What are strategies for cultivating authentic, caring community in Asheville? What are barriers to that cultivation? These are questions that have been pressing on me since I attended a West Asheville community meeting last Thursday, August 9.
The meeting was initially planned to be another in a series of solution-based conversations about challenges facing the neighborhood. Due to unexpected actions from the City of Asheville days before the meeting, those conversations could not take place.
On August 7, the Firestorm Collective posted this message, “It’s official y’all, the City of Asheville is moving to shut down 12 Baskets Cafe: a program of Asheville Poverty Initiative and The Steady Collective‘s weekly needle exchange program at our co-op due to alleged zoning violations — zoning violations that apparently didn’t exist when permits were being issued but then manifested when folks started calling the cops instead of working directly with their neighbors to address their concerns. This is an assault on our community and our most vulnerable neighbors. We’re not exaggerating when we say that people will die if the city prevails.”
12 Baskets Cafe, held at Kairos West Community Center, provides free meals and space for people to gather. Upstairs from Kairos in Firestorm Books & Coffee, the Steady Collective operates a weekly needle exchange program which includes providing naloxone, a drug which can prevent an overdose. The Steady Collective reports that 47 people have used naloxone from the Collective to save a life. By offering these essential services, these programs attract people that are experiencing poverty, homelessness, and drug addiction. People whose behaviors are causing discomfort for some of the neighbors of the Firestorm/Kairos building.
At the beginning of the meeting, Firestorm Collective member Libertie read a statement naming that, by issuing notices of zoning violations with a 30-day deadline to comply, the City “puts us and others in our community in a position of being forced to divert energy that could be going to address real problems here in West Asheville. Now we must take that energy and put it into defending existing programs that are meeting the needs of our community and saving lives.”
Most of the people who spoke during the meeting made impassioned statements in support of the programs that the City is threatening to shut down. The comments from those who expressed concerns about 12 Baskets and the Steady Collective were not well received by the majority of the crowd. The City’s actions had created understandable divisiveness.
12 Baskets posted, “There was a meeting today and the support was overwhelming. Thank y’all for showing up for the cafe and all those who make it happen! We could not do what we do without your support! Unfortunately, the meeting was not reflective of the good and organic work many of us in West Asheville have been doing together to address our shared concerns. Speaking on behalf of 12 Baskets, we have not experienced ill-will from most of our business/school neighbors.
We all share the same goals of keeping 12 Baskets open and in its current location AND addressing the issues that stem from a growing opioid epidemic, lack of public facilities, and any inappropriate and unacceptable behavior in our neighborhood. Our hope was that this meeting would build on our previous conversations and move forward on solutions that have been named. Instead, the meeting was framed by a false binary that made it difficult for many to share both their support AND concerns without being celebrated or vilified. We do not believe this was helpful and left many feeling disappointed and frustrated upon leaving today.”
So here we are.
After the public outcry, Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball published a statement which stated that the City issued the notice of violations in response to complaints, and that they plan to work with the organizations cited so they can “remain compliant.”
Inserting City regulatory muscle into a community process that was already underway did nothing to contribute to solutions, and instead subverted them, as the counter-productiveness of the community meeting demonstrates. There are other ways to approach community conflict.
The fact that the notices of violations were issued in response to complaints that went to the City instead of to the folks with 12 Baskets and the Steady Collective also infuriates me. Talk directly to people if you have an issue with them! Invite a mediator in if that feels necessary. Stop calling the cops.
This situation is reminiscent of the complaints people in Montford sent to the City about the colorful “junk” in my neighbor Odell’s yard. Grumbling to the government instead of talking to their quite approachable neighbor, a resident of his house for well over half a century. (Not to mention that their complaints were about interesting items that I genuinely loved to look at.) So, at the whim of anonymous people, Odell had to deal with visits from the police. The pressure finally meant he was forced to do some major work and purging to comply. It has been depressing. Gentrification hurts. Who gets to decide the aesthetic of our neighborhood? Who is benefiting financially from “cleaning” things up?
In both cases, property owners are claiming the right to decide what they do and do not have to see and deal with. Delores Venable of Asheville Black Lives Matter pointed out in a FB post that, unlike the opioid epidemic, we have largely ignored the problems with crack and other drugs in our majority-black public housing neighborhoods, as they are segregated out of sight of the dominant culture.
At the meeting Casey Campfield pointed out that the City has prioritized cracking down on these programs over addressing the the hundreds of illegal whole house rentals in West Asheville. An epidemic which is contributing to our affordable housing crisis and out-of-control gentrification. The City has let illegal STRs slide in Montford as well. For years and years there was an illegal whole house rental on my street, which I know the City received numerous complaints about. Those complaints were ignored, while the complaints about Odell’s yard led to City action. In fact, it could have been owners of illegal STRs who called in the complaints.
This selective enforcement is problematic.
All agree that there are issues that need to be addressed on the corner of Haywood Road and State Street, and I believe the groups involved can address them, with support. There is already discussion of strategies like sharps containers, public restrooms, additional volunteers for cleaning the area, and a call for more resources for supportive services. These are strategies we will need to implement beyond that corner as well, as folks struggle in other parts of the city and county.
At the community meeting I learned that the APD arrests people for having needles on them, which is one of the contributing factors to the needle litter problem. Stopping those arrests is another step that can be taken. Moving money from the police line item in the City budget to equity initiatives, housing, and transit is another.
Our expectations for Steady Collective and 12 Baskets need to be realistic, understanding that they are dealing with the symptoms of a racist patriarchal capitalist system that causes poverty, homelessness, mental illness, drug addiction, and other horrors. Until the system is dismantled, the sickness will continue to spread.
May our empathy for the people served by these programs remind us that we, too, have addictions. That we all seek to fill the internal voids and pain created by capitalism and oppression. May we see the ways our unconscious consumptive behaviors contribute to economic inequities and climate change. That we are part of a system that puts people on the streets. Perhaps we’ll think about how, because of systems of oppression, the game is rigged in our favor. That our comfort comes with a cost to others and the planet.
How do we act when we embody the knowledge that our survival is truly interwoven with each other and the earth? How can we tap into our capacity for greater community connection and care? How can we not?
This post is just scratching the surface of these dynamics, which I will continue to wrestle with in my (almost) weekly posts. There are many nuances and perspectives to consider. Please see this processing as the beginning to a discussion, not a final statement.
As always, you can watch this Events Calendar for suggestions of places to connect in community. Thanks to Keaton Hill for agreeing to help me add events to it.
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