Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Residential races

One of the aims of this project is to understand structures that organize residential patterns in Asheville. The following is from a journal entry a few months past in which I took a first stab at thinking about several patterns. I’ve since noticed others and will post them soon. Click on the image above to zoom.

If Asheville is divided roughly into quarters – along Patton/College on the west-east axis and along Merrimon/Biltmore on the north-south axis – the north half is a mirror image of the south with respect to race and class.

East End, one of Asheville’s African American neighborhoods, sits in the northern corner of the southeastern quarter (see map). When African Americans migrated out of East End during urban renewal and after the end of Jim Crow segregation, the movement was generally south and west into the southwestern quarter (Southside and East Riverside) which already had a substantial black population.

Flip the map upside down and a similar pattern emerges.

Stumptown and Hill Street sit in the southern corner of the northwestern quarter. They are two other historically African American neighborhoods. From there, during urban renewal and after the end of legal segregation, African Americans moved north and east into the rest of Montford.

In other words, relative to the central business district, the shift of African American communities in the north of the city mirrored that of the south. Could it be that the city's economic geography - the relation of neighborhoods to a common commercial core - shaped shifting residential patterns?

Well, of course they did. All cities are in one respect or another economically organized. What is interesting is how oppressed people, with every reason to resist the status quo, nevertheless moved in apparently synchronized ways. I suppose even a negative relation to the center is still a relationship.

In terms of Asheville's affluent folk, to the south is Biltmore Forest and to the north, Grove Park and assorted other north Asheville neighborhoods. These are the wealthy sections of the city. They are, and have long been, predominately white.

In the center, of course, is the commercial district. Arrayed immediately around it are older and poorer neighborhoods, now undergoing gentrification.

With gentrification, the trends of the 1960s and 1970s are reversing in Southside, particularly along South French Broad and adjacent streets. Whites are moving into neighborhoods where blacks had moved a generation before. They are buying houses, fixing them up, and taking over neighborhood associations.

Before Southside, whites were expanding back into Montford, even into historically black Stumptown and Hill Street neighborhoods (indeed, whites are now moving into upscale developments in East End).

What organizes this apparent replication - the similar direction of African American migration north and south, the similar direction of white remigration north and south?

There is clearly a class principle, for these flows occur in relation to property values and the relative wealth of the populations.

There is clearly a racial principle at work, tied with class, for whites generally have more money than blacks.

On a similar note, black expansion into white neighborhoods occurred at times when Asheville’s economy was suffering and whites were migrating out of historically white neighborhoods, such as Montford and South French Broad.

Black and white residents of these neighborhoods - current and former - have told me that whites fled as black families moved in. On the other hand, as the trend reversed, black families began to leave gentrifying (whitening) neighborhoods as taxes rose and they felt less welcome.

There is also a principle in relation to the center, the commercial business district. The fortunes of the center - its rise and fall - serve as bellows to the residential patterns around it. When the center was poor it was surrounded by poorer African-Americans. As the center has grown rich, it is surrounded by richer whites.

That, anyway, was the pattern since the early 1960s. But it is only partly true. Since the Civil War, even when the center was rich (in the boom years of the 1920s, for instance), poor African American and white neighborhoods snuggled up against downtown.

Thus, a center-periphery opposition, a black-white opposition, and a class (or wealth) opposition.

There is also a topographic opposition, with more affluent residents occupying higher ground and poorer (both white and black) residents occupying lower ground and valleys. This is not absolute, either. But the pattern holds up at the extremes within city limits: the highest elevations are occupied by rich people, who are predominately white, while the lowest elevations are occupied by the poor, who are disproportionately black.

Another trope in Asheville: the expression of mountain, pseudo-mountain, or imitative mountain culture, such as log cabins, cottages, farm-style landscaping, vacation cabins, the likes of the "Mountaineer" Inn. These occur on high ground and outside the center, at the city's commercial margins. On the other hand, poor white mountain immigrants to the city have occupied the lowest ground. In the northwest and southwest quadrants, in the 1950s and early 1960s, the bottom of Courtland, on Chicken Hill and in West End, and along Riverside Drive were among the city's poorest - and exclusively white.

In contrast to north-south polar affluence, middle and lower-middle classes have tended to live along an east-west axis. African Americans, poor whites, and transitional folks (young professionals among them and the beds and breakfasts with their tourists) seem now to occupy areas immediately outside the center (Montford and other old neighborhoods just north and south of downtown).

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