Featured photo: Marianne Di Napoli-Mylet’s “!POWAR! to the People” displayed a collection of 23 faces: four teachers and 19 student. (courtesy photo)

When I discovered that soon-to-open Washington Park Crossfit had thoughtlessly painted over a mural on the side of their building, over the faces of community members, I cringed. 

The irony of me, a white woman, complaining about gentrification isn’t lost on me. I understand that street art oftentimes is a way to beautify underserved communities. That leads to investors and an influx of white folks with money pushing those communities out. But nonetheless, I am angry.

When my husband and I were looking for affordable places to raise the little accident that was growing inside my uterus, the Southside was a big “NO.” My husband grew up in the grime that was downtown Winston-Salem in the 1990s. Squatters and artists were okay. Heck, even a coffee-shop owner that allegedly preyed on young girls was okay. But the Southside? Everyone said it was “dangerous.” 

So when I pulled off of Peters Creek Parkway, passing a strip club and a few abandoned buildings on my way to our three-bedroom Sprague Street rental, the mural just before Main Street was a beacon. Created in 2014 by artist Marianne Di Napoli-Mylet, “!POWAR! to the People” displayed a collection of 23 faces: four teachers and 19 students. Its vibrant colors and diverse representation showed me a neighborhood that was a community. It lifted the history and background and voices of children and those that were there to guide them.  

“Each person worked on their own portrait under my tutelage and created unique works featuring many of their hobbies, interests and family’s heritage throughout the compositions,” Napoli-Mylet says of her piece. 

The Southside is a place where a bicycle cart rides by every week day, like clockwork, delivering La Princessa paletas to neighborhood kids. It’s where a secret taqueria, now a food truck, drives by our house every night at the end of the day. It’s several community gardens and small farm stands that bring much-needed sustenance to the community despite rarely getting the recognition that other farmers markets do. It’s laughter and blaring music coming from the house with a smoker parked out front and folding chairs that line the sidewalk. It’s our backyard, where the metal frame from an awning of a closed downtown business acts as a make-shift playground for our 3-year-old son. It’s the faces of the mural, with their stories and their hobbies and their interests, now a gray wall, soon to be another boring, modern building that, for now, sticks out like a sore thumb in a sea of red brick and craftsman homes.

When I reached out to Brooke Eagle, owner of Washington Park CrossFit, she explained that the building had been vacant for years, and that they were “thrilled to bring it back to life.” She also noted that she lives in the neighborhood and “want nothing more than to see it grow and thrive.”

“We plan to paint it black with our logo on one side and a new mural by a local artist and community garden on the opposite side of the building,” she said.

As for covered artwork, she said that “the mural was contracted to stay up for five years back in 2014, so [they] did [their] research before removing it.” 

But did she reach out to the artist? To the children who worked with Marianne on conveying the important things in each of their lives? Napoli-Mylet says she was never contacted. In fact, the five-year contract was, according to the artist, a verbal and informal agreement with her art student’s family, who at the time, ran the furniture business inside the building. But she’s no stranger to the erasure of art. 

“The same thing happened on Liberty Street at Reboot with my tree mural,” she told me. “The whole top of the tree was people’s hand prints. People came with their babies. A guy came with his dog. It was the story of the downtown art district, really a community event. After they paint over these, you start to wonder, which one goes next?” 

Out of the nine murals Napoli-Mylet has worked with community members to create over the years, only two remain. The rest, like “!POWAR!,” have been painted over by new businesses who seem at best, unaware, and at worst, uncaring. Our city continues to become homogenized under the umbrella of revitalization. 

And it’s hitting places like the Southside hard. It started when investors began buying houses for sixty thousand dollars, remodeling them, and selling them for more than three hundred thousand a piece. Higher property taxes. Higher rent. Our first house, the three-bedroom that we rented for $850 a month, was rented to someone else for $1,300 only three years later. Profits from these investors and landlords are being raked in by those who likely won’t send their kids to neighborhood schools, or buy flowers from the tent that sits outside of Speedway. People claim to invest in the neighborhood, but at what cost?

A neighborhood with a mural that welcomed everyone, from any walk of life, is turning into a place with impossibly tall privacy fences, neighbors that no longer wave “hello,” and a shiny new CrossFit gym.

Will it be accessible to us? Sure, we’re a middle-class, dual-income, white family. But to the neighbors steadily leaving? To the children whose faces were painted over? To the vibrant families and diverse households that made the Southside so attractive to begin with? A painted over mural is a symptom of a deeper, more insidious infection.

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