A bold wall of vintage ads recalls Walnut Hills’ history of black-owned businesses

This new Cincinnati art and history project reminds viewers that "This Was Our Place"

click to enlarge An overview of the "Yesterday Today Tomorrow" mural - PHOTO: Hailey Bollinger
PHOTO: Hailey Bollinger
An overview of the "Yesterday Today Tomorrow" mural

The slogan of the Andrew Hardin grocery in Walnut Hills was “The path that leads to satisfaction.” That was truth in advertising for African-Americans living in Cincinnati in the early and mid-20th century. Whether black families needed food, a florist, photographer or funeral planning, all roads led to Walnut Hills during the age of segregation. At Hardin’s and dozens of other black-owned businesses clustered near the intersection of Lincoln and Gilbert avenues, they knew they wouldn’t be turned away.

Residents over the age of 50 can still recall a bustling retail district where neighbors took care of neighbors. “Yeah, this was our place,” they’ve told Aprina Johnson, community coordinator for the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation. 

A younger generation, however, has never known much more than vacant buildings and trash-filled lots in that area. The Hardin market, 1035 Foraker Ave., closed in 1961 after 45 years. Desegregation gave customers a path to other stores, and to homes in the suburbs as well. By the 1980s, after Interstate 71 and Martin Luther King Drive cut swaths through the neighborhood, Walnut Hills was neither a shopping destination nor a place the black middle class wanted to live.

But a wheat-paste installation by artists Janet Creekmore and Ben Jason Neal is taking a trip down memory lane. Reproductions of old advertisements and fresh images inspired by the long-gone businesses cover a boarded-up building in the 900 block of Lincoln. The black and white artwork is part of a larger project that Johnson calls “a beautiful collision” of people with overlapping interests in art, history, urban redevelopment and social justice.

Johnson contacted Creekmore about an art installation after seeing research that Sue Plummer, the chair of the Walnut Hills Historical Society, had done about the old business district. Working with history students from the University of Cincinnati, Plummer found 300 ads for hairdressers, tailors, pharmacists and more while searching through black-owned publications dating to 1902.

“We are a growing young Negro business,” Collegiate Dry Cleaners on Walter Avenue proclaimed. Sherman’s Flower Shop advertised itself as “Cincinnati’s most prominent and only colored florist.” It also was the longest-running black-owned business in the area.

Straight-talking ads from Major Federal Savings and Loan reminded customers that “No one understands the way we do what being black is all about.” Today, only a barely visible “ghost sign” for the lender remains on the side of a shuttered nightclub just around the corner from the installation.

Change is coming to Lincoln and Gilbert, though, and Johnson wants Walnut Hills neighbors to know more about their past in order to spark discussions about their future. The redevelopment foundation bought property at the intersection last fall to make way for residences and retail. Some structures have already been razed, but a crumbling cinder block building has been left standing in hopes of filling its half-dozen storefronts again.

“We could have just slapped up a mural, made the building look pretty,” says Creekmore, founder of Eye Candy creative agency in Over-the-Rhine. Instead, she and partner Neal embraced the site’s grittiness and let the historical ads guide their typography-driven design and decision to use paper and paste.

“I love the way the art looks because it’s not perfect,” Creekmore says. She walks past silhouettes of a chandelier, apothecary vials, vegetables and bouquets to her favorite section of the block-long installation. It reads: “When royalty came to town, they used to stay at the Manse Hotel.” The tribute to the black-owned lodging at 1008 Chapel St. ripples over uneven layers of plywood, siding and concrete in a retro typeface that alternates between block letters and cursive. The presentation is elegant and proud, yet something not quite right nags at the viewer.

The hodgepodge captures both a success story during segregation and its lasting sting. Racial bias affected not only everyday Walnut Hills residents, but even visiting superstars like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Duke Ellington and Count Basie, who were all denied rooms at hotels downtown because of the color of their skin.

Neal sports a T-shirt that reads “Art should disturb the comfortable & comfort the disturbed” as he prepares to climb a ladder to paste the final banner for the project.

“The kind of art we’re doing is what we’re really passionate about,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to do graffiti that had significance — something that was either calling out history or social change.”

Several blocks south, McMillan Avenue is being transformed with restaurants like Fireside Pizza and Just Q’in. The Trevarren Flats apartment complex represents a $10 million investment, and twice that much is being spent on Paramount Square. 

Meanwhile, low-income residents ask if their needs figure in developers’ plans. A grocery is high on their wish list. Thatcher Poultry & Fish Market, which opened on Lincoln Avenue in 1933, would promise its customers, “If it swims, we got it.” But after more than 60 years, the black family business closed. Last year, Kroger left Walnut Hills, too.

Creekmore and Neal call their installation “Yesterday Today Tomorrow,” and they say it’s purposely intended to not last forever. The artists, the redevelopment foundation’s Johnson and the historical society’s Plummer hope that information about yesteryear will inspire inclusive conversations about what happens to the building and the neighborhood next. As black students from Douglass Elementary helped paste up ads, Johnson asked them to imagine what businesses they would run.

“I’m a social justice warrior. I don’t want historical markers in this community. That’s not good enough,” Johnson says. “We need more than that. We need spaces. We need people activating them.”

Plummer, who has worked in Walnut Hills for a decade, is glad to be a catalyst. 

“History is not just about dusty history,” she says. “There was a whole community here that was thriving, taking care of each other, taking care of themselves. There are a lot of connections one can make. This can be a powerful thing.”

A celebration of the “Yesterday Today Tomorrow” installation will be held 5-8 p.m. June 24 at Lincoln and Gilbert avenues in Walnut Hills. More info: walnuthillsstories.org/projects