Numbers vs. narratives

The onset of the pandemic and quarantine in 2020 inspired a deeper awareness of my relationship with my neighborhood, leading me to extensively research its history. 

On the land of the Anigiduwagi (Cherokee) is Asheville’s census tracts 2 and 3, most of which is now called Montford. Tract 2, where my home is located, encompasses the southern part of Montford which includes Stumptown, Hill Street, and Hillcrest Apartments. Tract 3 is the northern part of Montford which includes Klondyke Apartments. 

Asheville Census Tracts 2 & 3

Within the boundaries of these census tracts there are innumerable stories. Sacred memories. Passionate tales of struggle and triumph. Cycles of change. 

As a white resident, I’m curious about my place in the story of the gentrification of Montford, as indicated by Black and white demographic changes over time. As I come to a greater understanding of the extent of Black displacement and disenfranchisement that occurred, of course I am interested in finding pathways towards repair. This requires study and stories.   

Numbers

According to the U.S. census, in 1970 census tract 2 was 67% Black, and housed 21% of Asheville’s total Black population, or 2,158 residents. There were 1,039 white residents at that time and 3 of another race, for a total of 3,200 residents in the tract. The percentage of Black residents increased to 74% by 1980. In contrast, the 2020 census reported only 531 Black residents in census tract 2, or 28% of the total. Of those 531 residents, 415 live in Hillcrest and therefore are not homeowners. 

Census tract 2 – Black/white population change – 1970 – 2020

The above graph documents the southern section of Montford (which I moved into in 1998) changing from a majority Black neighborhood to a majority white one. Between 1970 and 2020, census tract 2 experienced a 75% decrease in Black residents and a 4% increase in white residents. [You can find additional demographic charts and the source data here.]

This data also shows a shocking loss of density. In the past 50 years, census tract 2 has gone from housing 3,200 residents to only 1902 – a 41% decrease

Behind these numbers we can find cycles of systemic disinvestment and investment, redlining, urban renewal, cultural erasure, and racial discrimination in everything from jobs to bank loans, etc.

The 1981 establishment of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority (BCTDA), a tax-subsidized tourism machine, also plays a role. The subsequent explosion of tourism has exacerbated gentrification across the city, particularly in areas in and around the central business district such as Montford. 

Screenshot from InsideAirbnb.com, May 2022

Once accessible to people of a wide range of incomes, Montford is now one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Asheville, full of second (and third and fourth…) homes, B&Bs, and AirBnbs with racially segregated Housing Authority apartment complexes on the periphery of this extreme wealth. 

Narratives

As I started to learn this kind of information about my neighborhood’s history, I became increasingly frustrated by the dominant narratives about Montford – particularly third person pieces which do not name a narrator but are clearly written from a white perspective, as I discuss briefly in this post, Montford & Stumptown Stories.” 

These narratives do not explicitly name race but implicitly glamorize the story of the white people who moved into Montford in recent decades to open B&Bs and fix up old houses, while minimizing, criminalizing, or ignoring the Black people who were living here at the time. 

Dominant narratives have not named the displacement that occurred, let alone the reasons Black residents were unable to stay, including the lack of significant efforts to keep them in the neighborhood. Instead, displaced neighbors are invisibilized collateral damage for an increase in property values for white homeowners and profits for white-owned tourism-based businesses. 

Montford (census tracts 2 & 3) – Black/white population change + decrease in density – 1970 – 2020

For example, the history section of the Montford “Plan on a Page” submitted to the City of Asheville by the Montford Neighborhood Association (MNA) in 2016 reads [with my comments in brackets]:

“Montford was developed in the 1890’s through the 1920’s for the prosperous middle class of Asheville’s boom era.” 

[This is specifically referring to the Montford development which is now within historic district lines and was built for the white ‘prosperous middle class.’ There are other sections of the neighborhood which fall within the Montford boundaries described in the MNA’s Plan on a Page which were populated with Black working class families, who developed Stumptown and the Hill Street neighborhood starting in the 1880s. These families are not mentioned.]

“With the surge of new building after the Great Depression and World War II, Montford found itself no longer the neighborhood of choice for young families.” 

[Here they are referring to white ‘young families,’ as demographic data shows that Black families remained and were moving into the neighborhood during this time.]

[I’ll note here as well that one of the main reasons for the significant loss of density in Montford was a decrease in the number of children living here. This is outlined in the demographic report found here.]

“By the 1970’s, many larger homes had been divided into apartments and many were being demolished.” 

[This is how the plan describes the time when Montford was majority Black and had affordable housing and density, as well as systemic disinvestment.]

“The 1990’s brought new appreciation of historic houses and a gradual resurgence began.” 

[This refers to white people moving into the neighborhood, taking advantage of tax incentives for historic preservation as well as related factors such as increased policing.] 

“Today Montford is again a neighborhood of choice, with renovated historic houses and new homes on infill lots.” 

[Meaning a ‘neighborhood of choice’ for white people, as 2010 was when the census data shows the neighborhood had shifted from majority Black to majority white.]

These notes come after much time pondering these narratives.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that there is much more complexity to incorporate.

My intention is to be part of a collaborative process of weaving in threads that have been left out of the dominant narratives.

Our collective wellbeing is hampered when a collective story is not told.

Community healing requires stories that include us all.

“Growing Up in Asheville,” painting by Jenny Pickens of her memories of Montford

People behind the numbers 

When I listen to stories from current and former Black neighbors, I hear the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s being described as a time of positive cultural cohesion and community support. In the Montford & Stumptown Stories video series, Jenny Pickens, who lived on Cumberland Avenue during this time period, says, “I loved the fact that you knew everyone in your neighborhood, everyone stuck together, like I said, if you needed something, there was somebody to give it for you.” Yet now she grieves the loss of “Black communities. That was a time when, if we were outside playing, the lady across the street, she’s got her eye on us, we knew to behave. You don’t have that anymore.”

Screenshot from the Montford & Stumptown Stories interview with Kimberly Collins

Kimberly Collins, who lived on Short Street in Montford, remembers how “in this area it was just rich with wonderful families, wonderful Black families. From aunties, extended aunties and uncles, and cousins, the family cohesiveness was great here.” She goes on to state, “It was a great time growing up in Asheville from the seventies to the early to mid nineties, just great. I’m getting a little emotional thinking about it. And it grieves my spirit that these kids have lost that. They’ve lost that sense of community.”

To be continued…

While I know that the years when Montford was majority Black were not without their issues, dominant narratives have avoided acknowledging what has been lost through gentrification, and the ways racism led to disparate outcomes. These omissions have helped to prevent those of us who have benefited from gentrification from developing a sense of accountability for the damage done.

These reflections are just part of a series of writings about my neighborhood, past present and future – in first person. 

May it be of some use. 

#  #    #

More numbers….

Asheville – Black/white demographic change – 1970 – 2020

Montford & Stumptown writings compiled on Medium

2 thoughts on “Numbers vs. narratives

  1. Ami, this is an important piece for people to read. Would you be OK with me sharing this in two of the e-newsletters I edit – one for the Buncombe Community Remembrance Project, the other for the Interfaith Initiative for Social Justice? Thanks for your continued good work.

    Liked by 1 person

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