When it came to naming one local civic organization, its members didn’t overthink it. “It started off with five guys who were sitting in the park,” says Julia McDowell. “They said, ‘What could we do with this area?’ They got together and said, ‘We’re just folks.’” And that’s how, in 2011, the nonprofit civic organization Just Folks came to be.
The park that McDowell — the group’s secretary — references is Triangle Park on South Market Street. It’s one of the last remaining vestiges of The Block, Asheville’s historic African-American business district and cultural center. Just Folks hosts a spring and summer series in the park, which kicks off its 2017 season on Saturday, May 6.
Back in the day — the 1970s and earlier — The Block was feared by some and frequented by others. But the Eagle and Market Street area was at the heart of the black community. “There were three restaurants and a bar on the corner … where we’d sit down and have a drink and socialize,” says Timothy Burdine, the current president of Just Folks. “It’s a place where we’d gather together.”
He remembers having a summer job during his high school years. On Fridays, when he and his friends got paid, “We ran to the [G.I. Outlet] store to get clothes to wear that weekend. We dressed to impress.” The Block, he says, was the place to go to: “I just felt at home up there.”
These days, social centers for local African-American residents have all but disappeared. Triangle Park represents not only history but solidarity in community. “Blacks are really limited [as to] where to go,” says Burdine.
Just Folks aims to create confraternity and togetherness through its programming. Sundays in the Park features church groups and provides food to the homeless. Saturdays in the Park, a secular celebration, spotlights musicians and food vendors. The season launch doubles as a special commemoration for the brightly colored, multipanel mural that spans two sides of Triangle Park and depicts the history of The Block and the surrounding Valley Street and East End neighborhoods, both of which were drastically changed during urban renewal initiatives.
The mural “was a collaboration between the Just Folks organization, the Asheville Design Center and artist/community arts organizer Molly Must,” according to an overview of the project. Planning began in 2011, and the mural, funded largely through a Kickstarter campaign, was completed two years later. “The idea of the mural was born out of a collective desire to improve the park and illuminate the beautiful, unseen stories of the area,” reads the overview.
The Triangle Park mural is part of the Appalachian Mural Trail — a public arts project that engages “local artists to work on large outdoor historical murals,” according to its website — and it will be honored May 6 at 2 p.m. as part of the Appalachian Mural Trail’s dedication event. Other stops include the “Golden Threads” Shindig on the Green mural at Pack’s Tavern at 2:30 p.m. and the Chicken Alley Mural at 3 p.m.
Just as those works of public art help to keep Asheville’s past visible and its stories part of the current narrative, Just Folks and its Triangle Park festivities seek to preserve a piece of local African-American culture. The current mission of the group is “to keep The Block going and to keep black heritage alive [through] community events,” says McDowell.
Burdine half-jokes that he became the organization’s president simply because no one else stepped forward. But though he says he’s not typically a leader, that statement isn’t quite accurate. Burdine spent 30 years as a bus driver for the city of Asheville and Buncombe County. He also works with the Sheriff’s Department, transporting prisoners on work-release. “As far as them being in those orange jumpsuits, I don’t look at that. I look at them as human beings,” he says. “I talk to them like a counselor [and] try to steer them the right way. I try to help out the community and get kids back on the right track.”
He’s also been a regular attendee at Asheville High sporting events, though his own children are grown. “When [a kid’s] parents can’t be there, I’m their buddy,” he says.
Right now, it’s hard to reach local youths, Burdine says. Events like Saturdays in Park attempt to make a difference by bringing the community together in a positive way. And the Sunday church-based gatherings are also welcoming to anyone interested in participating. “I’m trying to keep up a tradition,” Burdine says.
WHAT: Just Folks’ Saturdays in the Park season kickoff, featuring DJ Mixgician and the Triangle Park mural dedication
WHERE: Triangle Park, corner of Sycamore Alley and South Market Street
WHEN: Saturday, May 6, starting at 1 p.m. Free