We’ve been through tons of meetings … and I felt that the community was at the table every single step of way. Unfortunately, that’s not how the community felt.
— Roderick Simmons, Asheville Parks & Recreation Director
Billed as a Southside Community Town Hall meeting, a Jan. 31 public input session to discuss recreational facilities in the Southside neighborhood drew a crowd of over 100. A city announcement for the session, held at the Arthur R. Edington Center on Livingston Street, outlined three topics for discussion: “The location of a new pool for the Southside community, a more attractive Walton Street Park and the next phase for the Grant Southside Center.”
While city staff wanted to move forward on gathering input on new facilities, however, community members had other ideas.
Many members of the public spoke of decades of broken promises made by the city during and after its campaign of urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s. Several referenced the destruction of many of the physical manifestations of the community’s African-American history, saying Walton Street pool is an irreplaceable reminder of the history of segregation and community resilience. “Walton Street is a historic site and it should have a historic marker right now, today,” said Willie Mae Brown.
Renee White, president of the East End Neighborhood Association, said she stands in solidarity with the Southside community, as well as with other historically African-American neighborhoods in Shiloh and Burton Street. “The East End has been lied to,” she said. “You put Stephens-Lee [Recreation Center] under the control of Parks and Rec. It was ours from the beginning. Experience has taught me the city just tells lies.”
Oralene Simmons, a leader in the local African-American community and a retired Parks & Recreation department staffer, said the community had been promised an indoor pool facility at both the Livingston Street Center (now the Edington Center) and the Montford Recreation Center over the years. Neither has been built. “I am very saddened at what our recreation programs have become,” she said.
Some commenters expressed fear that traffic on Livingston Street will continue to increase as redevelopment in the River Arts District moves forward, creating a safety hazard for children walking to the Grant Center site from the area surrounding the Walton Street pool. Others said city assertions that the Walton Street facility is underutilized need to be seen in the context of limited operating hours, use of the facility by summer camp programs and the fees charged.
Raymond Harrell, who has managed the Walton Street pool for the city every summer for the past 20 years, pushed back against claims that the facility is monopolized by summer camp programs or that people are turned away because they can’t pay. He said when kids come without money, “more times than not I let them in for free,” only requiring the kids to pick up trash or do other chores to earn the entry fee. Harrell advocated focusing on moving forward rather than being distracted by broken promises or conspiracy theories. “We can complain about all the things that haven’t happened in the past,” said Harrell, whose full-time job is magistrate. “All the fussing in the world won’t make a bit of difference if you don’t show up.”
Council member Keith Young echoed that sentiment after the meeting, conceding that he understands people need an opportunity to express past frustrations. Still, he said, he wants to put his energy toward coming up with the best solution for the community given the availability of the bond funding and opportunities presented by development in adjacent areas.
Copies of a printed survey soliciting input on Walton Park and Grant Southside Center were available for attendees to complete. In addition to questions, the survey summarized the status of the issues under consideration.
The Parks and Recreation Department has funds budgeted to replace the pool at Walton Park at 570 Oakland Road. However, the passage of $18 million in funding for parks and recreation facilities in the city’s 2016 bond referendum — which includes money for the second phase of the nearby Wesley Grant Southside Center on Livingston Street — has spurred city planners to consider a new question: should the city rebuild or replace the 1938 Walton Street pool, or relocate the swimming facility to the Grant Center site? What facilities and programming would the community like to see in the Southside neighborhood?
Roderick Simmons concluded the meeting by urging those present to turn in their completed surveys, and for those who were unable to attend to submit input online at the city’s Open City Hall website by Feb. 18. Written responses can be turned in at the Grant Center or the Edington Center. A followup meeting will be held at 6 p.m., Feb. 28 at the Grant Southside Center.
See also: No closure of Walton Street Pool, says Simmons of Parks & Rec, Feb. 2, 2016.