The Burton Street neighborhood has changed a lot since DeWayne Barton was a boy.
“All this used to be a wooded area,” he says, motioning toward a line of houses adjoining the neighborhood’s community garden. “The whole place used to be like a little forest. I remember, growing up, I would play out here, only coming back to eat strawberry ice cream. We’d play with little army men and dump trucks.”
In its nearly century-long history, West Asheville’s Burton Street community, now tucked up against Interstate 240, has faced many challenges, including economic hardship, drug activity, a lack of basic services and major road construction.
“The people will rally around and come together,” says longtime resident Vivian Conley. “We’ve had to struggle for everything we’ve gotten.”
The latest challenge this community faces is the planned demolition of a number of houses to make way for the I-26 connector (exactly how many depends on which plan is eventually adopted). Recently, the state Department of Transportation announced yet another construction delay, leaving frustrated residents still in the dark.
“We know that congestion is a problem; we know [an I-26 connector] has to be done,” she says. “But this uncertainty keeps anything from being done. It keeps you in limbo as far as your life is concerned.”
From her house at 91 Burton St., one can hear the sound of cars rushing by on the interstate. Under every plan proposed so far, Conley’s house will be demolished.
But the residents also speak of a spirit of perseverance and mutual support that reaches back to famed civic leader E.W. Pearson, known in his time as the “Black Mayor of West Asheville.”
“From the very beginning, Burton Street was created by dedicated, hard-working people,” notes Barton. “I think if everyone put forth the effort that [Pearson] did, West Asheville could be transformed. The beginning of it was so rich, there’s a good seed planted in this area.”
West Asheville pioneers
When Pearson, a Spanish-American War veteran and self-educated entrepreneur, founded the community in 1912, the area was nearly wilderness.
Things changed rapidly, though, as people started moving in. A school was built, and Pearson opened a store. He also organized the first Buncombe County Agricultural Fair in 1914. The event would be held every year until his death in 1946.
But Pearson’s energy and drive didn’t stop there: He founded the Asheville Royal Giants, a semi-professional black baseball team that played in Pearson Park, since taken over by commercial development. Pearson also founded the Asheville chapter of the NAACP and served as a leader in a multitude of civic organizations.
In the beginning, there wasn’t even a Burton Street. Originally dubbed Buffalo Street, the name was changed in the late 1920s to honor Asheville founder John Burton.
Woods and a creek ran through the area where Patton Avenue now runs. Residents grazed livestock and tended their own small farms.
The Great Depression hit Asheville hard, but once again, Burton Street survived.
A 1963 report the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools concerning Burton Street Elementary School sheds some light on the neighborhood’s character at that time.
“A survey shows that 60 percent of the parents are high-school graduates and 10 percent have had at least one year of college training,” the report reads. “In recent years the parents have shown an unusual interest in the academic achievement of their children. … Eighty percent of the parents own their own homes.”
Conley recalls those days vividly. “When I grew up, you knew everybody that was out here—everybody that was on every street, next door, all around you. Now you hardly know who’s next door,” she says with a laugh. “The whole top of this street, there’s only one house still here from when I was growing up. You wouldn’t even lock the doors unless you were going on vacation.”
In the late 1950s, Patton Avenue cut a swath through the community, and 20 years later, the construction of I-240 took a similar toll.
Ironically, notes Conley, during that same period, her mother had to fight to get neighborhood streets paved.
“The only street out here that got paved—and you can see the only one now that has a sidewalk—is Burton Street,” she said. “Most of the other streets took years. My mother worked for years: She’d go back to the city again and again asking for paved roads. Anything we’ve asked for, we’ve been the last to get.”
Integration left the Burton Street School sitting vacant, and Conley’s mother, she recalls, had to fight again to get the funds to turn it into the Burton Street Community Center, which today serves as a social gathering place.
“Come out here for a funeral and we can feed the world,” she says with a laugh. “We rally together there anytime there’s something in the community.”
Born in the area in 1967, Barton moved back in 2001, only to find drug activity rampant in his old neighborhood.
“It was like a nightclub: People were out there selling dope, running to people’s cars,” he recalls. “Open-air drug activity where people don’t even care—a lot of garbage. Growing up as I had and seeing a resemblance of the inner city with this open-air drug traffic, I said, ‘Oh no, not here.’”
Conley, who moved back around the same time to care for family members, also saw the change.
“The drug problem started with other people coming into the community, and then some of the children here got pulled into selling drugs,” she remembers. “We had some that actually lived in the community selling drugs—they’d never seen that kind of money before. There would be families who would pray every day that their child would get out of the drug trade, but it was groceries; it was money.
“The drugs were right there on the corner; you couldn’t even drive up and down the street. I feared for my parents’ life because they were so elderly.”
But Conley wasn’t ready to surrender. She and other neighborhood residents kept calling and pressuring the police “on a daily basis,” and over time, she says, things began to change.
“I said, ‘If you don’t get someone out here and something happens to my parents, I’m going to hold you responsible,’” she relates. “Pretty soon they started getting them out of here, and it turned back into the West Asheville I knew.”
The community applied for a Weed and Seed grant from the federal government that provided for both increased policing and other neighborhood improvements, including renovating the community center and posting a sign at the entrance to the area noting its “rich history.”
“When you’re in the neighborhood, you’ve got to start being an example,” emphasizes Barton, an educator who works with at-risk youth. “When you do that, it sort of spreads. When other people see you picking up trash, for example, they get motivated to do something, especially the young people. Our young people need to see us out there trying to do things right.”
Change meant throwing some people out of the community as arrests were made, but Conley and others moved forward.
“It affected some local people,” she concedes, adding, “We did not want that here. It wasn’t good for our community. It wasn’t safe for our community.”
Having taken on the drug trade and won, however, the community is now faced with looming road construction.
Having to move, notes Conley, will pose a problem for “people who were born here, married here, raised children here, retired here.” But the uncertainty, she says, is even worse.
“We shouldn’t be held hostage, and that’s what I feel like: We’re being held hostage. This community has already been hit hard by road construction; this will be the third time.”
Still, she sees new arrivals, from many different racial and social backgrounds, joining the community.
“Even with the different races, we get along just fine,” she says with a smile. “There were over 200 people that came out to the opening of the community center—of all races, all of us in fellowship.”
Barton, too, sees opportunity as well as challenges.
“I-26, just like the drugs of the past, it’s given us a reason to talk to each other, because we have a similar issue that’s going to affect all of us,” he says. “I think because of that, it’s going to make the community tighter and greater. We just have to keep building on that.”
David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at email@example.com.