The final question asked of Asheville's two mayoral and five City Council candidates did not focus on the usual inquiries raised during this municipal election. It wasn't about the economy. It wasn't about jobs. It wasn't about the police department — though it certainly touched on all of those matters. And it had nothing to do with the Asheville Art Museum, a contentious topic in recent months.
Instead, on Oct. 15 at the YWCA of Asheville, candidates were asked to tell an audience of about 50 people their ideas for encouraging more locals, particularly people of color, to partake of the downtown area. The forum was co-sponsored by the YWCA and the Asheville chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, a primarily African-American public-service sorority.
Current Vice Mayor and candidate for mayor Esther Manheimer replied that she had thought about that question for a long time. She still remembers whom her 16-year-old self did not see as she walked the halls and into her classes on her first day at Asheville High School. “What it was, of course, was a segregated school within a school because the black population … was probably 40 percent, but there was maybe one or two black students in my classes,” she said. “What I came to understand about that process was that it was really a product of institutional racism.”
Today in the city, she said, she sees a reflection of that in relation to Asheville's public-housing population.
“What we have are 10 public-housing projects that house almost 10 percent of Asheville's population, and it is a predominantly black population, which is impoverished. It is a self-sustaining cycle of institutional impoverishment,” she said, asserting that there isn't a strong black middle-class as in Durham, Charlotte or Raleigh. “I think where it starts, of course, is education. But what I'm very interested in trying to tackle is what I consider institutionalized continuation of an impoverished black population through our public-housing system.”
When it comes to attracting people of all races to downtown, there's less of a divide than people may think, said John Miall, former Asheville risk management director and mayoral candidate.
“In my experience, I think an awful lot of black folks … don't go downtown for the same reason a lot of white folks don't go — because there's a good chance right now that some topless gaggle of women is going to come wandering through,” he said. “I think we first have to look at what's wrong with downtown and fix those problems, and then we can talk about what to do to attract local people — black or white — back to downtown.”
Miall said the main problem is Asheville's crime rates, which he described as “through the roof.” His first priority in office would be to ask a community task force to identify downtown issues and define subsequent action steps, he said.
This task force would help to make downtown Asheville “the kind of place that the people who live here and pay to keep it up are proud of and want to be a part of,” Miall continued. “It's not just a place where tourists should feel they want to go. It should be a place where I feel at home, and I don't think it's been that way for a few years.”
Council candidates weighed in, too.
Council member Cecil Bothwell noted that the question of how comfortable different populations feel downtown, especially minorities, was a “tangle” involving larger, complicated issues of history and deep-seated racism. He noted that the percentage of African-American-owned assets in Asheville has remained relatively flat since the 1930s.
“We're confronting something really deep,” he said. “Now all the rich white people are moving downtown and bidding up all the prices. We've brought the wealth back into the city and excluded the poor.” He said he was hopeful that the current Council's investment in the Block — downtown’s traditionally African-American business district — “was a small payment in that direction of revitalizing. … I hope we can do better.”
Former Asheville Police officer Mike Lanning, an Asheville native, said rising costs and a lack of well-paying jobs don't make it friendly for those born and raised here, whatever their race. “Most people that grow up here leave. They don't stay in the Asheville area. That continues to this day, because they have to go somewhere where the cost of living is cheaper and they make more money.”
As far as downtown, Lanning said, “Quite frankly, I don't go downtown a lot, because it's turned into a wealthy person's place to go; it costs a lot of money,” and more outreach is needed, he said.
Council member Gordon Smith said that he believes Council is trying to make up for years of neglect by investing in development on the Block and “looking to partner with the leaders of the African-American community. … That kind of leadership is also going to be helpful to us in looking at downtown's future.”
He later added that the community had often been caught in an unjust situation where their burdens outweighed the benefits they received from the community.
Community activist Jonathan Wainscott said he felt that “downtown is becoming so tourism-centric,” and it's off-putting to many “that downtown's started to feel a little like Myrtle Beach.” The city should encourage smaller festivals to “celebrate the cultural diversity we have in downtown,” he said.
He added that being white had given him advantages in landing jobs in the past, “and with privilege comes responsibility … and I'm committed that the privileges I have been given I will pay back.”
Former Coleman CEO Gwen Wisler said, “I'm not sure what would attract people of color downtown. Frankly, I think that has to come from that community: What would be attractive? Even more importantly, what's unattractive? What needs to change so downtown is more inviting to the African-American community or people of color?”
She said that if elected, she would reach out and “see what we can do to encourage that. It is a little disappointing when you go downtown and everyone looks like me; that's not what our community is.”
Early voting continues through Saturday, Nov. 2, and the general election is Nov. 5.
— Caitlin Byrd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 251-1333, ext. 140.
David Forbes can be reached at email@example.com or 251-1333, ext. 137.