Out of sight on Eagle and Market streets, a mere block away from the tourist corridor of Biltmore Avenue, the area known as the Block doesn't attract many visitors to its small, dense environs.
But for nearly a century, the Block has served as a social and commercial hub for Asheville’s African-American community. While some of the district's landmark businesses and most of its residences are long-shuttered or demolished, the essence of the area — the people socializing on sidewalks, sitting on benches in Triangle Park or elsewhere — has withstood the many changes in the surrounding city, and to the street itself.
This summer, former habitués and artists are working on a mural project to help maintain and celebrate that essence — and to rekindle the entrepreneurial and entertaining spirit that made the Block a community center.
Since May, Triangle Park Mural Project volunteers have been planning, preparing and painting scenes on the park’s concrete wall that illustrate and honor the black businesses and community life in the vicinity of Eagle, Market and Valley streets. By creating a colorful gathering place to brighten up summer block parties and gospel events — many put on by the nonprofit Just Folks, the caretaker for the park — the project also hopes the mural will help attract other creative projects and events.
“For so many years, there was nothing here,” said Curtis James, Just Folks’ president who frequented the Block in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. “We felt that it is important to do something so that the history can be remembered. We hope that the mural will pull more people to the area so that they can see the new businesses that are there now and the big changes the area is going through.”
The project could be completed by summer’s end if the necessary resources are gathered, including paint, other materials and some funds for labor. To this end, organizers launched a Kickstarter campaign that ends July 13. As of press time, the project reached (and exceeded) its $7,800 goal.
For nearly a century, the Block was the place where the city’s African-Americans shopped, dined, played and did business. Supported largely by the East End, Southside, Market Street and Valley Street neighborhoods, dozens of black-owned businesses made the Block as busy and lively as the rest of downtown Asheville was for white residents.
James remembers the Del Cardo club, The Eagle Market and a little clothing store called The Block. He grew up on nearby Velvet Street and remembers his parents telling him about all kinds of businesses there. “Everything was full and vibrant then,” he said.
There’s little left of what the Block used to be. So-called urban renewal, a national movement from the ‘50s to the ‘70s designed to improve “blighted” areas, claimed much of the neighborhood. Homes were razed and businesses displaced, and residents were forced to leave. Photographer Andrea Clark documented the East End-Valley Street neighborhood; her photographs are held at the Pack Memorial Library. (See our 2008 story, “East End Memories” at http://avl.mx/h5 for more about Clark and her work.)
While urban renewal translated into benefits for some, it also displaced what had been a vibrant community. “Though progress was made, the African-American community sacrificed a lot economically to make it happen,” said Molly Must, a well-known Asheville urban muralist who began the Triangle Park project.
Must is an Americorps volunteer at the Asheville Design Center, a nonprofit organization of professional planners and supporters that works with local governments and under-served urban neighborhoods, among others.
Co-partner with the center on the Triangle Park Mural Project is Just Folks, created in 2004 to preserve local African-American culture and activity downtown. It has adopted Triangle Park as one of its projects.
“We’re building up the Block to attract more people,” James said. “We would hope that would be some African-Americans, but whoever puts a business there is welcome. We’re doing this for the whole community.”
Want to help? Contribute to the Triangle Park Mural Project via its Kickstarter campaign at http://avl.mx/h7.
— Paul Clark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.