New exhibit chronicles South Slope and Southside history

COMMUNITY HUB: The Southland Drive-In on McDowell Street next to Rabbit's Motel, was a staple of the Southside neighborhood. The business is one of many people and places highlighted in the South Slope Neighborhood Association's new history exhibit. Photograph by Isaiah Rice, Isaiah Rice Photograph Collection, Special Collections, Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville

Every day, locals and tourists alike traverse Asheville’s South Slope, visiting its numerous breweries and restaurants. But few are aware of the district’s rich past.

In an effort to enlighten both visitors and residents on the area’s history, the South Slope Neighborhood Association has created an exhibit of six weatherproof panels that chronicle important topics and people from far before the current food and beverage boom. The 3-by-2-foot printed aluminum sheets will first be displayed at Rabbit Rabbit in late August and then move to a permanent home in the neighborhood.

Reality check

The project was spearheaded by SSNA President Heath Towson. The 32-year-old senior staff accountant for the Gould Killian CPA Group — located in the historic Sawyer Motor Co. Building on Coxe Avenue — is an Asheville native, but he says he wasn’t taught much of the city’s past while growing up.

“This was something I had to seek out as an adult, which was surprising, because you would think there would be an emphasis on that in school since it’s just down the road,” says Towson, a graduate of nearby Asheville High School. “And even what’s been written has been hard to find.”

To develop content for the panels, Towson dug through old Citizen Times issues and consulted former special collections librarian Zoe Rhine at Pack Memorial Library. Pat Kappes, director of community engagement for the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, also recommended several individuals from the Southside neighborhood for Towson to interview, including Olympia Garrett.

The $1,800 project was fully funded by SSNA members, including Green Man Brewery and City Transmission Service, all of whom were seeking a productive project during an otherwise trying 2020.

“Everybody was pretty upset last summer — just everything politically and economically and with COVID,” Towson says. “We wanted to do something positive and also dig into our history a little bit further to understand who we really are as a neighborhood.”

Evolution of a neighborhood

The panels’ chronological presentation begins with the South Slope’s farmland origins and how the large ravine formerly running down its middle was filled in with dirt from the Battery Park Hotel’s 1924 construction to form Coxe Avenue. The first panel also explores the Rev. Jarvis Buxton’s North State Fitting School, one of the neighborhood’s first structures, which Thomas Wolfe attended as a boy and immortalized in his 1929 novel Look Homeward, Angel.

The exhibit’s second panel introduces the impact of the automobile industry and Coxe Avenue’s transition in the 1920s to “The Motor Mile,” the nickname it received for its numerous car dealerships, parts suppliers and repair shops.

“When the new models came out, it was really an event — like an opening night gala,” Towson says. “People would get dressed up and go to dinner at [the] S&W [Cafeteria], then they’d come down here and there’d be bands. They had Dinah Shore come in when they introduced the new Chevrolets. It was just totally different because they changed the car every year.”

The third panel covers the district’s prominent churches, focusing on Central United Methodist Church, First Presbyterian Church and Trinity Episcopal Church, which converge at the intersection of Church and Aston Streets. Towson felt it was important to highlight these institutions, each of which have been in the neighborhood for 150-200 years and continue to support Asheville at large through their work with the city’s elderly and homeless populations.

Southside stories

The exhibit’s fourth panel centers on the neighborhood’s Black residents and loops in the nearby Southside community. Towson interviewed 92-year-old Asheville native Matthew Bacoate, who shared memories of a thriving collection of streets full of self-sufficient homes with their own gardens and livestock. Bacoate also spoke of pioneering Black business owners, including Fred “Rabbit” Simpson and Southside Glenn, the respective owners of Rabbit’s Motel and Glenn’s Cab.

“They started out in illegitimate business doing bootlegging, moonshining and running a numbers game that was called ‘Butter and Eggs.’ It was kind of like a community lottery game that was below the radar, and then later they called it ‘Bolita,’” Towson says. “They took the money from the illegitimate side — they didn’t have many opportunities, being minorities — and turned that into legitimate businesses.”

The panel also includes information on such largely forgotten neighborhood staples as Oates Park (formerly located between McDowell Street, Choctaw Street and Southside Avenue), home to the city’s first all-Black baseball team, the Asheville Royal Giants. The park closed in 1927 but later became home to the Six Points drive-in restaurant, a gathering spot for the area’s many street racers, 1965-69. The Asheville Colored Hospital at 185 Biltmore Ave., the city’s first such institution for its Black residents, is featured as well.

GRAND SLAM: The Asheville Royal Giants, the city’s first Black baseball team, hosted Atlanta in 1918 at Oates Park. Photo courtesy of Buncombe County Special Collections, Pack Memorial Library

The penultimate panel is dedicated to the impacts of Asheville’s urban renewal efforts between the 1950s and ’80s. Towson says that those who experienced the changes describe them as “a mixed bag.” While some interviewees see urban renewal as racially motivated displacement and a hinderance to building generational wealth, he explains, others are thankful for how the work upgraded substandard housing and added indoor plumbing and electricity.

The panel also includes information on Isaiah Rice, who delivered Carling Black Label beer for the now-closed Linn’s Cash Grocery at 461 S. French Broad Ave. and was a talented photographer. The grandfather of project research adviser and UNC Asheville history professor Darin Waters, Rice took candid shots of people and places in the Southside area, creating over 1,400 images that are currently housed in UNCA’s Special Collections. University archivist Gene Hyde’s assistance proved helpful in navigating the collection.

“They’re really good,” Towson says of Rice’s photos. “We wanted to focus on him because he also would keep a lookout on all the kids and let their parents know if they were getting into trouble.”

And the sixth and final panel covers the South Slope’s transformation over the past decade-plus. The art and text  describe how its old industrial warehouses have been converted into a thriving brewery district peppered with condos and office buildings.

Public history

Once complete, Towson ran his write-ups for each panel by the Southside interviewees to make sure he had accurately presented the neighborhood’s past. He then worked with graphic designer Elizabeth Mosher to unite the text with photos, pulling images from the Pack Library and UNCA’s Ramsay Library. Former SSNA member Bill Steigerwald is building the wood surrounds for the panels and also helped with copy editing.

Towson hopes to keep the display at Rabbit Rabbit for a year, after which the panels may find temporary homes at the project’s various sponsors. He suggests that a good final destination might be 11 Collier Ave., where the Ravenscroft Reserve Initiative and Asheville GreenWorks hope to establish a park in a stand of urban forest. The SSNA’s exhibit could then provide a quick education for park visitors on their way to enjoy the South Slope’s current charms and help fill a void in people’s understanding of Asheville’s storied past.

“I don’t think we’re very good custodians of our own history in Asheville, for whatever reason,” Towson says. “Other places do a much better job of having a town center where there’s information and history and little booklets. And there’s tons of great books — Malaprop’s has an incredible regional section where you can learn a lot, but it’s kind of on you to seek it out.”


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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