The Maroon Arts Group Box Park and the ‘weaponization of policy’

A recent uptick in 311 complaints related to the MPACC Box Park in Bronzeville highlights a growing challenge the arts nonprofit faces as new residents relocate to the historically Black neighborhood.
The Maroon Arts MPACC Box Park
The Maroon Arts MPACC Box ParkAndy Downing

Artist Cameron Granger’s new film, Before I Let Go, is set in the aftermath of an alien attack that has destroyed entire city neighborhoods and displaced its most vulnerable people. 

Crafted as a metaphor for gentrification, the sci-fi short centers on the human costs exacted by real-life practices such as redlining, which has decimated historically Black neighborhoods in cities across the country, including Columbus, and widened an already yawning economic gap.

These are things Marshall Shorts first witnessed growing up in Cleveland and again in the years he’s lived in Columbus’ Bronzeville neighborhood – a collective experience that helped inform his performance in the film, which opens with the artist and designer leading Granger on a tour of a construction site that rests where his fictional home once stood. “This is where we would all gather together when we was about to eat,” Shorts says, gesturing to an invisible kitchen table, flanked on all sides by heavy equipment, towering construction cranes and new-build apartments.

While these types of dramatic visuals are often associated with rapidly changing neighborhoods – see the construction boom currently unfolding in Franklinton – the early roots of gentrification tend to be less easily perceived, originating in more vigilant city code violation enforcement and an increase in calls placed to 311 by neighbors new to a place. 

Shorts said in recent months he’s been confronted with this reality in his work with Maroon Arts Group, which since 2018 has operated the MPACC Box Park at the intersection of Mount Vernon Avenue and 17th Street in Bronzeville. Once an abandoned lot, the community park now includes abundant green space, gardens and a trio of shipping containers – one housing an art gallery, a second a performance space with a stage and a third owned and operated by Willowbeez SoulVeg

For years, Shorts said, MPACC (Movement Pursuing Arts, Commerce and Community) has hosted programming in the park largely without incident. But in the last couple of months, calls have been placed to 311 to register complaints about the “political” nature of a mural that incorporated the phrase “deliver Black dreams” and about the graffiti temporarily spray painted on the outside of one of the shipping containers – part of a larger Juneteenth event commemorating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. (A third complaint claimed that a compost pile in the community garden wasn’t properly covered and could attract vermin.)

“And what this has done is trigger questions around permitting, asking if we’ve gotten permission from the [Columbus] Art Commission to do these things. And that is new,” Shorts said of operations at the Box Park, which was appropriately set to host the Columbus premiere of Granger’s short film before smoke from the Canadian wildfires forced the screening indoors to 934 Gallery. “So now we’re navigating this extra scrutiny around what we do. … And we have to take these complaints seriously, even if they don’t carry much weight in the moment. Compounded over time, it could be detrimental to the work. And I’d hate to see [the Box Park] become a Starbucks.”

Jami Goldstein, vice president of marketing, communications and events for the Greater Columbus Arts Council (GCAC), said complaints related to public art at MPACC are in line with the types of concerns the arts organization hopes to address with its long-developed public art plan, which kicks off a four-month community engagement phase with a town hall at the Columbus Metropolitan Library on July 12

“That’s part of what we’re trying to answer: Where do we need to advocate? And where do we need to educate?” said Goldstein, who described public art as essential to driving “the hard conversations we need to have.” “‘Deliver Black dreams’ is a campaign the city supported, and which GCAC supported. … Now that we’re aware of [issues at MPACC], to the extent that we can help we certainly will, because we want to see them continue to do good work in the community.”

Shorts attributed the uptick in complaints, which he termed a “weaponization of policy,” in part to gradual demographic changes in the historically Black neighborhood, describing an influx of young, white residents new to the area. “And with that, the values of a neighborhood can change, which isn’t always a bad thing,” Shorts said. “But the power dynamic, I think, shifts. And what people want in the neighborhood and want to see in the neighborhood begins to change. For us, there’s a history of art and culture here – particularly in this corridor, where you had a lot of blight but arts and culture kind of sustained the area, with the King Arts Complex, the Urban Center, the Lincoln [Theatre]. … But as the demographic changes, the familiarity is not there, and the honoring of that history is not there.”

Maroon Arts group has made efforts to not just honor this history but to advance it, first establishing the Box Park as a place of communal gathering and more recently expanding energies into the nearby Pythian Temple, which the group purchased in 2021 and is in the process of renovating. (The four-story, 27,000-square-foot building, formerly a part of the King Arts Complex, includes a 450-seat theater and ballroom.) 

In doing the essential work to preserve, celebrate and advance the neighborhood’s historic ties with Black art, Shorts said the organization has bumped up against tensions created by the ongoing politicization of Black identity. “If you are unapologetically saying, ‘We’re Black,’ it can be seen as antagonistic,” he said, drawing a connection to the complainant who interpreted “deliver Black dreams” as a political message.

While Maroon Arts is not a political organization, the group hasn’t shied from engaging political issues, once hosting a day of sign making at the height of the resurgent Black lives matter protests that swept the country in the aftermath of Minneapolis police murdering George Floyd. Even the word “Maroon” could be considered a political term in some circles, Shorts said, the term applied to the descendants of Africans who escaped slavery and formed their own settlements.

“I'm of the notion 'Black' is political,” Shorts said. "And our group's politics are rooted in social justice and Black liberation through the arts and storytelling.” 

This work has taken many forms, and involved years of relationship building within Bronzeville, a historically underserved neighborhood where Shorts said residents had grown more accustomed to the crime and the blight that go hand in hand with poverty. The artist recalled one early cleanup and community day at MPACC where two young neighbors volunteered their time, spending hours at the park pulling weeds, picking up trash and laying mulch. “And at the end, I gave them a couple bucks,” Shorts said. “And they were like, ‘Man, thank you. We were going to rob somebody today.”

A similar incident unfolded a couple of years back, when Shorts spotted a man lurking at the edges of the Box Park some months after a young man was shot and killed, his car coming to rest crashed in the MCAPP performance stage. Shorts invited the man to join the group, later learning that he was the father of the man killed, and that he had come to the neighborhood looking to exact revenge for his child. “And he told us, ‘I came over here without good intentions,’” Shorts said. “And it changed, and he said he realized this wasn’t what he was supposed to be here to do.”

The men exchanged information, and Maroon Arts invited the father back for their summer-closing event, during which the group presented him with a portrait of his late son painted by artist Richard “Duarte” Brown.

“And he broke down crying,” Shorts said. “And we can do that kind of work, and art can be an entry into that kind of healing. … This is a space for more than cultural production – arts and music and things like that. It is also a place where folks can just come and be. … I’ve never believed we’re a solution to all of the problems our community faces, but I do think it’s important to have these access points that show what is possible. And that’s the real beauty of this place.”

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