For nearly 70 years, Eagle and South Market streets in downtown Asheville were home to a vibrant residential and commercial district for Black residents. But with the city’s implementation of urban renewal policies between the 1950s and 1980s, the area known as The Block was largely destroyed and has struggled to bounce back.
Over the past year, the addition of such Black-owned businesses as the Noir Collective collaborative shop, Jawbreaking fashion store, Asheville Iridescence Yoga and Sole82 sneaker boutique has suggested a renaissance of sorts for the former Black Wall Street. Yet in a rapidly changing city where obstacles for minority entrepreneurs remain rampant, sustaining that growth could prove challenging.
Xpress spoke with a few of these entrepreneurs about what brought them to The Block, the barriers they’ve navigated along the way and what it will take to keep the neighborhood thriving.
Originally known as the Young Men’s Institute, the YMI Cultural Center opened on South Market Street in 1893 as a place for the Black construction workers employed at the Biltmore Estate “to improve the moral fiber of the Black male through education focusing on social, cultural, business and religious life.” In 1981, the YMI was reestablished as a nonprofit focused on preserving the heritage of African Americans in Buncombe County. Forty years later, fourth-generation Ashevillean Dewana Little seeks to walk the line between history and impactful action as the YMI’s executive director, advancing the organization while the neighborhood continues to overcome the effects of urban renewal.
“People think about gentrification as just Black people getting pushed out into the county, but it’s a loss of place,” Little says. “As I look at The Block, I’m excited and sad at the same time because I remember when it was thriving with Black businesses.”
Little adds that “revitalizing the Black space” is at the heart of the YMI’s work. Though she sees the recent uptick in Black-owned businesses as “an investment in Black people” by entrepreneurs and building owners, she feels that more such enterprises need to arise before The Block is truly back. In particular, Little would love to see more Black-owned restaurants and “a nice social spot” to help restore the neighborhood’s former sense of place.
“What made it The Block was it being a safe zone for Black people,” Little says. “Historically, it’s one of the only areas outside of Southside where Black people have been able to really grow businesses in downtown Asheville.”
A part vs. apart
As a young man in the early 2000s, Jefferson Ellison took piano lessons at the YMI, after which he’d go across the street and do his homework in the cigar room of the Ritz Café restaurant and jazz club. The business was co-owned by his father, Gene Ellison, who served on the YMI’s board of directors and, as an Asheville City Council member and vice mayor, worked to clean up the neighborhood and advocate for its historic nature.
The junior Ellison now operates the fashion arm of his multifaceted company, Jawbreaking, on Eagle Street and handles marketing for several businesses on The Block, including Noir Collective, the YMI and LEAF Global Arts. He says there’s a disconnect between different area enterprises: White-owned, tourist-centric operations, including restaurants Limones and Benne on Eagle and the Foundry Hotel Asheville, are The Block’s most visible, while Black-owned, community-focused endeavors like Soce’s Afro American Hair Braiding go largely ignored.
“The traditional Asheville narrative does not necessarily highlight The Block as a part of downtown,” Ellison says. “A lot of times, people say, ‘Oh, go downtown’ and then, ‘Go to The Block,’ as if they’re separate.”
Conversely, Ellison says South Slope is marketed as part of downtown and being “on the beaten path.” While he notes the brewery district and Biltmore Avenue see heavy foot traffic on any given Saturday, people “may hear crickets on Eagle and Market” that same day.
Kathi Petersen, spokesperson for the Explore Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, says the tourism body aims “to support the growth and vitality of [The Block] as its rebirth accelerates.” She notes that the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority has invested over $1.5 million in the YMI and LEAF; the in-progress African American Heritage Trail and updated Explore Asheville wayfinding, she adds, will also highlight the district.
Ellison and his fellow neighborhood business owners, organized as The Block Collective, are working with the city to redirect pedestrians down Eagle and onto Market through better signage and marketing. “When I first opened my store, I would sit and watch people walking from the Foundry or coming off Biltmore with their heads down,” he says. “They’re not even looking at what’s around them because they have not been told that they are still walking through a part of downtown. They think they’re walking on a through street.”
While increased activity would make a difference, Ellison also feels that the makeup of tenants surrounding Jawbreaking could benefit from more variety.
“It ends up being really reductive and limiting to think that Black businesses coming up in Asheville have to be located in historically Black areas,” Ellison says. “In that same thought, it’s not reasonable in a city like Asheville, which is so overwhelmingly white, to think that the historically Black business areas have to remain exclusively Black. Diversity can come on The Block, and the legacy of what The Block is can be unchanged. But if we want to support Black business in Asheville, we need to be having a different conversation.”
Value beyond price
A native of Rutherford County, Jazmin Rogers grew up visiting family in Asheville, moved there in 2014 and completed yoga teacher training at Asheville Community Yoga in 2017. Upon returning from an early 2020 trip to study meditation in Nepal, she felt called to open a yoga studio that was upfront about being owned by a Black woman. That way, she explains, if people of color hadn’t felt “safe, recognized or witnessed” in other yoga studios, they would feel the opposite at her Asheville Iridescence Yoga.
Landing a space on The Block, however, wasn’t easy. Rogers says gentrification in the area led to rents that were higher than she could afford on her own as a new business owner.
Rogers began volunteering with local giving circle CoThinkk in 2017, through which she met Stephanie Swepson-Twitty, president and CEO of the nonprofit Eagle Market Streets Development Corp. Thanks to the nonprofit, she was able to secure affordable rent at the 70 S. Market St. building that EMSDC owns. But she believes better paths to support should be available for other entrepreneurs of color as they achieve their dreams.
“It shouldn’t have taken me as long as it did to get my foot in the door,” Rogers says. “I shouldn’t have had to volunteer for years, doing a lot of free work, just to make the connection that I finally made.”
While she remains concerned about other prospective business owners having to face financial hurdles, Rogers feels encouraged by organizations like the YMI and EMSDC being acutely aware of the importance of real estate on The Block, and not selling to the highest bidder.
“The people who own the buildings understand that the value is more than just monetary,” Rogers says. “It’s a legacy issue, it’s a historical issue and it’s a resource issue.”
At Noir Collective, Ajax Ravenel gives Black makers from across Asheville a place to sell their creations, which range from art to incense to toilet paper. Ravenel, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, notes that these collaborators were already working in their respective fields prior to the collective’s formation in June 2020. But they say many struggled to achieve visibility, especially in a cost-prohibitive downtown.
A similar commitment to access and resource sharing is at the forefront of Ravenel’s racial justice advocacy beyond their business. They feel an alignment with the YMI’s mission of revitalizing the Black space; the nonprofit is the landlord of Noir Collective’s South Market storefront, and Ravenel partners with the organization on other efforts.
Ravenel sees a similar “strength in numbers” dedication among The Block’s other Black entrepreneurs, as well as an encouraging attitude of fighting to keep spaces once they’re acquired. “Having that kind of networking, having people communicate more and be together more — it makes it a lot easier to make money and keep the things that we have,” they say.
But with COVID-19 pandemic restrictions lifting and many people returning to old patterns of life, Ravenel is seeing momentum from the Black Lives Matter movement slowing. With less attention on issues of racial justice, they fear that opportunities for minority entrepreneurs will diminish and commitments to racial equity by white allies will subside.
“We can’t do this on our own. We can, in a sense, and create our own spaces like I did, but it takes a lot more [effort],” Ravenel says. “When places have access, when they open up and they start collaborating with us, then that momentum can continue and keep moving forward. But when they go back to normal, everything slows down, and we’re back on our own.”