The Block, an area that spans Eagle and South Market streets in downtown Asheville, was once home to a vibrant residential and commercial district for Black residents. But between the 1950s and 1980s, Asheville’s urban renewal policies that sought to address allegedly “blighted” areas of the city by removing homes and businesses to make way for new developments, forced out Black residents and business owners.
Stephanie Swepson-Twitty of Old Fort knows the history of the Block firsthand. After a career in banking and finance, she and her husband opened a shop in 2002, Stevie’s Originals, which sold home decor from the Ivory Coast and Ghana. However, running the business proved to be a struggle for the young entrepreneurs.
“We quickly determined that we were sorely lacking in the expertise needed to operate a business,” Swepson-Twitty remembers. “It was more than just being able to show up and be in the shop and treat customers with respect.” She also recalls that “the foot traffic at that time in the Eagle Market Street District was almost nonexistent.”
Swepson-Twitty then decided to switch gears. She joined the Eagle Market Streets Development Corp., an Asheville nonprofit founded in 1994 by Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church senior pastor John Grant and his congregants, as an AmeriCorps intern. The nonprofit aims to increase economic and social opportunities in the area through property development and workforce development.
By 2008, Swepson-Twitty took to the helm of the organization as the president and CEO. She remains closely involved in the effort to help bring customers and residents back to The Block.
Xpress spoke with Swepson-Twitty about the rich history of The Block and the Eagle Market Streets District, and where the area may be heading next.
This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity.
The Housing Act of 1949, which initiated Asheville’s urban renewal project, displaced millions of predominantly African American individuals and families between the 1950s and the 1980s. Can you describe what The Block and the larger Eagle Market Street District used to be like before urban renewal began?
Before urban renewal, the area was exceptionally dense with housing and commercial properties. In fact, in 1972 — before urban renewal happened in Asheville — there were about 72 conventional residences and about 50 small businesses in the district on The Block. I talk about the district because the Eagle Market Streets District actually spanned Eagle and South Market Streets and College Street, what’s known in the community as East End/Valley Street. It spanned all the way to what is now called South Slope. But before urban renewal came through, it was known as Southside.
When [the city] finished with the so-called improvements, the only thing left was The Block. But even in that iteration, there was still an attempt to thrive in the area. There was a pool hall and shoeshine shop [and] The Ritz Cafe.
Eagle Market Streets Development Corp. opened in 1994. What was the original vision for the nonprofit?
It opened, like many other grassroots organizations that sprang up from the ’90s through about 2008, as a response to what the community was seeing as a challenge in their neighborhoods. Dr. John Grant is trustee, and some of his congregants were sitting around his kitchen table. They basically said Eagle Market Streets is so decimated that we actually only have land holdings now of the church, the YMI, the Del Cardo Building, and the Ritz building, the Dr. Collette building.
Those five structures were the last bastion of real estate being held by communities of color. They became determined to hold those properties in trust for the community until such time that they could be developed. Eagle Market Streets was born out of an idea to protect the last pieces of real estate that belonged to the African American community at that time in the Eagle Market Streets District.
How has The Block changed in recent times? Can you tell me what the area looks like today?
In 2010, Eagle Market Streets and Mountain Housing Opportunities entered into a partnership to redevelop about a block of buildings that we had from the end of Limones [restaurant] around to what’s known as 46 S. Market St. We were intentional about having the history be forward-facing and the future embraced by that history.
You have Eagle Market Streets and Mountain Housing Opportunities as property owners in the district. You have [Mount Zion] still holding significant properties there. And then the YMI Cultural Center continues to be an icon in The Block.
We also have Noir Collective AVL, which is an African American-owned business, and [City Council member Sandra] Kilgore Realty. Eagle Market Streets is within the Del Cardo Building, and Sole82 on South Market Street, which is a sneaker shop. There are all kinds of emerging businesses trying to get their feet on the ground.
What do you think The Block and the Eagle Market Streets District will look like 10 years from now?
I hope it’s headed towards more equitable inclusiveness, particularly as it relates to the small businesses — [especially ones] that might be in the outdoor or tourism industry. Everything from tech people to people who have storefronts carrying merchandise. I really think that small business will continue to drive us for probably another millenium, so we want to ensure that we have as many participants in that swell as we possibly can.
It’s the mission of Eagle Market Streets to develop people, property and businesses, and we envision equity and inclusiveness in all communities. We have a real opportunity to continue to build on the work that we’ve started already.