The intention behind my work is to illuminate, amplify, and fortify transformative ideas and action. To shine honest light on what binds us while tuning into positive possibility.
On this sunny spring day with a periwinkle sky, I will write about one of the things that made me cry this week: gentrification.
I’m lucky. In 1998 I bought a little bungalow in the historic Montford neighborhood. With a full-time job at a non-profit and a first time homebuyer’s loan, I was able to make the most “grown up” purchase of my life. This investment was made possible by the white generational wealth I come from on both sides of my family, the educational advantages I had, etc. Privilege begets privilege.
During my early years in Montford, I knew most of my neighbors. A diverse group of people, we shared a sweet moment before Asheville became number 2 out of the 10 “U.S. Cities That Are Gentrifying the Fastest.”
This neighborhood has changed before, of course. What follows is some neighborhood history, not thoroughly researched, but hopefully accurate enough for context.
Cherokee, the first people to live in this region, were displaced by colonization (which started in the mid-1500s) and the building of Asheville (which included the use of slave labor).
In the late 1800s, a plot of land near Riverside Cemetery was cleared for black residential use. This land became a black neighborhood known as “Stumptown.” With it’s oldest home, the Rankin-Bearden house, dating 1846, the adjacent Montford neighborhood was officially established in 1893. According to Wikipedia, “Early city directories indicate a mixed population of working class citizens, and highly paid professionals, whites and blacks.”
There is a section about Stumptown in “Twilight of a Neighborhood,” a must read publication about the impacts of urban renewal on historically black neighborhoods in Asheville. As the Asheville Blade reported in “Red Lines,” the black neighborhoods that were damaged by redlining were the same ones torn apart during urban renewal.
Excerpt from Twilight: In the 1950s, the [Stumptown] community included working-class families who owned their homes, small businesses, a school, and several churches. Former resident Daryl Wasson recalls: “You had this nice little community. These were all nice homes. They were cared for. There was nothing slovenly about it.” In the mid-1950s, the city started work on the Cross-Town Expressway, Asheville’s first superhighway.
Squarely in its path, Hill Street homes began to fall. Wasson says, “My mother and I watched them build the highway. In 1957 the highway department came and took out all the houses except for three on our street (Cross St.). They came through again in ’65, and they cleaned the place out completely in ’67.”
Mrs. Clara Jeter and Ms. Pat McAfee shared: Urban renewal came as a total surprise to us. We heard bits and pieces about a new program that promised better living conditions. And then, remembers Mrs. Dorothy Ware, one day “my parents got a letter warning them they had only a few months to find a new home.” Other residents got similar letters. Where would we go? How would we get to work and church? If it’s urban renewal, why is eminent domain being exercised? What’s really going on here? and took out all the houses except for three on our street (Cross St.). They came through again in ’65, and they cleaned the place out completely in ’67.”
Some of the displaced residents of Stumptown moved to the Hillcrest Apartments public housing community. My understanding is that those whose homes were taken were assured home ownership elsewhere was to be made available to them. This never happened. It is possible there are former Stumptown residents, and/or their descendants, still living in Hillcrest.
Even with the severe blow of urban renewal, in 1960s through the 1980s and even up through the 1990s or so, there were still a significant number of African American professionals living in the Montford area. I have black friends who have fond memories of growing up in this neighborhood. When I first moved here, I definitely had more black neighbors than I do now. There was also a wide range of income levels.
Understandably, the aftershocks of urban renewal, and other ongoing manifestations of racism in Asheville, had black parents encouraging their kids to leave town. Many of those that could did. Thus houses owned by black families that were not lost to urban renewal ended up being lost during this exodus.
During this time period, parts of the Montford became run down, and there was a fair amount of crime happening. As it often goes, white folks started buying houses (often from elderly African Americans) and fixing them up. I’ve heard that Neighborhood Housing Services was involved in this phase as well. The guy I bought my house from was flipping houses. It can be said that I was a part of the wave of gentrification. Montford is now one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Asheville.
There is no way I can fully understand the pain caused by the losses the black community has experienced. Though I feel empathy as I experience my own losses.
