Note: this piece was started before the pandemic was declared. For more depth on this moment, click here for details on the upcoming Coping with Corona Collective webinars.
Very near my house, newly built “luxury” apartments will be opening soon, and one of my long time favorite spots of urban green space is being dug up for a row of “luxury” townhouses which will be built (by a developer from Charleston) before we know it. The other day, a friend saw me taking photos of the bulldozers tearing up the land and asked me why. “No reason exactly,” I replied, “If a tornado came through my neighborhood, I probably would take photos, too.”
Not long after I made that comment, a tornado tore through Nashville, causing the loss of many homes and businesses. One of the neighborhoods most impacted, East Nashville, is a historically African American neighborhood which has been gentrifying rapidly over the past few years. The tragedy of the loss of homes and businesses from the tornado that day is not unlike the losses that community has already experienced.
Gentrification (with its roots in redlining and urban renewal) is like a slow tornado.
In the cover story of the March 4 Mountain Xpress, “Uprooted: Urban renewal in Asheville,” Thomas Calder discusses the history of redlining and urban renewal nationally and locally. The story centers around a UNC Asheville student research project on the topic that will soon be on display at Pack Library. The story outlines how government and banks and realtors took land and property from African Americans. Property which, knowing the history before redlining, Black people had gone through hell and back to be able to own. The story points to the perfect storm of power, policy, and prejudice that caused the extreme wealth gap that exists between whites and Blacks today. A wealth gap which of course contributes to other disparities.
While this historical terrain has been covered by others over the years (see Twilight of a Neighborhood, Red lines from the Asheville Blade, and Steven Michael Nickollof’s thesis which connects the desire for tourism to how urban renewal played out here), it obviously warrants further coverage and discussion.
Why are we still talking about this? Because, despite the clear injustice being well documented public knowledge, little to nothing has been done towards repair of this devastating disaster.
However, there are steps that can be taken immediately.
A call for the City to cease development on land taken during urban renewal until we name the numbers
Family historian Sasha Mitchell is quoted in the Xpress article about her proposal as to how to start the repair process:
“’Before stepping down as chair of the city’s African American Heritage Commission last October, notes Sasha Mitchell, she proposed a moratorium on all future development projects involving properties acquired through urban renewal until a comprehensive cost analysis is conducted. Such a program, she says, “could be a model for other cities, because this is a problem that has happened all over the country.”
‘My hope is that once we have this study and others like it across our nation, our conversation could shift toward acknowledging that government policies targeting our nation’s black population resulted in losses of wealth and capital that have never been calculated,’ Mitchell explains. ‘Once we understand the true nature and value of that loss, rather than repeatedly noting the awful disparities black residents of Asheville live with today — which, without context, many people attribute to failures of the black community — we can talk about how we can begin to right that wrong.’
Before stepping down as chair of the city’s African American Heritage Commission last October, notes Sasha Mitchell, she proposed a moratorium on all future development projects involving properties acquired through urban renewal until a comprehensive cost analysis is conducted. Such a program, she says, “could be a model for other cities, because this is a problem that has happened all over the country.”
At press time, Xpress had not heard back from Lynn Smith, the current chair of the African American Heritage Commission, concerning the proposal’s current status…
Still, Mitchell worries about black Asheville’s future. In 1950, African Americans accounted for 21.7% of the city’s population, census figures show; by 2010 that number had dropped to 13.3%. ‘We’ve lost a lot of talent; the black middle class is shrinking,’ she laments, and the city’s rapid gentrification seems likely to accelerate that loss.'”
That loss is already accelerated, and while much resilience is exhibited by the Black community in Asheville daily, shrinking numbers of Black residents and worsening racial disparities are real and wrong and require reparations to rectify.
TAKE ACTION: Email Asheville City Council (AshevilleNCCouncil@ashevillenc.gov) and ask for this very reasonable proposal to be implemented.
Black home ownership
Many still remember the days when, before urban renewal, Black people owned hundreds and hundreds of homes and businesses in vibrant interconnected neighborhoods throughout Asheville. As Calder’s article and others share, urban renewal led to a traumatic loss of culture and community as well as property on which to build wealth for their families. Many were moved public housing units which they did not own, and since then white Asheville has been all to comfortable to ignore these isolated communities, blaming issues such as gun violence on the people who have been trapped inside for generations, not on the system that trapped them.
As Lee Walker Heights is being redeveloped as a “mixed income” housing, promises have been made that those who lived there before will be able to move back. One of the major flaw with this set up is that these families are returning as renters, not owners. Thus, it looks like white-led institutions and businesses will build wealth on this development, Black people will not.
This does not need to be replicated with other public housing neighborhoods. Instead, we can look to models for permanently affordable cooperatively owned housing being implemented by PODER Emma Community Ownership and others across the country.
TAKE ACTION: Contact the Housing Authority (haca.org) and the City (you can add this to your email about the proposal mentioned above) asking that any further redevelopment of public housing be permanently affordable cooperative home and land ownership of current residents.
Another suggestion related to ownership would be to support the success of the Asheville-Buncombe Community Land Trust, (which I need to learn more about).
Stop gentrifying development
As we learned from the history outlined above, our Black neighborhoods were decimated, and real estate speculators and developers came in and took advantage of the destruction. Now those neighborhoods are completely gentrified or in the process of being completely gentrified.
One of the largest historically Black neighborhoods in Asheville is Southside. While part of Southside has been renamed “South Slope” and taken over by breweries and fancy condos, there is still a significant Black population living in the remaining sections. Unfortunately, a proposed development, the RAD Lofts, which is slated for a final vote (and likely approval) at tomorrow’s City Council meeting, will have a devastating impact on the neighborhood.
The Mountain Xpress reported on the vote on this project (passed 4 to 3 but requires a second vote) at the last council meeting. Excerpt: “But [Sheneika] Smith, a three-generation native of the Southside community, said she did not support the development because of its potential to gentrify a historically African American neighborhood. The project, located at 146 and 179 Roberts St., is located in a census tract where a majority of residents are African American and roughly 40% live below the poverty line.
‘By saying that, after redlining, [the] response to gentrification is some blended model — yeah, that is great for Asheville at large. But what my community cannot regain in that model, and other models on the table proposed right now, is a sense of belonging and a sense of ownership,’ Smith said.”
While at this point it does not seem possible to stop this particular development, we can question why, in the midst of a global and local crisis, it is one of the few items on the City Council agenda. We’ve seen too many damaging developments pushed through City Council in recent years, moving forward on this one at this time feels particularly painful.
We can continue to advocate for an overhaul of the occupancy tax, as it becomes more obvious the unsustainable nature of the way it has been managed. I was not surprised by the lack of community accountability evidenced in last week’s statement from the TDA, which talks about how they will start advertising (to fill hotel rooms) again as soon as they can, but offers nothing towards supporting hospitality workers and small businesses in the meantime. If only they could understand that investing in community is actually the best possible kind of advertising.
It is crucial that these elected officials hear from us. We are asking for: 1. The majority (I say 100%) of the occupancy tax to be able to be used to meet community needs such as infrastructure, transit, affordable housing, resilient local economies; 2. The composition of the board managing how the money is spent be representative of a diversity of perspectives of tourism:
We are opposed to insufficient reforms of this tax which has such an impact on our lives.
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