On a warm autumn day in the Burton Street neighborhood, the community center is bustling. It's a far cry from just a few years back, when members of the historically African-American West Asheville community were fighting off drug dealers and the center, once the pride of the neighborhood, had fallen into disrepair.
Up on the roof, workers are making further renovations. But observing them from a public garden across the street, DeWayne Barton has mixed feelings. “It's good to see this getting done,” he concedes. “But I'm also sad that none of our young men with those skills are the ones fixing the roof. When there's five unemployed guys sitting on a bench seeing work done in their community, it's disheartening.”
The Asheville native co-founded Asheville Green Opportunities, which prepares at-risk youth for well-paying green jobs. And on this day, he and other Burton Street residents have gathered here to discuss the changes they've witnessed and what they think still needs to be done.
In recent years, the neighborhood's economic fortunes have improved and crime has declined, thanks in part to ongoing federal “Weed and Seed” grants. But Burton Street residents have also waged another battle that’s left many feeling threatened. Initially, some proposals for the planned Interstate 26 connector called for demolishing up to 37 homes in the area. But after substantial public outcry, all of the alternatives were retooled to reduce the number of houses they would take. Still, even the lowest-impact option would demolish several homes and leave other residents facing a retaining wall.
Currently, the entire I-26 project is in limbo, with a final decision unlikely anytime soon. And while more than one Burton Street resident believes the interchange is needed, they aren't happy about the impact on the community.
"I think we've seen the process with the highway system kind of stagnate," says resident Jeff Frug. "When it comes to the neighborhood, though, I think it's anything but. There' s a lot of people pulling together, cleaning up vacant lots, putting down mulch. The neighborhood's coming together to make sure we have more staying power than a highway."
Barton, too, sees promising signs of growth — “There are new people moving in, new houses being built” — but even these developments pose challenges.
“As a community association, we haven't really figured out an organized way to reach out to these new people and bring them in,” he adds. “A lot of people from outside want to help out — UNCA, Warren Wilson [College] — and the city's finally paying attention to this area.”
Teresa Bowler, however, emphasizes that what the residents see as the city's tendency to neglect the area is changing “slowly — very, very slowly,” with periodic backward steps. This year, for example, the community center’s operating hours were cut, yet another casualty of the city's budget deficit. As a result, residents say, it feels difficult to use the facility.
For his part, Barton believes what’s needed is mostly “better communication. Sometimes, like on Saturdays, I see the center open but no one in there. It's going to take more planning and participation.”
In addition to the efforts of Asheville GO, a new group, My Brother's Keeper, is working to help young men returning from prison transition back into the community.
“There are young men in Burton Street who were incarcerated, and I know a lot of people have lost faith in them, because they helped destroy the community,” says new resident Stephen Smith, who works with My Brother's Keeper. “But if they get back, start mentoring, start working here in the community, we can reintegrate them, turn their energies around, and they can become a voice warning against things that shouldn't be done.”
Barton, meanwhile, maintains that in many cases, even people trying to turn their lives around through Asheville GO or a similar organization face disproportionately harsh sentences that he says often undermine attempts at rehabilitation.
Despite these challenges, however, neighborhood residents are pressing ahead. In partnership with the Asheville Design Center, they crafted the Burton Street Community Plan, which outlines a variety of steps aimed at continuing the area’s revitalization. Released earlier this year, it calls for such measures as ensuring the community center’s long-term health, creating a community newsletter, communicating with absentee landlords, adding more sidewalks and parking lots, better lighting and mass transit, and completing the incipient Smith Mill Creek Greenway.
“This community's very affluent — not in its money but in its potential,” says Smith. “But when I go down to the gas station, for example, that money's not staying in this community. It goes out, but it's not recycled back."
The city has staff dedicated to coordinating the Weed and Seed funds, and Public Information Officer Dawa Hitch says they "are knowledgeable of and support" the Burton Street Plan. Moving forward, she adds, the city remains open to partnerships and will try to assist the community as it begins to prioritize the stated goals.
Barton believes a better organized, more powerful community association would help ensure that some of the city contracts for work in the area go to locals.
“There's still a lot of uncertainty, and we can't take our eyes off what we want to see,” he notes. “We want to see these gardens open; we want to see businesses across the street. We want to see a sustainable community.”
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.