BY IRIS LANCASTER AND DIANE MATSUMOTO
Willie Mae Brown has lived in her charming home on White Fawn Drive in Asheville for almost 50 years. With the oratory of a historian, she weaves a remarkable story of the hopes and fears of neighborhood and community — a story that started when she and her husband became only the third black family to move into what was then known as Oakhurst.
Nestled above Biltmore Avenue between McCormick Field and Memorial Stadium to the north, Mission Hospital to the south, and Beaucatcher Mountain to the east, Oakhurst is a neighborhood of approximately 55 homes. Never afraid to stand for what’s right, Brown recounts, with squared shoulders, one of the first greetings she heard shouted from a neighbor: “Ain’t going to have no n*****s living here.”
“Then I suggest you pack up and leave,” Brown shot back, “’cause I’m here to stay.”
It was 1968 when that first unsettling “shot” was heard, but from her lovely front porch, she has watched her neighborhood morph through varying stages of transition. Brown has always stood defiant in fighting for Oakhurst, which she calls a forgotten gem that its occupants now watch in horror as it is eviscerated by development.
The current assault involves a 97-unit apartment building on the corner of White Fawn Drive and Florence Street. Initial plans of a moderate-sized doctor’s office, presumably with allotted parking appropriate to scale, were scrapped. In its stead, currently under construction from a Charlotte developer, is a multitiered apartment behemoth, with only 106 parking spots for presumably 100-plus residents.
In addition to this being very different than the RS-8 zoning of Oakhurst, the city failed to recognize the enormous problems and burdens this apartment complex would pose for the residents of Oakhurst. Already dealing with 70 days of ballpark traffic and parking from nonresidents, this neighborhood is also inundated with employee parking from businesses on Biltmore. Additionally, the proposed Beaucatcher greenway passing through the neighborhood will have the potential to add more traffic and parking demands.
Through disquieting times of downturns in the economy and drug dealers moving into the neighborhood to the current boom time, Brown never sat idle nor was she quieted. A robust giant of a soul packed in a small, strong frame that defies her age, Brown is a model of civic pride and responsibility. Despite her tireless work and all that she has experienced, it is only now that Brown says, “I feel trapped in my home, a prisoner in my neighborhood.”
Even before the 100-plus new tenants move in, current residents during this — quite literally — ear-, house-, and soul-rattling construction time, face a dangerous obstacle course in pursuit of egress and ingress to their homes. For residents, leaving home means hoping the roads aren’t blocked by construction vehicles, ballpark traffic or illegal parking.
Although the size of the building did not legally entail a traffic study to have been done, it is unimaginable that nobody in the city permitting or planning offices visited the neighborhood in advance to make sure that the roads could handle an influx of residents that will increase the population by at least 60 percent. As of now, however, we have no proof that anyone from the city did visit, and four weeks after meeting with the head of the city of Asheville Traffic Engineering Division and two other city representatives, residents are still waiting to hear when the city can schedule a traffic study that should have been done months ago, regardless of whether it was legally necessary.
Where are the stewards of our neighborhoods? We are governed by a new wave of city officials who ran on the promise of keeping the Asheville city experience one that is safe and secure. Asheville continues to face the challenge of how it will be defined as a city. Once thought of as an eclectic mix of folks looking for a cool but inclusive community-centric lifestyle, the city struggles to maintain a semblance of integrity to its intention.
Once a personal refuge, our community is now becoming a battleground. Neighbors band together in meetings that have taken on an almost underground battle stance. Tea talk is pointed and has become a place to discuss the months of jackhammering that has only recently stopped, as well as the lack of sleep due to 81-decibel late-night construction noise that resulted in the city revoking the building’s after-hours construction permit. Discussions of weather and sports are replaced with the travails of the increasingly precarious passage to and from our homes and the hollow offerings of hope by city officials. We wonder if not being a wealthier, more organized neighborhood is the reason that Oakhurst fell target to a project ready to pounce on the unsuspecting.
Brown and her fellow neighbors are not alone in their disbelief of the diminishment of their beloved sacred space. Neither is this a cautionary tale. Unless we band together to fight the encroachment on the soul of Asheville, this will remain a place good folks will choose to only visit.
We ask our city officials to revisit whatever provisions it guarantees the developers it welcomes — and instead first guarantee safe harbor and serenity to its taxpaying residents.
Iris Lancaster and Diane Matsumoto are residents of the Oakhurst neighborhood.