On the Ground is a new occasional series that will showcase locals’ love of walking in Western North Carolina’s varied neighborhoods. From Black Mountain to Shiloh, from Hendersonville to Canton, we welcome inquiries from readers who’d like to share their favorite urban jaunts in a personal essay.
Author and journalist Carol Polsgrove kicks things off with a paean to her personal walking nirvana: Asheville’s Montford neighborhood.
I’ve been walking neighborhoods for several decades but never with more pleasure than in Asheville’s Montford. In winter, children pull sleds down barely dusted streets at the first hint of snow. In spring, pink phlox spills over garden walls.
And in most seasons, you’ll find me and other walkers out walking. We walk with friends, we walk with dogs, we walk alone.
Some days we walk down Pearson Drive to Patchwork Urban Farms to see what green things are sprouting or chickens scratching, then circle round Hibriten Drive to see what new house has appeared on the steep slopes.
Some days we walk on Zillicoa past the 1927 English stone “castle” Homewood and sprawling yellow 1895 Rumbaugh Mansion — and if it’s a Fourth of July night, we pause on that hilltop to watch the fireworks.
Some days we circle around the Byzantine-style Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church on Cumberland and work our way down to the Reed Creek Greenway that winds along Broadway to the Botanical Gardens and UNC Asheville.
As a friend walking with me said just the other day, “Every street is an adventure.”
While some Montford streets turn here and there and trail off in intriguing ways, three parallel streets offer straight treks through the neighborhood: Cumberland Avenue, Montford Avenue and Pearson Drive.
Of the three, Cumberland Avenue has the least traffic — it’s a quiet, broad street lined with brick sidewalks and ornate early 20th-century houses with fancy gardens to match.
Montford Avenue has more and faster traffic than Cumberland but also has three popular restaurants — Nine Mile, Chiesa and Tod’s Tasties. Bus shelter picture panels feature grand houses lost to fire or demolition, the African-American presence in Montford and other places and people of the past.
Then there’s Pearson, with more bungalows than the other long streets and a side route down Birch Street to Riverside Cemetery, where woodchucks scamper over the grass into their culvert homes. Pearson feels closer to nature than the other long streets: It was there I once saw a mother bear with two cubs scampering after her.
Montford has more bears than some Asheville neighborhoods. That may be because we have woods, though fewer trees than we did six years ago when I moved here, as hillsides are cleared to make way for new houses.
Changes are happening in Montford, but change has happened before in Montford.
Friends who’ve lived here longer than I tell me about changes they’ve seen — friends, for example, like Annie Morgan. I met Annie not long after I settled in Asheville. She had paused on a spot near the Montford Community Center, and as sometimes happens when two walkers’ paths cross, we fell to talking. I asked her if she’d known that part of the neighborhood back when it was the African-American community called Stumptown, which sprang up early in the last century next to the upscale residences built for well-heeled whites.
Indeed, she did remember the Stumptown area before much of it was erased by urban renewal in the 1970s. She pointed where a candy store stood, just there, and over there, rooming houses. Those elements of a thriving community and others were replaced by what we see there now: ballfields, the theater where Montford Park Players performs Shakespeare on summer nights and the community center — recently renamed for African-American midwife Tempie Avery, whose home once stood on the site.
We started a friendship that day, and from time to time we walk together, sharing our walkers’ curiosity about what’s happening in the neighborhood — houses sold, built or transformed.
As Asheville’s hot housing market raises prices and rents, we both fear that Montford is losing some of the diversity and flavor that make it interesting. All the more, then, we savor the pleasure of meeting our neighbors, exchanging words of greeting, sometimes falling into conversation — a way of knowing our place and the people who are part of it.
Carol Polsgrove is the author of a memoir, When We Were Young in Africa. Contact her at email@example.com