While the rest of the city sleeps

The event that’s become the latest talk of the town is an old-style block party in what archaeologists, historians and preservationists have dubbed one of the historically important African-American urban commercial districts in the country — the Eagle Street area.

The party takes place not through a government grant or any kind of public funding but solely because it’s sponsored by one of Asheville’s longest-running neighborhood bars.

The New Ebony Bar & Grill is (contrary to its name) one of the oldest establishments in historic downtown, opened nearly 20 years ago by Deana Banks. She started the bar while simultaneously raising children at home and working full time at a nursing home, where she continues to put in long hours each week.

She and Sam Fain, The Ebony’s operations manager, wanted to expand and share their vision of good folks celebrating a good time. So, about a year ago, they inaugurated the Eagle Street Sunday festivities with a public street dance and a jazz/swing performance by Evans & Coppola.

From the beginning, the event in front of The Ebony became one of the local-music scene’s standout attractions. But the positive momentum of Banks’ and Fain’s effort has sparked a life of its own — and a large life indeed — based on the increasing crowds of locals and tourists gathering to do the Electric Slide on Eagle Street every Sunday night.

Over the past year, the event has become a veritable mini-festival, drawing people from up and down pedestrian-busy Biltmore Avenue and nearby Pack Square. Some come in hiking shorts, a few arrive in sexy eveningwear and others are still sporting their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes.

According to a local music promoter who handles bookings for bands on three continents, word-of-mouth has spread news of the event to musicians as far away as New York City, Jamaica and even Africa. They want to know if it’s possible to include the event in their touring schedules.

Local groups — including Scrappy Hamilton (original ragtime blues), West Sound (R&B and funk), Take ‘N Back Quartet (original jazz) and the Pic ‘n Chip Band (blues and R&B) — have all played the venue recently.

The outdoor street dance happens in front of The Ebony from the first Sunday in May through the last Sunday in September. The come-one-come-all-style party continues during the cooler months (October through April) inside the bar, which is reminiscent of the nearly extinct juke joints common in the ’50s-era Deep South.

The live music on Eagle Street runs 6-10 p.m. on Sundays — whereas most of Asheville’s busy streets are put to bed around sundown.

“Every festival has its own unique flavor,” observes Sam Fain. “Downtown After Five has always been my favorite; and it seems to bring out people you don’t see at the other festivals. The Greek Festival has been an established event for years. Now we have the Latino festival, which is growing and becoming a big, important happening. The first Lexington Street Festival this year was a wonderful success. And these kinds of festivals are all small enough that they have a real individual flavor to them. “The Sunday music we’re doing on Eagle Street is unique in its own way,” Fain continues. “There is room within the diversity of Asheville for many different kinds of celebrations, and ours is one of them.”

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