East End memories

It has been said that if you look at a good landscape painting, you can tell how the air would feel on your cheek if you were standing in that place. Andrea Clark’s photographs of the area of Asheville once called the East End have that quality. You can feel the breeze, hear the talk and smell the food cooking. These works give much more than a historical record of a part of our community: They give a record of the life that once was.

History in black-and-white: East End was once home to a wide variety of black-owned businesses, such as this barber shop and shoe-shine stand.

These photographs have been collected under the title Twilight of A Neighborhood: Asheville’s East End Circa 1970, and are currently on display at Pack Memorial Library.

Before urban renewal, the East End neighborhood covered the area from Eagle Street down the hill to what is now the broad, tree-lined section of South Charlotte Street. It climbed up Beaucatcher Mountain, and down to McCormick Field. It is the neighborhood Thomas Wolfe referred to when he wrote of his days as a newspaper boy around 1914: “Fat ropes of language in the dusk, the larded sizzle of frying fish, the sad faint twanging of a banjo, and the stamp, far-faint, of heavy feet; voices Nilotic, river-wailing, and the greasy light of four thousand smoky lamps in shack and tenement. … Rich wells of laughter bubbled everywhere.”

By the time Andrea Clark moved to Asheville in the late 1960s, several more generations of African-American families had grown up in the East End neighborhood. Many had built themselves comfortable homes and lives in spite of the difficulties they faced with segregation and second-class citizenship. Everything they needed—the doctor, the dentist, the storekeeper, the drugstore, the lawyer, the school, the church and the undertaker—was right there in their community. But this was all to change.

Clark’s father was from Asheville, but she did not grow up in East End. She was born in Cambridge, Mass., where her father was a chauffeur for Lt. Gen. Edward Lawrence Logan, for whom Boston’s Logan airport is named. While studying nursing in Boston, she took a class from famed photographer Minor White. Deciding that nursing was not the career for her, she moved to Asheville to be near her retired father and his relatives.

Gone, but not forgotten: Clark’s photos reveal the often-overlooked story of black residents in the East End section of downtown Asheville. The photo here shows the corner of Eagle and Valley streets.

She was an oddity to her neighbors: tall and attractive, her hair cropped close to her head, she had a strange accent and a commanding presence. The attention she garnered in the community gave her access to the lives of the East End’s residents. They wanted to know who this woman was, and what she was up to walking around with that fancy camera.

“I was in a new place,” Clark recalls. “In the South, people smiled, they were warm and friendly. I wanted to get to know everybody. I carried the camera all the time.”

She doesn’t know how many photographs she took during the first few years in her new environment, but she has recently donated 1,000 negatives to the North Carolina Collection at the Pack Memorial Library.

These works provide a record of a time and a place, but they go beyond documentation. There are street scenes showing homes and businesses that were demolished to make way for “progress” as it was defined during that period, but the pictures that tell the story best are those of the residents of East End.

It’s hard to imagine that just 30 years ago there could have been a large, level, loamy space on Valley Street where a man could prepare the soil for spring planting with a push plow, but there is a photograph of just that in the collection. The streets in Clark’s works are filled with life. Two men perch on a windowsill of the Savoy Hotel on the corner of Market and Eagle streets. The coal yard at Eagle and Valley was a place for both commerce and social interaction. On one photograph, a lone man leans against a concrete block wall and drinks from a whisky bottle. In another, two women sit on the sidewalk in straight chairs, one on either side of a doorway, one relaxed, and the other upright and tense.

There are photographs of the buildings: businesses on the street level with living spaces above, and houses sprawling down the hillside with the dignified white columns of Calvary Presbyterian Church rising from the ridge. One of the most outstanding works is of a muddy Velvet Street running past a row of houses with pyramidal roofs.

Many of the best photographs are of children. A little girl sits alone and content in a narrow alley amid a pile of trash and rubble. A group of kids playing in a field stop to pose—a young girl looks shy, while the two boys ham it up for the camera.

These photographs tell stories that might never have been told. Perhaps the most important of all is one of the latest: Taken in the early 1970s, it shows the stairway to the public restroom that used to be near the Vance Monument. The faded sign reads “White only.”

[Connie Bostic is a painter and writer living and working in Asheville.]


who: Twilight of A Neighborhood: Asheville’s East End Circa 1970
what: Andrea Clark’s chronicle of a once-vibrant African-American neighborhood that is no more
where: Pack Memorial Library
when: Through Monday, March 31. Special “Front Porch Discussion” on Sunday, Feb. 24, at 2:30 p.m. (250-4700)

 

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