Rebuilding Affrilachia: The Value of History and Equity in our Growing Community

Just inside the entrance gate of the Burton Street Community Peace Garden in West Asheville hangs a sign that reads, “Good planets are hard to replace. Treat kindly.”

The large hillside garden is accented by a variety street art installations made of discarded items collected by DeWayne Barton (aka B-Love), who runs the property. Constantly moving around the garden, watering plants and adjusting artwork, perhaps adding a finishing touch here and there, Barton can be hard to locate, his movements tracked by the sounds of an active garden hose or hammer and nail.

“The garden was started when this was a heavy drug area. We wanted to create a spot where people could chill,” Barton said, adding that he initiated the garden with the help of his wife and youth from the neighborhood. “The war on drugs in the United States and the war in Iraq was why we created this space, where people in the neighborhood could have a peaceful place to absorb trauma. So, how do we create green spaces in the community to absorb trauma?”

Barton is the founder of Hood Huggers International, an Asheville-based social enterprise with the mission of preserving African American culture, landmarks and properties in cities that are undergoing rapid change — physically and socially — due to gentrification and variety of other factors.

Through Hood Huggers, Barton also leads educational tours to shed light on the notable African American people, places and things that make up this rich, and often forgotten, culture at the center of Asheville’s history. Barton aims to raise awareness for the ways this area’s proud African American history is still actively being wiped out every day, as existing homes are torn down, once-wooded properties are ripped up and community gathering places are displaced.

“And that’s part of the reason we wanted to do the tour, part of the reason we’re trying to hold onto this space, to be able continue to tell that story. They’re tearing down all the landmarks (in these) historically African American places,” Barton said. “This being a tourist town, there was nobody as a business talking about the African American history, because (the city) is on super-warp speed as far as erasing (the history). If we don’t tell it, who will?”

With the slogan “Rebuilding Affrilachia,” the garden and tours also have ties to the local Green Opportunities nonprofit, which was co-founded by Barton and Dan Leroy.

“That community trauma is from Jim Crow segregation, urban renewal, (and now) gentrification. I was born here and raised in Washington D.C., then came back to Asheville in 2001,” Barton said. “This was all wooded areas (back then), where I’d come down here from D.C. to get away from the craziness. Go into the woods here and find peace. I began to see all the development and problems in the community. It made me active, made me want to write a new narrative, so we started Green Opportunities.”

With all of the recent development in the city, and especially as it creeps closer to the garden in West Asheville, Barton sees the relevance of the green-building industry to what he’s doing and the potential for all parties involved to work together toward a better tomorrow.

“If you go in any neighborhood, there’s a basketball court and certain things, but where is the place that talks about the environment, the arts and social enterprise?” Barton said. “We saw the developers in the neighborhoods building the green homes, and we said, ‘Wow, the people who could really use this the most are the low-wealth African American communities,’ so they won’t have high energy costs, they can learn a skill set and get employed based on the all development that’s happening. Let’s try to be a bridge to get those contractors to work with people in these areas.”

Barton stressed the need for contractors and builders to take an active role in learning about and making connections in the neighborhoods where they work.

“Get the history of the area and the land, respect the people. We act like this information is hidden,” Barton said. “Be inclusive to the very neighborhoods you’re building in — checking in to a community meeting, send a letter to the president of the community association about your building, just general outreach.”

As Hood Huggers and Green Opportunities continue to build their own bridges, Barton emphasized that the only way Asheville can move forward — and do so with its history intact amid positive growth — is through collaboration across organizations.

“The city always has had a pattern of sacrificing the African American neighborhoods for the growth of the city, not including them. And being the second most gentrified city in the country, as a community we have to create a new narrative,” Barton said. “And it’s going to take everybody. And part of the problem is that Asheville works in silos — everybody’s got their own secret plan they keep in their own silo … and they don’t see the collective connections that have to be made to improve the city.”

Sitting in an open-air library building in the middle of the garden, Barton leaned back in his chair, gazing out across the wilderness of the property, where urban materials blend in with a serene, rural setting. A few birds chirp in the tree above the library. It’s another sunny day in West Asheville, and Barton is already headlong into another day of visualizing what it will take to change the social tide.

“As a community, we’ve got to build some accountability in the middle to connect all of those dots. And it won’t be one organization or governmental agency that will do that. And until we do that, I just don’t see anything changing. I see a lot of positive, but it’s all pieces of a puzzle all scrambled — they aren’t even on the same table,” Barton said. “There are too many great things happening in the city, there are enormous things, but how can we be more efficient and effective? How can we be a leader, and not follow the trends of the country? How do we do that?”

You can also view this article as it was originally published on pages 44-45 of the 2018-2019 edition of the directory.