Sunday, May 24, 2009

Descending stairs

There are places in Asheville where topography and economy converge to shape the built environment.

Black communities here were relegated, until recently, to some of the city’s least desirable real estate. And that meant low or descending ground.

This has changed some with desegregation. A few public housing projects, for instance, which have a higher percentage of black than white residents, are built on land formerly occupied exclusively by whites. Klondyke is one on the north end of Montford.

But those neighborhoods are exceptions. Neighborhoods that were exclusively black during Jim Crow remain by and large black, and neighborhoods that were exclusively white remain by and large white.

Though East End, Asheville's best known ghetto, sits snug against the central business district, the neighborhood follows Town Branch, better known among African Americans as “Nasty Branch.” East End stretches along the walls of a ravine.

And where the creek crossed below Biltmore Avenue, the black neighborhood on the other side followed Southside Avenue and the creek all the way to Depot Street. The demographics of Southside changed with Urban Renewal, which in the 1970s razed black houses, businesses, and apartments and reconfigured the streets, eliminating Southside altogether south of McDowell.

The Clingman neighborhood, north of the railway station, which was black, begins as Haywood Street starts to fall toward the French Broad River. It was built on higher ground than Southside, but it is lower relative to the downtown its residents once served.

Hill Street, which falls from Montford Avenue, was African American, as was Stumptown, which falls west of Pearson Drive to the cemetery and River Road. Half of Stumptown – both the houses and the streets – was eliminated by Urban Renewal in the 1970s. It is now a park.

The small Ocala-Magnolia community, formerly black and now gentrifying, sits on the east side of Montford. It's on lower ground than the more affluent white community above it, for those two streets fall steeply from Flint toward Broadway.

Of course, a few poor white neighborhoods were built on low ground as well: West End was a white working class area below the Clingman community. Courtland and Houston were exclusively white, and they fill a steep ravine south of Stumptown that falls toward River Road.

As a result of being developed – if that’s the word – on urban slopes, these poor neighborhoods have public stairways that help (or helped) their residents walk from one level of their neighborhood to another – a feature I've not noticed in other, whiter parts of Asheville.

The photo above is of now all-but-abandoned public stairs in East End dropping to what is now Charlotte Street, formerly Valley Street.

There are a few affluent white neighborhoods built on vertical land along ridgetops around Asheville. But as far as I know they do not offer stairs, not public ones anyway, and this is probably because rich whites don’t walk into town or down the slopes to the bus stop.

(Since this post a friend has pointed out the steep stairs from the Asheville Botanical Gardens to the backside of the UNC-Asheville campus, the stairs in the old Highland Hospital "Green Cove," and stairs in Montford Park. These stairways are in "natural" areas, which tend in our society to be in rougher spaces, less desireable to housing and business developers.)

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