The East End/Valley Street Community Heritage Festival celebrates a neighborhood

ALL THAT JAZZ: Saxophonist Stanley Baird, pictured, got his start teaching in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, before returning to his native North Carolina to serve as a band instructor in the public school system for 35 years. His eponymous group is one of a number of jazz-influenced acts to headline the East End/Vally Street Community Heritage Festival. Photo courtesy of Baird

The East End neighborhood holds some of Asheville’s most significant history. Located on the hillside directly east of downtown, it offers beautiful views and rich cultural roots. A new festival, happening Friday-Sunday, Aug. 24-26, in the area’s Martin Luther King Jr. Park, offers a space to celebrate these roots while nourishing connections among current neighbors.

The event boasts the theme “A Family Affair.” East End/Valley Street Neighborhood Association President Reneé White says the 2018 heritage festival “is going to bring the old residents back, and the new ones will get to meet them. It’s going to be one big happy community fair.”

Over the course of the weekend, attendees will hear music by Stanley Baird, Free Flow Band, Westsound, Uptown Swagga Band, Darrell Rose and others. The alcohol-free, family-friendly gathering will include a plethora of food and merchandise vendors, educational booths and a children’s area. A parade on Saturday morning, led by the Carver High School Band, will feature the Zohar Israel stilt walkers, drummers and dancers.

Of particular interest will be the East End/Valley Street section of the festival. Many former residents are bringing their families from near and far to attend what is being called a neighborhood reunion. “We’re gonna have big poster boards for every street in this neighborhood, and if your family lived on that street previously or now, you’ll sign the poster board for that street,” says White. In addition, there will be a chance to share memories of or future ideas for East End. “That area is going to be dedicated to residents old and new,” White points out.

Some of the first non-native residents of what is now the East End/Valley Street neighborhood — Asheville’s oldest African-American neighborhood — were people enslaved by James Patton, who used their labor to run his Eagle Street Hotel and other enterprises. After emancipation, Patton’s son, Thomas W. Patton, gave land to African-American churches. In 1876, black community leader Isaac Dickson purchased adjacent land from Thomas Patton to form a neighborhood for freed people called Dicksontown. Dickson also helped found the Young Men’s Cultural Institute (now the YMI Cultural Center), which was an anchor of the East End business district on Market and Eagle streets.

In the years that ensued, the East End/Valley Street neighborhood developed into a vibrant hub of African-American community care, culture and commerce.

This supportive web was ripped apart during the period of urban renewal, which affected East End and other black neighborhoods during the 1960s and early ’70s. During this process, hundreds of houses and businesses were destroyed. Valley Street (a portion of which still exists), one of East End’s main arteries, was expanded into a thoroughfare for North Asheville residents heading south. It was renamed Charlotte Street after one of Thomas Patton’s daughters.

This destruction was devastating to those who were impacted, scattering neighbors and fragmenting community.

Despite these losses, White has an optimistic outlook about her neighborhood. A lifelong resident of East End, she is dedicated to being a positive influence on its future. “The neighborhood has changed through gentrification, it’s become very diversified,” she says. “I think it’s important to move on because you can’t get stuck with what happened in the past. You have to move forward and make things better.”

The heritage festival has been created to do just that, providing opportunities for people to “uplift their spirits, have some fun, dance, eat and just enjoy each other,” White says.

One reason White is confident the Heritage Festival will please is that Connie Jefferson is on the organizing team. Jefferson worked for the YMI Cultural Center 1992-2011 and was one of the event coordinators for the Goombay Festival. “She is right on it,” says White. “She knows what people like, and she knows how to put a festival together.”

A number of community partners are pitching in to help make the event a success. The Orange Peel is contributing its street team as well as tables, chairs and tents. LEAF is bringing its stage and Easel Rider van. Herman Besbleve Bright of the Just Folks Organization is coordinating Sunday’s gospel music and worship. White says these partnerships are important because a “collaborative, community effort [will] build bridges.”

Noting that neighbors do not often have a reason to gather en masse, White says, “We need the bonding. We need the connection. I want our neighbors to communicate, to be there for each other and have a bond where everybody is watching out for each other.”

She adds, “I think that all neighborhoods should come together and do things. It makes a better Asheville.”

WHAT: East End/Valley Street Community Heritage Festival
WHERE: Martin Luther King Jr. Park, 50 Martin Luther King Jr Drive,
WHEN: Friday, Aug. 24, 6-9 p.m.; Saturday, Aug. 25, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 26, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Free


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About Ami Worthen
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