How do you write about a person whose reputation was larger than life? Someone who had fans in every corner of the neighborhood and made friends with a mere mischievous twinkle of his eye?
Fred Lane, much beloved former developer of artist spaces in Cincinnati, died two weeks ago from complications from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).
But Fred (known as “Freddy G” to many of his closest friends,) was many things to many people, and none of them were simple.
A forklift driver at Kroger for more than 40 years, Lane started investing in real estate during the 1990s, after then-mayor Roxanne Qualls pushed city council to relax zoning and building codes to permit those on the front lines of development who “have more sweat equity than cold cash” to move in and fix up old abandoned buildings. In other words, Lane figured out early that artists were (and always have been) on the front lines of property development.
Fred had no artistic background to speak of; in fact, he was kind of a jock. But he knew a lot of artists and even became a self-taught painter toward the end of his life. He hung around Kaldi’s Coffeehouse and Bookstore, a bastion for local artists during its twelve-year run from 1993 to 2005, and that is where he became friend and landlord to many artists over the years.
A real treasure collector — of people, art, buildings and odd detritus he would find in his properties — he liked anyone or anything that was intriguing and different. Lane was a champion of the underdog.
Longtime friend and business partner Lisa Storie explained over coffee at Mom 'n 'em Coffee & Wine in Camp Washington, where Fred would often sit and chat with friends in the past few years of his life, that he was much savvier then many gave him credit for.
Every Christmas, Kroger would give their union forklift operators turkey and company stock for their holiday bonus. “Guys started coming to Fred saying they don’t have money for presents. So he started buying up their stocks,” Storie explained. “He started ching-chinging right then!”
Lane’s name was notorious in certain circles for decades, offering rock-bottom pricing on rental spaces in areas of the city that few dared to traverse at the time; primarily the West End, Brighton and Camp Washington.
But it was the characters on the fringes of society that Fred seemed the most interested in. He was respected and admired by artists, college kids, bikers, undocumented workers, real estate developers, business owners, sex workers, gallerists and street hustlers alike. Content to talk with anyone he met, he was disarming with his charm—and he played up the fact that many wouldn’t expect someone who dressed and talked like him to be quite so equity rich.
But he bought low and played the long game. Always on the search for new real estate deals, Lane had a habit of driving around to his various properties every day, making his way through the neighborhood in rotating vehicles and waving at everyone he knew or stopping to greet and chat with newcomers he didn’t recognize.
The son of a Pentecostal preacher and a lifelong athlete, Lane is survived by his wife Frances, two sons Sherman and Dave, two daughters Shelli and Sue, and many extended family.
“To say that our hearts are broken doesn’t begin to describe the crushing weight of our loss,” his family wrote in a letter to CityBeat. “We were all so blessed to watch his journey into the art world; to watch him transform Brighton, art galleries, bars, and the lives of so many artists.”
But they also understood that their father’s work was all-encompassing. Lane would often leave family holiday celebrations a little early to go meet with artists and they would tease him that he had to “go see his other kids.”
And that fatherly benevolence wasn’t fake. As an employee and tenant of Lane’s for many years, he was someone you could reach out to for anything: throwing a party at one of his sites, picking up an extra work gig to make your mortgage payment or needing life advice—if you leveled with him and he respected you, he would give you the shirt off his back.
Thankfully, Lane did not have a long drawn out finale to his life. He had open heart surgery in 2020 and afterwards some ongoing neuromuscular complications that took awhile for the doctors to connect to ALS.
Fred’s youngest daughter Sue explained in a phone interview that he’d been experiencing vocal-chord paralysis, lack of appetite and problems with choking after the surgery—not to mention trouble with walking. After ruling out chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) with a lung specialist, (and not wanting to wait the 4-5 months every specialist was quoting for a new patient appointment during COVID), they finally took her father to the emergency room where Sue says, “he hated every bit of it.”
They got the ALS diagnosis less than 2 weeks before he passed.
Storie says, “The last time I saw him he said to me, ‘They said I have ALS. I don’t think I do. I’m not dying. But if I am, I’m ready.’”
Daughter Sue said that ultimately Lane ended up going into cardiac arrest and because he had “do not resuscitate” in his will, they had to let him go.
“He touched a lot of people in many ways that people will never understand and know about,” says longtime friend and Brighton property owner, artist Fred Ellenberger.
Ellenberger chokes up over the phone explaining how he knew something was wrong with his old friend when he didn’t see Lane doing his usual morning drives through the neighborhood in a week or so.
Long-term tenant and friend Sarah Davenport had equally kind words to share regarding Lane, who she says was a father figure to her for 15 years and someone she used to speak with daily. “He believed so much in the art community and made many dreams possible for many creative people,” she writes.
And she’s not exaggerating. He purchased nearly uninhabitable buildings and let inspired creatives set up art spaces like The Mockbee and semantics gallery—both of which altered the landscape of the Cincinnati art scene for decades—the latter of which Lane never even collected rent for.
Renowned poet and filmmaker Aralee Strange wrote a poem-portrait of the creative life in Cincinnati in May of 2003 wherein she interviewed artists and Fred’s name was mentioned enough times that she included it in her piece, “Found Art”:
“rent is cheap
if not here, now
then where, when?
fred lane, fred lane, fred lane…”
Because art jobs are infamously low paying (a fact that hasn’t changed a bit in the current economy), Lane was often the reason so many Cincinnati artists were able to keep up their practice. In bigger cities where rents were much steeper, one could watch their artist friends who moved away to “make it” on the coasts slowly lose their daily creative practice because the grind of just covering rent took up so much of their time.
On the other hand, if you rented from Lane, you could cover your rent in a few weeks of bartending and focus the rest of your time and monthly budget on art making supplies—and that kind of existence is becoming increasingly rare as time goes on.
Though he was a complete original and forward thinking for his time, as our society becomes increasingly precarious for folks on the fringes, the world needs more Fred Lane-like benevolent figures, not less.
His family sums it up perfectly: “He had a plan from day one and executed it in all ways possible but without greed. He had absolutely no room for that in his huge heart. What he actually left us was a legacy. Our greatest legacy will be that we were able to share him with all of you. There will never be another. Thank you for loving him as much as we did.”