I want to appreciate Thomas Calder’s exposé of redlining in Asheville in the March 4 issue [“Uprooted: Urban Renewal in Asheville,” Xpress]. He helps trace the tragic story that Asheville was hardly immune to, placing the redlined map of “our city” directly in our faces. Calder and others (see Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power) trace the awful policies as far back as the “concessions” FDR had to make to pull off the New Deal in the mid-1930s, but other records show that this redlining business was going on right here well before that.
We have the remarkable Jane Jacobs to thank for protecting neighborhoods in Greenwich Village and other urban communities up north from “development” and “slum-removal” in the ’50s and ’60s, when architects and city planners without soul were imposing high-rise projects into relatively stable, mixed-income and racially diverse neighborhoods that took the very life out of those places and made them ugly and unsafe. (They’ll still do it in a minute, if we let them.)
In Asheville, we may be lucky that no Robert Moses ever thought it was worth “developing” the city the way they messed up other places, but in 1920, our own native son, Thomas Wolfe, as a graduate student in the Harvard 47 Workshop’s playwriting program, told the world about the scheming going on in Asheville in his play, Welcome to Our City, a 3 1/2-hour exposé on the nefarious workings “behind the scenes” in good old A’ville way back then. Apparently, Wolfe wouldn’t let it be cut any further for a more reasonable stage performance, so the play was never produced beyond the Harvard date.
The play depicts how unscrupulous politicians, bankers and real estate agents, planning to rid the center of the city of what they deemed “undesirable elements,” wreaked havoc on the lives of African American families by wheeling, dealing and (at least in the play) burning down the home of a black medical doctor whom they were intent on discouraging from living among them. How this play isn’t being performed in Asheville, in whatever abridged fashion, is a mystery to me. I got the apparently rarely read hardbound script for free at a Pack Library giveaway last year. So now at least you know, too.
Calder mentions the recent UNCA student-researched exhibit (now at Pack Library) that includes Asheville properties redlined and cleared of their African American residents on or around 1979. Of the properties they were researching, four are vacant lots today. Let me repeat that. Four of the properties from where African American families were evicted are just empty lots today. A parking lot occupies the fifth site, which had been a commercial building, and the sixth property was intentionally destroyed in a fire department rescue training and is now part of Martin Luther King Jr. Park.
Now is the time for Asheville to show our mettle. Those empty lots are valuable and could become the hub of one or more projects granted and dedicated to the construction of meaningful housing or other community infrastructure in honest and open solidarity with the moral responsibility all who are racially privileged in this country shoulder. We cannot in good faith be praised for tourism, gentrification or other tributes to the mostly white recipients of American hospitality and opportunity without showing up in other ways to expunge, however minimally it is possible for a small city to do so, the mistakes — the tragedies — that our deliberate or ignorant behavior as a society keeps compounding year after year after year.
Let’s applaud and assist the proposal by Asheville’s African American Heritage Commission’s last chair, Sasha Mitchell, of a moratorium on future development projects involving properties acquired through this kind of “urban renewal,” until at least a comprehensive cost analysis is conducted. Government policies targeting black populations caused losses of wealth, capital and family coherence, a pervasive downwardly “mobile” trajectory so many still suffer from.
Here’s hoping the new chair of the commission, Lynn Smith, is on the same page. It is easy for naysayers to come up with one example where displacement was either ameliorated or one block where there might be a few old buildings from back in the day, but the disruption and decline of so many lives and the poisoning of relationships that has yet to be addressed and reconciled — these are the glaring opportunities that Asheville citizens could decide to require of our municipality, so that we might set the right example for white-dominated communities through the area, the state and the nation.
— Arjuna da Silva