Story by Dale Neal for the Asheville Citizen-Times
March 11, 2016
ASHEVILLE – After years working gigs as a musician, Cliff Cotton came home to his late parents’ house in the Burton Street neighborhood.
But the Asheville he knew and loved from 50 years ago had changed in his long absence.
“It’s a little disheartening,” Cotton said. “It’s like a vanished landscape.”
Gone are all the hangouts of his youth – the Southland Drive-In, next to Rabbit’s Motel on McDowell Street, or the James-Key Hotel on Southside Avenue where Duke Ellington and Count Basie once played in the upstairs ballroom. Asheville was a stop on the so-called “chitlin’ circuit,” where top African-American entertainers performed in the segregated South. It was the same venue where Cotton got his start with his saxophone.
But Cotton is now part of a new drive to take visitors and residents alike back in time through Asheville’s African-American neighborhoods and into their potential future.
Hood Tours are the brainstorm of DeWayne Barton, an Asheville native and social entrepreneur who cofounded the Green Opportunities job training program as well as Burton Street Community Center’s Peace Garden.
Barton has built a new business, Hood Huggers International, a model he believes could work not only in Asheville but in other cities.
“We asked what was booming in Asheville and that’s tourism,” Barton said. “People come to Asheville and wonder where are the black people. Where are the African-American history tours? There’s a story not being told in this town.”
Hood Huggers will offer tours Tuesday during the Bringing It Home economic conference at the YMI Institute, geared for minority communities and entrepreneurs.
Barton fits the bill for collaborative economics, this year’s conference theme, said Jane Hatley of Self Help Credit Union, which sponsors the event.
“DeWayne is doing some amazing work to help revitalize those neighborhoods and build small businesses,” Hatley said.
Revisiting the past
Tours run approximately two hours for $25. Barton sees potential customers among both black and white visitors and locals. “People can say I’ve been to Biltmore House and I’ve been to the hoods, and see the diversity of Asheville.”
Barton serves as driver, sporting a tux and a top hat befitting a proud history. He drives a van brightly painted by local artists and donated through Green Opportunities. Over on Fayetteville Street, he stops and beeps. Cotton comes out the door of his childhood home and hops aboard.
Cotton, 72, and other elders with knowledge serve as tour guides in the missing landmarks of Burton Street, the Southside, the East End and Valley Street, Stumptown in Montford and Shiloh.
Cotton’s roots run deep in the Burton Street neighborhood. His grandfather was E.W. Pearson, a developer and businessman who built up Burton Street, then better known as Pearson Hill, along with Park View in West Asheville for black families.
On Buffalo Street, Cotton points out an empty lot where Pearson had his grocery store as well as the Blue Note Music Club.
While McCormick Field allowed only white players, Pearson fielded his own semi-pro team, the Royal Giants, who entertained black fans down at a Southside park.
Pearson also started the neighborhood’s first Agricultural Fair in 1913 as local families brought their best produce and canned goods for display and trade.
But Barton didn’t envision just a tour of lost landmarks of African-American life. He wanted to show visitors what was happening in Asheville’s still resilient black neighborhoods.
Back to the old school
The tour’s first stop is at the Arthur Eddington Education and Career Center, the resurrected building that once housed the Livingston Elementary School, then the Livingston Community Center.
Historic photos of black students, educators and civic leaders line the hallways.
Inside, Shuvonda Harper greets visitors and talks about the need for more tours. “It’s so important that people don’t forget. This is one of the last existing buildings from the black community. I grew up here running and playing in the gymnasium. Now I’m working here,” said Harper. She’s employed by the Residents Council of the Asheville Housing Authority, which offers job training at the Edington center.
Barton would like to see more African-American businesses and entrepreneurs taking advantage of existing buildings.
The Hillcrest housing project was turned into a virtual island landlocked by interstates. Food trucks go into the community, but why not lease downstairs space to small businesses that could serve the residents, Barton wonders. Why not use the auditorium at the Eddington Center as a movie house?
“We have a lot of creative people in Asheville. How do we ensure that the black neighborhoods are joined into the redevelopment along the River Arts District? How do we make the connection?”
The tour package includes the Hood Huggers Green Book, highlighting current black-owned businesses as part of Asheville’s Buy Local ethos.
The pamphlet echoes the Negro Motorist Green Book published by Victor H. Green from 1936-66, directing African-American travelers and tourists to friendly businesses, restaurants and hotels during the era of segregation.
“We need to show people where they can connect now,” Barton said.
From Southside, it’s a short drive over to Pisgah View.
Cotton admits he’s never been in the public housing development near Amboy Road, home to some 1,500 people, but he’s impressed by the potential exhibited by residents like Charles Gardiner.
Gardiner moved here when he was 8. Now he’s heading a trash pickup business in the development, through the Residents’ Council of the Asheville.
While Pisgah View is known to many only as the location of publicized crimes, Gardiner wants others to see his neighborhood in a more positive light.
“We grow food here in our gardens, there are a lot of talented clever people here, music producers, owners of janitorial services, entrepreneurs making soaps. People can see that we’re just not the type of animals they portray us to be. It’s a family here.”
Driving to the future
Cotton was active in Asheville Student Commission on Racial Equality, or ASCORE, during his days at Stephens-Lee High, but he concedes that desegregation brought the end of many established black-owned businesses.
Riding around Asheville in 2016, Cotton can still count the costs of urban renewal from the past 50 years.
Valley Street once was a main thoroughfare lined with black businesses, but was amputated into a dead end with a barricade while Charlotte Street was extended through the old neighborhood.
The human costs of urban renewal are still being counted. Cotton’s family house on Fayetteville could be slated for destruction if the I-26 Connector widens through West Asheville.
It’s not just houses, but churches like the old Wilson Chapel, which are threatened by the construction of eight lanes of the future I-26 through a rich African-American past.
But the tours aren’t just a trip down a long lost memory’s lane. “What was before is all gone,” Cotton said. “This is about what’s going on now. This tour is about looking to the future and the ways we can grow.”