Driving through West Asheville, your mind struggles to draw a conclusive idea of the neighborhood’s identity. Down the street you notice lawn art and overgrown vegetation preceding wicker chairs on sunken wooden porches, but around the street corner, Subaru Outbacks equipped with bike racks on well-raked gravel driveways meet your gaze, sitting below houses straight out of Miami Vice.
West Asheville wasn’t always like this, but only half the people living there know that.
While more unified than now, a different set of problems plagued the neighborhood a generation ago. Jim Crow segregation separated the rest of Asheville from West Asheville’s poverty and drug epidemic. Observe two city maps of the area, however, and you find one more difference with West Asheville in 1950. A four lane highway now runs where a sizable stretch of houses existed.
In the middle of this patchwork neighborhood, both hands emerged in soil, Dewayne Barton plants flowers in an effort to keep up with spring. All the while he multitasks, noting the changes he sees in West Asheville.
“I see a lot more people walking dogs,” said Barton, chuckling at his own statement. “I’m not a big dog fan so that’s probably why that sticks out in my head”
Barton, an Asheville local and Gulf War vet, founded Hood Huggers International, an organization that gives educational tours of Historically Black neighborhoods in Asheville.
The community peace garden sticks out from the hodge-podge of old and new houses for obvious reasons. He created it to protest the Gulf War, filling it with sculptures and art pieces made out of recycled material, each one representing a different issue affecting Asheville.
Despite the noise from cars driving by and insects calling out, the oasis of art and nature makes everything stand still.
“I don’t see African-Americans moving into the neighborhood, this was once an all Black neighborhood and now it’s changing. It’s not a diverse population of people moving into the community,” Barton said, each sentence of his carrying an attached emotion, frustration being the first one presenting itself.
Barton breaks off mid-sentence and calls out to two boys concentrating on weeding across the row of plants from him. One of them hops up, brushes
hands off, and retrieves a fertilizer-filled bucket from the wooden shed toward the back of the garden.
Barton takes a deep breath before returning on the pervasive and historical problems Black people in Asheville face, his energy jumping out before the words arrive.
“With Jim Crow segregation, everybody was involved, from the law, policy, police, the judge and the banker. So, why are we not addressing this as the comprehensive approach that Jim Crow segregation was,” Barton said.
Across town, a man grips his latte-filled thermos as he skateboards away from All Day Darling Cafe. A server delivers drinks with leaf shaped foam to women chatting outside, their dogs leashed to the table.
Libbie Kyles, another Asheville local and school teacher of 20 years, sits inside with a bowl of fries facing her. She just returned from a 5th grade school trip to the District of Columbia but you wouldn’t know it based on her unrestrained smile and eagerness to share her story.
An involved community member, Kyles co-founded Youth Transformed for Life, and helps organize Black town halls in Asheville. YTL aims at empowering middle school and high school children of color who are at a disadvantage, specifically girls.
The government’s talk of diversity and equality doesn’t match their actions, according to Kyles, and the need for Black town halls stem from that lack of action.
Jamaican music softly bumps above her head as her stream of consciousness paints a picture of injustices gone unanswered.
“The beautiful parts of Asheville that you see were built on the backs of Black people, so why is it you get to benefit from our labor, but have no responsibility in writing your wrongs that have occured when you have stolen land,” said Kyles, cutting herself off a syllable short before immediately clarifying. “And I say it’s stolen, they will say its eminent domain, no you stole land for your own purposes.”
Kyles exhales before pinching a couple fries from the bowl. Her impassioned words take a moment to set in, like a heavy stone having already stuck the water, the ripples now slowly spread outward. The Asheville native takes a deep inhale before continuing.
“The city has been a monster in creating tourism for Asheville with all these different hotel systems, and the same vigor they put into hotel
systems they should be putting into affordable housing,” Kyles said.
Deep exhale, fry, deep inhale, speak, repeat. Kyles methodically dissects the subject at hand, speaking to the weight of it all. Growing up in Asheville results in personal experience providing numerous examples of discourse between the community and the city.
The Public Works Building in Asheville stands staunchly alone, its red brick exterior capitalized with a glass panel roof stretching to a point in the center, adjoining with the brick. Lee Walker Heights, a Historically Black Neighborhood, overlooks it. It’s big enough to fit several houses on the inside, like the houses both sets of Kyles’s grandparents lived in before they lost them to the city.
The drip of the coffee press in the background fades to sweat faintly striking upturned soil. Losing land can happen quickly, warns Barton, wiping his brow.
“Once an elderly person dies off the land is usually sold and it goes to somebody not from the neighborhood and I don’t know what to do about that,” Barton said.
The social activist catches his breath, standing up just right so the sun bounces off his neon sunglasses. Barton refocuses on his work and his mission in the community. Investment in the community from the city remains top priority, according to him, while continuing to provide a platform for dialogue on the issues through Hood Huggers and the garden.
“We’ve been trying to talk to the city about making that Burton Street Community Center a technology center in the basement, a business incubator, putting solar panels on the roof, a recording studio, so much I’ve been trying to get them plugged in about,” said Barton, urgency creeping into his voice.
Barton remains one of the many combatants in the fight for affordable housing and promoting equal opportunity who feel unanswered.
An industrial fan blows faithfully in the lobby of a lone public building in Downtown. Its walls, old and pale, reach upward before ending with no surprise or flair. A flash of brightness can be heard as Shaunda Sandford’s laughter bounces outside her office and spills out of her window.
Sanford, member for Asheville’s Housing Authority and a member of the Board of Education, recognizes the difficulty in bringing people out of public housing and finding them a place to live. The daunting task at hand doesn’t fit the enthusiasm she uses for office lighting.
“We want people to become homeowners but a lot of them want to stay right here in the city because this is where they grew up, this is where their kids go to school, but they can’t afford to buy anything in town,” Sanford said.
Sanford’s experience growing up in Asheville starkly contrasts that of her children, according to her, a lack of community being the biggest part.
“Now it’s different. You don’t know you neighbors, you don’t know the people that live up the street, a lot of the teachers aren’t from here, it’s just different,” Sanford said, leaning back in her chair while nodding to herself.
A lack of community doesn’t stop the 38-year-old social worker from loving the city she works for. Meeting new people through her job motivates her and brightens her day. It also reminds her to pay attention to the people she serves, Sanford says, a sentiment all Asheville residents share.
Barton plants his last flower for the day and leaves for a meeting. Kyles finishes her fries and stops by the YTL office before going home. Sanford clocks out at the end of the day. Three individuals with different occupations, working in different parts of Asheville, with different stories. All working against the same prevalent crisis spanning generations, requiring cooperation between citizens and government, and the cooperation between citizens themselves. Old and new.