware the mural was slated for demolition, but did not know it would be happening on Thursday. She said talks with property owners about recommissioning the mural elsewhere had been put on hold when the pandemic hit in the spring.

“While the opportunity was missed to notify the public, Mr. Cruz on behalf of his company, Cruz Companies, the oldest and largest minority-owned construction company in Boston, has committed to work with the artists to recommission the mural at or near the existing site,” she said in a statement.

The planned development went through a month-long public comment period in 2016, but the painting’s destruction four years later took the neighborhood by surprise, stoking anxieties about gentrification and displacement in the historically Black neighborhood.

The mural was the focus of an anti-gentrification rally organized by Roxbury residents on Monday of this week at the site where the Boston landmark once stood.

This article was originally published by WBUR 90.9FM on July 24. The Reporter and WBUR share content through a media partnership.