If you’ve lived in Asheville long enough, you probably know to hold your breath when you’re driving on I-240 between downtown and West Asheville. The traffic, too, can be frustrating, whether it’s the westbound drivers coming in from 19/23 who don’t realize till it’s almost too late that the far-right lane leads into Westgate Shopping Center, or the eastbound drivers who inexplicably decelerate as they come up the ramp.
And you’ve undoubtedly seen the accidents — sometimes involving multiple cars — that seem to occur here on a regular basis.
But all those things put together are hardly as scary as the all-too-common sight of pedestrians dashing across the interstate near the Hillcrest Apartments.
The death of 25-year-old Anthony Ray Gilmore two weeks ago re-ignited a 16-year-old debate about the closed-off pedestrian bridge that used to connect Hillcrest to downtown. Residents requested the closure years ago due to concerns about the crime that used to flourish on and around the bridge. Some posit that reopening it and cleaning up the brambly path that leads to the apartments from underneath the Smokey Park Bridge would prevent more such fatalities in the future.
These are options we should seriously consider. Yet the bridge issue is really just a symptom of a deeper affliction: the stigmatization of public housing and its residents. And while Hillcrest bears the additional burden of the traffic concerns, the more fundamental issue is the one-way-in/one-way-out setup it shares with Asheville’s other Section 8 neighborhoods, which immediately implies that the less involvement one has with these areas, the better.
Worse yet, this insidious idea is self-perpetuating: Communities cut off from the general population are more likely to internalize the message that they’ve been banished for a reason and end up getting stuck in a cycle of crime and poverty.
Contrary to the unfortunate assumption that these residents “choose” to live this way, they often mobilize to improve their neighborhoods with amenities such as community centers, gardens and church programs, but there’s only so much one can do with limited resources.
And if someone has no car and the easiest way to reach the nearest job — or even a grocery store — is to dart across the interstate, they just might be willing to take the risk. So reopening the bridge would probably be a beneficial move overall: Hillcrest residents could access downtown with ease, and drivers might have one less thing to worry about.
Cleaning up the trail beneath the Smokey Park Bridge to make foot travel easier and safer is another, even simpler step that could improve the immediate situation.
But the concerns that led to the bridge’s closing in the first place remain, and ultimately the decision to reopen it should be made by Hillcrest residents, based on their sense of security. If they nix the bridge, then motorists will still have to be on the lookout for folks crossing the road or walking on the narrow shoulder. Even if you’re not responsible for an accident, however, nobody wants to be involved in one, and it doesn’t seem fair that motorists should constantly have to deal with that added stress when negotiating a stretch of road that’s difficult enough as it is.
Metaphorically speaking, all the short-term solutions are merely bandages for wounds that really need antibiotics. Gilmore’s death should tell us that it’s time to modify Asheville’s whole approach to low-income housing by reintegrating struggling residents into mixed-income neighborhoods.
That doesn’t mean demolishing current Section 8 housing, but creating a long-term plan that would make it easier for individuals and families to rent homes in neighborhoods that aren’t pocketed away from the rest of the community. Step one is to set aside the paranoia and prejudices that lead many to believe this would make middle-class areas more dangerous. Such beliefs only reinforce the status quo, maintain social hierarchies and deny people who deserve to prosper the opportunities they need.
Asheville resident Laura Eshelman is outreach coordinator for North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, a Helpmate volunteer and a member of the Asheville-Buncombe Family Violence Prevention and Sexual Violence Prevention task forces.
The bridge issue is really just a symptom of a deeper affliction: the stigmatization of public housing and its residents.