Y...M...I - Jasmin Pittman Morrell
Trotting down Eagle Street, I half-walk, half-run away from the Aloft hotel parking garage off Biltmore Avenue where I’d finally managed to find parking in downtown Asheville on a gray weekday afternoon. Roy Harris stands waiting for me under a tree in front of the YMI building, coffee in one hand and a wrapped slice of banana bread in the other.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” I say, breathless. “I had a hard time finding parking.”
“Don’t you worry about that,” he replies, “You got to get lucky to find parking down here.”
He gestures to Pennycup coffee shop. “Do you drink coffee?”
I nod, grateful for the offer of a pick-me-up. As we walk toward Pennycup, I notice that we’re in the minority—his caramel toned skin, almost the same complexion as my own, is pronounced against a white polo shirt. There’s a young woman with Kool-Aid pink hair dressed in what look like pajamas sitting on the corner across from us. She’s joined by someone with a forest of a beard sprouting from his chin, his hair tangled in wheat-colored dreadlocks. For present day Asheville, this isn’t unusual—you don’t find many black folks downtown anymore—but it’s especially haunting in the midst of what used to be the city’s black business district. Tucked back on South Market Street, Asheville’s downtown is also home to one of the oldest African American cultural centers in the southeast: The Young Men’s Institute.
Mr. Harris holds Pennycup’s door open for me. This is the YMI, too, he explains. Having lived in Asheville for most of his life, he’s something of a local historian. Mr. Harris has heard the community’s old stories, and he has watched the sweeping changes blow through the streets.
The Young Men’s Institute, originally commissioned by Biltmore Estate’s George Vanderbilt, was built in 1893 as a social, educational, business, and cultural gathering space for black men and boys. It was designed by the same architect responsible for Biltmore Village; the two spaces share pebble-dash brick facades, red-trimmed windows, and a sense of grandeur. Massive wooden beams lend warmth to the auditorium, which has more than 2,000 square feet of floor space and can seat around 200 people. It’s easy to imagine the young black men who gathered here: giving speeches, performing plays or playing music in this dignified setting. It’s a place that invites dreaming, a space that whispers: you can grow here.
But in a city that relies heavily on tourism as a sustaining economic force, the YMI is now surrounded by the hallmarks of “urban renewal,” or “Negro removal,” as Mr. Harris jokes. Finishing our coffee, we walk outside and down the street to a mural painted on the wall surrounding Triangle Park. Laced with poetry by Langston Hughes and the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., the mural celebrates the neighborhood’s history. As Mr. Harris explains the stories behind each scene, I lean in, finding it difficult to hear him over the grinding noise of construction. Just across the street, beside and behind the YMI, another hotel, as well as luxury apartment buildings, rise against the skyline. It’s hard to say how much room there is for black growth here anymore. After my tour of the YMI, I say goodbye to Mr. Harris, grieving the erasure of what was and hoping that the spirit of the place could be kept alive.
When my family and I decided to move from Raleigh, North Carolina to Asheville, the first question out of my friends’ mouths was: “But how will you feel?” followed by the timid assertion, “There are no black people in the mountains.” Roughly, they were right. U.S. Census data predicts that the number of African-Americans living in Asheville is dropping and will continue to drop in the coming years. The black population was already small compared to similarly-sized Southeastern cities.
Very soon after moving, I discovered that when the Asheville days grow warm and sunny, the French Broad – the third oldest river in the world – might be dotted with hundreds of multi-colored tubes carrying people floating lazily downstream. Standing on top of the River Link Bridge and looking down at the river, the tubes resemble confetti scattered for an outdoor party. When the city swells during tourist season, Asheville is a funkier version of a Gatsby-esque blowout. It just might be the quirkiest city in the Southeast: “Keep Asheville Weird” is a popular local slogan. With its stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and impressive array of restaurants, breweries, and art studios, Asheville was hailed Lonely Planet’s #1 Best U.S. travel destination in 2017.
Kaliyah Gore is 16 years old and a Squad member with Word on the Street, a social justice non-profit focused on empowering the voices of black and Latinx youth. She worries that the emphasis on catering to tourists has made the city government forget about the people without economic privilege who already live in Asheville.
“When something’s getting built it’s probably a hotel. We’re so focused on tourists and new people moving here. We’re forgetting about the people that already live here,” she tells me.
In the tradition of most American teenagers, she likes to hang out at the mall or go to the movies, but wishes there were more things to do, more places where she felt welcome to simply be.
Kaliyah does like to hang out with friends at the Arthur R. Edington Education and Career Center on the Southside of town. Besides housing programs for youth like My Community Matters and Word on the Street, it’s an easy spot to text a friend to hang out on the basketball court or grab a bite to eat at Southside Kitchen, which serves donation-based meals to the public. When in season, flowers from the Center’s community garden grace the tables and there’s a palpable sense of familial hospitality in the dining room.
Another vestige of Asheville’s black community, The Edington Center was originally a neighborhood school, but after integration, it was turned into a city Parks and Recreation facility. When the Asheville Housing Authority purchased the building in 2012, Shuvonda Harper, a Southside native, helped bring the building back to life.