While we’ve long had Bed & Breakfasts, AirBnBs are now extremely prevalent in Montford. Houses on my street that once held neighbors whose names I knew now hold transient visitors with fancy cars and no interest in even speaking to me. My front yard is basically their hotel lobby.
Bars are opening up closer and closer to my home. The current beer-centric tourist vibe that spills into the streets is uninspiring at best.
The cost of houses in my neighborhood is now out of range for your average worker. The people buying them are not from here, and in many cases their Montford house is just one of their multiple residences. Rent is exorbitant. With a few exceptions, my artist, activist, and working class friends can no longer afford to live near me. That hurts.
Our struggles are writ large in the lives of our remaining black neighbors, such as my friend Odell Irby, who has lived in his house for 50 years, with his mother having lived there for years before that. At one point, most of his neighbors were black. Now he finds himself amidst white tourists who give him strange looks and wealthy neighbors who call the city to complain about his yard, rather than talking directly to him about it. Happily, he has been and continues to be beloved by many as well. For me, he is one of the people that redeems the neighborhood.
Is it possible for our neighborhood to be mixed income again? There have been heated discussions on the Montford listserv with defensive homeowners who do not see a case for offering affordable rentals because, “Why must we act NOT in our own best financial interests, to remedy a societal problem that we had no part in causing?”
To which my friend Ashely Cooper wrote a long and thoughtful response which included, “As to the notion that ‘we did not cause this problem.’ While that may be true, we who come from white and middle-class families have definitely benefited from the factors that made access to housing a problem for some and not for others…While these are issues that stemmed in the past, we are still either benefiting from or being harmed by their impact today.”
She continued, “in this conversation about access to affordable housing, the numbers of African Americans in Asheville has gone down from 17% in the early 2000s to a projection of 5 or 6% in the 2020 census. When people cannot afford to live here and cannot find work here and are discriminatingly arrested here, they are being forced out of the region. There is no longer room for them.
I hope that there are more people on this list who care about the good of all people, are willing to make some sacrifices for the common good and towards healing so many wrongs of history, and who are willing to work together to imagine and act in some new and courageous ways that help to actually create an Asheville that is compassionate, respectful and a place where all types of people can thrive — not just folks who are white and middle or upper class.”
Ariel Shumaker recently posted something along the same lines: “Hey Asheville folks who may have a rental property, have you considered listing it with Section 8? If not, are you aware that Section 8 renters have historically been the best renters – most consistent with payment, free access to a pool of renters, and protection from renter’s financial hardship (if there is hardship, Asheville will provide the additional $)?
As some of y’all may have heard, Lee Walker Heights will be going under major development, and that means there are a LOT of longtime residents there who are looking for housing. And, it’s a pretty urgent matter as the city is not being super helpful in connecting them with housing. PLEASE, if you have a rental property in Asheville, check out this link to learn more about being a Section 8 renter.”
Last year, there were 20+ people who died on the streets in this area who were in possession of a Section 8 voucher. There simply were not any Section 8 rentals available.
Beyond affordable rentals, how can disenfranchised families own homes again or for the first time? I know there is work happening around a community land trust, what other solutions can we pursue?
Clearly, I am just scraping the surface of the issue gentrification, how it is hurting people, and how we can fight it while building alternatives. As the listserv debate indicates, this issue is tied up in capitalism and people’s personal financial interests. In my opinion, capitalism is inherently damaging to individuals, families, communities, and the earth.
As always, relationships are part of the answer. And art.
I am inspired by projects I’ve seen in other places that use art to counter to forces of gentrification. The above graphic is from a “disrupting gentrification” initiative in Dallas, TX. Locally, DeWayne Barton and Safi Mahaba originally created the Burton Street Peace Gardens to counter the crack epidemic, now they are holding space for art and community as the Burton Street neighborhood gentrifies around them. I was glad to hear that the City is renaming the Montford Community Center for Tempe Avery, a midwife who was given that land by her former slaveowner Nicholas Woodfin. Maybe we can have a mural of her as well. Looking ahead, there are exciting community-led place-making initiatives underway in the Southside neighborhood and the Emma Community. I will share details as they develop. It’s good to remember money can’t buy everything.
I still see hope through my tears.
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