By Gwen Hill
Asheville’s Invisible Diversity
Browsing the locally-owned shops downtown or enjoying a meal at one of Asheville’s renowned independent restaurants, it would be easy (if naïve), to assume that Asheville’s population has little-to-no ethnic or racial diversity.
Contrary to a popular image of Asheville as a monochromatic mountain town, more than 20% of Asheville’s population is non-white, according to the 2010 Census. Furthermore, Asheville has long been home to a thriving, resilient African-American community, chronicled in part in a recently-unveiled collection of photos by the late Asheville resident Isiah Rice. Unfortunately today, the black and Latino members of our community are largely unseen and invisible in the parts of our city frequented by visitors and our more affluent community members.
With invisibility comes neglect, and the economic neglect, isolation and oppression of our neighbors of color is all too apparent here. According to The State of Black Asheville, the black unemployment rate here has historically been twice that of whites, only 1.7% of Buncombe County businesses are owned by blacks, and 61% of black women were living below the poverty line in 2010. A quick internet search reveals that the question of whether Asheville remains a segregated city has been debated for a long time.
Addressing Racial Barriers
That essential and weighty question aside, it’s important to highlight that in growing pockets of our city, integration is alive, and diverse groups are coming together to address some of the systemic barriers facing people of color, and to repair and rebuild relations amongst historically “siloed” communities.
The Arthur R. Edington Center, which formerly served as a blacks-only grade school during Segregation, is one of those places. Situated in Asheville’s Southside neighborhood, away from the hustle-and-bustle of tourist-centric downtown and adjacent to the quickly gentrifying River Arts District, the Edington Center is fast becoming a vibrant community space catering to the needs of all of Asheville’s residents.
Purchased and renovated by the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville in 2012 and re-dedicated in November 2014, the Edington Center now serves as a hub for job training, education and community events and meals for those in need. Within these walls and halls, grassroots community groups and neighborhood leaders work alongside staff from educational institutions like AB Tech and larger non-profits like Green Opportunities, to provide resources and assistance to residents of Asheville’s public housing developments and other low-wealth neighborhoods.
Meals Supporting Social and Economic Justice
Southside Kitchen, the community kitchen located at the Edington Center, epitomizes this notion of serving everyone, striving for justice, and working to rebuild broken relationships. In this kitchen, free daily lunches are prepared and served by the Green Opportunities Kitchen Ready students; these are adults in training for culinary careers in Asheville’s burgeoning restaurant sector. Kitchen Ready students serve meals to a broad swatch of community members, from public housing residents and local neighbors, to firefighters and staff from neighboring businesses and organizations.
It’s at these communal meals, during workdays in the on-site vegetable garden, and through community celebrations (like the Thanksgiving Dinner hosted in the Edington Center gymnasium on November 25th) that Asheville residents of all races, socioeconomic statuses and neighborhoods are joining together to support social and economic justice and to help lift each other up.
Chef Hanan Shabazz, who currently serves as the Southside Kitchen Steward and whose four-decade career has been built around core values of serving and sharing food, exemplifies this spirit of resiliency and coming together: “We want them to know that the doors of Southside Kitchen are open to the community. My community matters – we just try to feed the hungry souls each and every day.”