A few years ago it became popular to quote the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.” But if we think the village is only about raising children, we are missing a large part of a very masterful picture. The village concept is an effective model of social organization that might well help us through the difficult times we are facing both now and to come. It’s a model of sustainable human existence that includes aspects of nonviolent conflict resolution, psychospiritual integration of the individual, and right relationship with all living things.
According to Ethiopian scholar Eleni Tedla, the African community exists to maintain “harmony, balance, order and justice.” These values and others were reflected in at least one of the small-group sessions held Sept. 15 to discuss the city’s plans for development on The Block. As ideas flowed thick and fast at my table, I could see the gradual creation of a vision that, without being so called, is actually a 21st-century African-American “village” in downtown Asheville.
In the traditional African village, there is a constant flow of human beings of all ages, from elders to infants, sharing the ordinary business of day-to-day living. Many communities are virtually self-sufficient, and their residents need hardly leave the grounds to obtain any necessity. The village exists to support the needs of all of its members—farmers, craftspeople, merchants and mothers—each has an integral and respected role to play. Furthermore, it’s a place where everyone feels welcome.
Our vision, as it slowly evolved at table five, was that of a well-lit crossroads area with open space, connected by walkways to all surrounding parts of the city. It would have affordable, mixed-income, multigenerational housing including some subsidized units, and multi-use buildings that would house such practical, everyday businesses as a pharmacy, a convenience store, a day and evening child-care facility, a clinic, a Laundromat and a financial-services center for those without credit or bank accounts. It would be serviced by reliable transportation, patrolled by civilian law enforcers, and feature clearly displayed directions and street signs.
Participants at my table and others expressed a firm desire to preserve this area’s African-American identity. To this end, they wanted to see a jazz club, record store and upscale soul-food or African restaurant to expand the range of downtown Asheville’s nightlife.
And instead of tearing everything down to make way for sleek, new, generic structures, we talked about adaptive reuse of the existing buildings. Besides preserving their historic value, this approach can also be very green, helping keep usable materials out of the landfill.
Most important, however, was the need to retain the significant memories these streets and buildings hold for a generation that experienced urban renewal as “urban removal.” A solid, secure sense of place is important for any well-balanced individual or group of people.
One crucial element of this vision is the return of small businesses. As we looked at pictures of Eagle and Valley streets as far back as the 1920s, people pointed out this person’s store or that person’s business, owned by individuals and families who helped provide community stability. A small-business owner can train apprentices, mentoring young people while involving them in productive activities. The sense of pride and responsibility that comes from owning one’s own business and serving one’s neighbors and friends generates an atmosphere of well-being throughout the community.
But what The Block most has to offer is a rich cultural entrepreneurship, the experience of African-American culture and history as displayed in ordinary life. In order to bring small businesses back to the community, the city and developers may have to offer reduced rents, ongoing business consultation and access to creative capital. The return on the investment will come with the improved quality of people’s lives, uplifting the city as a whole.
Another aspect of traditional African values appeared in a discussion of the process of creating the “New Block.” An emphasis on process over product is a hallmark of African culture. In this case, one person recommended that developers involve store and business owners in the building and decorating stages, with on-the-job training for young people, thus promoting a greater sense of ownership in the project and the area. Teens could be enrolled in a landscaping or garden competition; an art/sculpture competition could result in an ongoing display in the center of the crossroads.
In Africa, it is the people who make the village what it is. Here in Asheville, we need to rebuild a supportive structure that restores the village to the people.
[Gwyn Dismukes, the author of Practicing Kwanzaa Year Round, conducts interactive Kwanzaa presentations. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.]