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Development in Cincinnati is pushing out people and art, like murals


Black communities across the U.S. have grappled with big changes due to rising interest in their neighborhoods. Now, those shifts are not just cold economics. Sometimes they are also about art. Nick Swartsell from member station WVXU reports from Cincinnati.

NICK SWARTSELL, BYLINE: A three-story mural of President Barack Obama looked over Cincinnati's West End from a restaurant called Ollie's Trolley for more than a decade. It was one of dozens artist William Rankins Jr. painted across the city's Black communities. The murals portrayed prominent local and national figures and people who lived in those communities. But time and redevelopment in Cincinnati's urban core have claimed most of them. That's painful for Rankins.

WILLIAM RANKINS JR: Y'all going to paint over me, too? You know? That's how I feel. You know, it's like they've just taken me off the map.

SWARTSELL: Rankins and Ollie's owner, Marvin Smith, chat below a stark black wall where the Obama painting was. Smith had to repair the wall in 2019 and couldn't save the mural. Rankins is 68. He lost his eyesight to a stroke a decade ago. He asks Smith about a mural he did in the 1990s.

RANKINS: Let me ask you this, Marvin. Is the Bubbles Coin Laundry still got Bubbles Coin Laundry on the back on the market side?

MARVIN SMITH: No, it's completely painted.

RANKINS: They painted...

SWARTSELL: The courtyard around Ollie's is one of the last places you can see Rankins' murals. There's former Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory, part of a Black West End political dynasty, looking down from a second-story perch. One of many other murals there shows a family from the neighborhood. The future is cloudy for these works, too. Rankins asks Smith whether he'll accept recent offers he's gotten for his property.

RANKINS: What are you going to do about this property, man? You going to move it somewhere else?

SMITH: I'm considering two options - one, take the money and move it to another location, or redo this.

SWARTSELL: Black communities across the country have seen big changes. Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine community neighbors Ollie's Trolley and featured many of Rankins' murals. Recent census data shows the neighborhood lost 43% of its Black population last decade. University of Cincinnati urban history professor Dr. Anne Delano Steinert says much of the redevelopment there has been aimed at people with higher incomes.

ANNE DELANO STEINERT: What that unfortunately has done is it has made it a place that's disorienting and unfamiliar to the longtime residents.

SWARTSELL: A few years ago, Cincinnati's major-league soccer team built its stadium just south of Ollie's in the historically Black West End. Recently, the team demolished a building featuring Rankins' murals to make way for another development. Meanwhile, the city's taste for murals has grown. Since 2019, a biannual arts festival called Blink has drawn internationally known muralists and millions of visitors. Curator, arts writer and educator Maria Seda-Reeder says something extra sets Rankins' work apart.

MARIA SEDA-REEDER: Amazing muralists from outside of a neighborhood - they don't necessarily have that connection to the community, but Rankins did. You know, he was from that community, making work about that community.

SWARTSELL: Those connections mean a lot to Rankins.

RANKINS: You riding by, you know, with your girlfriend or your family - oh, that's me right there, you know? That gives them a sense of pride, you know?

SWARTSELL: Smith says his business has boomed since the stadium came in, and he credits the soccer team for working with the community. But he worries many people in the West End might not benefit from its resurgence.

SMITH: It seems like whenever development comes to your neighborhood, they develop the people right out of the neighborhood.

SWARTSELL: A caseworker helps Rankins paint on canvas these days. She hopes someone can partner with him to help him keep creating, even as his murals fade into memory.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Swartsell.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Nick Swartsell