“The Housing Authority got grant funding to do this project. The community did it. The community is in here. This is what the community wanted…I love when [the city] comes to the space so that they can see the beauty of the space and how it transformed. The old windows were knocked out and we got these new windows in. The foyer area was lifted up and opened up. It brings in a lot more light, whereas it was an institution before. It was narrow. It was dark. It was that institutional blue,” Shuvonda explained from her seat at a picnic table outside of Southside Kitchen.
Shuvonda now works for the Housing Authority and is largely credited for creating the bustling center of activity that the Edington Center is today. With a pink flower from the garden tucked behind her ear and a quick laugh, she had the kind of bright energy of someone in love with her home, intent on making it a beautiful and comfortable space for family to visit. She is just the kind of woman I’d hoped to find here in the mountains. She invites me to come back for a meal at the Kitchen, and I promise to be back.
Several weeks later, I sit in the dining room waiting as my stomach growls. Ramona Young directs her kitchen with the grace and authority of a symphony conductor. She is tall and trim, dressed in jeans and a black chef’s coat, braided hair wrapped in a silk scarf. She leans over a stainless steel industrial cart to check a tray of turkey bacon that her student just pulled from the oven.
“We aren’t serving that bacon, it’s burnt up. Take it to the back,” she says firmly but kindly. He immediately obeys.
It’s 9:45a.m. on a Friday at Southside Kitchen, and brunch service starts in 15 minutes. Five students and several volunteers dance around each other, sandwiched between gleaming steel counters, hot ovens and sizzling fryers. Rap music from a speaker at the back of the room vibrates in the air.
“Can I get a wipe down?” Ramona shouts, arm extended and finger pointing at a spill on the counter.
Octavius wheels himself to the target, rag at the ready. He commands his wheelchair like someone who has spent most of his life navigating tight spaces. Several years ago, he was playing basketball at an outdoor court when he was collateral damage from a drive-by shooting; getting used to the chair was tough. He’d been a cook at the Aloft hotel before the shooting, and he wasn’t ready to give up his dream of being a chef.
“I can still cook my ass off,” he says.
Octavius graduated from Kitchen Ready, a training program created by Green Opportunities, one of several non-profits housed at the Edington Center. Southside Kitchen, where he is now Ramona’s second in command, is the program’s home and is often a stepping-stone to jobs in Asheville’s bustling restaurant scene. Kitchen Ready teaches culinary skills and graduation requires passing muster as a certified ServSafe food handler – a credential that managers value.
“Ten minutes until brunch,” Octavius calls.
“Heard!” everyone responds.
Ramona turns to the sink and fills one pitcher with water infused with holy basil from the Center’s community garden and another with apple juice. “Let’s go ahead and get the line set up,” she says over her shoulder.
Her students load big metal serving pans with steaming eggs, creamy grits, round pork sausage patties, bacon, perfectly fluffy, apple-stuffed French toast casserole, and fried fish seasoned just the way my Granddad would’ve made it. Weaving in and out of each other, they carry the dishes to the flat stainless steel table for serving.
Southside Kitchen serves brunch or lunch several days each week, and their food draws a crowd. It’s bargain at the suggested donation of five dollars.
“It’s ten o’clock, doors are about to open!” Octavius signals.
There’s a line outside the dining room doors and when they open, several men – joking and laughing – pour into the room, followed by a woman wearing an indigo shirt, brilliant against her beautiful ebony skin. The Kitchen Ready students heap food onto their guests’ plates, and soon the dining room – which seats over 40 people – is almost at capacity. The noise level rises as people eat and talk.
Ramona finds an empty seat, taking a minute to grab a few bites of eggs and grits. The din reminds me of a family reunion, and Ramona’s mouth is curved in a slight smile as she eats.
A woman with pale white skin, blue glasses, and a cloud of graying hair stands up from a table in the corner where she’s been sitting with men in khakis and collared, button-down shirts. The lanyard around her neck bounces on her chest as she walks briskly toward Ramona.
“Can you turn it down?” she asks, gesturing toward the speaker at the serving station. “We’re trying to have a meeting.”
Ramona’s smile fades, but she is polite and accommodates her guest’s request.
This is a request that the African-American community in Asheville is used to hearing. Turn it down. Better yet, disappear.
Although the Edington Center plays a vital role in the community, despite the efforts of an organization like GO, equitable access to economic resources and opportunities remains challenging for Southside residents.
The brunch hour winds down and guests trickle out, but not before they bus their own tables. Ramona’s students box leftover food in take-out boxes and stow them in a cooler outside the kitchen. Kids who come to the Edington Center for sports or afterschool programs know that they’re welcome to take a meal. Other visitors can help themselves as well.
“Let’s clean up and get ready for the lunch,” Ramona tells her crew. The Kitchen Ready students also run a catering business and they have another gig lined up for the afternoon.
Ramona eyes two large plastic bags filled with green peppers, another plastic bin filled with arugula, and several pounds of sweet potatoes that were donated by a local friend of the program. She’s thinking.
“We’re going to use this up somehow,” she says. “We won’t let it go to waste.”
Octavius and the others swing into action, and I thank Ramona for feeding me.
“I’m stuffed,” I grin, “everything was delicious. Being in this kitchen was like heaven.”
A quiet smile returns to Ramona’s face. She cranks the music up again, turns on her heel, and gets back to work.