Courtesy of LEAF Global Arts
Photo by Johnny Autry
Asheville’s historic strip is buzzing again, with a mix of people and places that bring its remarkable past into the present.
A walk through downtown Asheville might include stops at popular destinations like Pack Square Park and art deco buildings like Douglas Ellington’s City Hall and S&W Market. In recent years, that stroll through downtown has extended to the area known as the Block, the historic business district where Black businesses once flourished until urban renewal forced them out.
The community thrived in the 1900s and through the Great Depression. In the 1950s, the Block’s juke joints were a destination for headliners like Louis Armstrong, but beginning later in that decade through the 1980s, businesses were pushed out or closed due to suburbanization. But thanks to local efforts, the Block, no longer strictly a business district, is now on travelers’ radar.
The anchor of the neighborhood is the YMI Cultural Center, which was founded in 1893. Originally called the Young Men’s Institute, the YMI was the brainchild of businessman Isaac Dickson and educator Dr. Edward Stephens, who wanted to give Black people a safe place to gather, explains Tonia Plummer, operations manager of the YMI. “When urban renewal happened, the city got money to fix the infrastructure. So a lot of the homes were sold and torn down,” she says. “The people that inhabited the homes were relocated to other areas in and around Asheville.”
The YMI stands strong and remains a cultural center for the Black community of Asheville. Its business incubation program helps Black entrepreneurs get their footing, and Plummer says that it’s the YMI’s hope to bring the Black community back to the Block through additional programs like its Workforce Development (which includes training and support) and youth activities. One business that has benefited from the incubation program is the Noir Collective AVL, a boutique and art gallery that highlights Black makers and artists.
The YMI—an 18,000-square-foot Tudor-inspired building designed by architect Richard Sharp Smith in 1893—serves as a hub for locals in Asheville as a site of community programs and activities, but it’s also a worthy stop for visitors, says Plummer. “When you go up the wooden steps, they have their own history, and it’s like you’re stepping in the footsteps of people who have gone before you. It’s just a great space,” she says. “You can see the craftsmanship that went into the building.” The YMI offers tours four days a week for those interested in learning about the organization and its history. There’s also a gallery of artwork by local Black artists.
“I grew up on the Block, so it’s really important to me to keep my creative studio in that area,” says Jefferson Ellison, a marketing consultant who also owns fashion label Jawbreaking. Ellison is an Asheville native whose father, Gene Ellison, was a member of the city council, served as vice mayor, and also owned a restaurant and jazz club on the Block in the ’90s. “Both my parents were on the board of the YMI. And so I grew up going to the YMI and taking piano lessons there. Then I would go across the street and have dinner at my dad’s restaurant,” says Ellison.
Just 400 feet from Ellison’s workspace on Eagle Street is the Foundry Hotel. The 87-room former steel factory offers guests a modern industrial setting to sleep in after a day of exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains. The onsite restaurant, Benne on Eagle, is owned by James Beard Award–nominated chef John Fleer, who seeks to honor the neighborhood’s heritage as a Black community by working with Black chefs. The roster has included James Beard Award–nominated Ashleigh Shanti, family members of locals who ran businesses on the Block in the 1960s and ’70s, and current chef de cuisine, Cleophus “Ophus” Hethington. When Hethington joined the restaurant in the fall of 2021, he brought with him a passion for the African diaspora inspired by places he’s lived, such as Brazil and Miami, and his own culinary interests. Dishes that guests might find on the Benne menu include moqueca, a Brazilian fish stew, and bacalao, a salted codfish dish (aka salt fish) served throughout the Caribbean.
Cooking in predominantly white Asheville is a challenge, says Hethington. “It is still an opportunity to come into a space that is predominantly white and create a space for Blacks, through Black voices, Black people. Enlighten some palates and minds,” he says. He recalls one couple who came in and Googled everything on the menu, which Hethington took pride in, and he especially loves when he can explain the history of a dish. “That’s always been an exciting part for me because I love history, and I’ve always said people are kind of reaping the rewards of my overeagerness of our knowledge and history.”
Other neighborhood destinations for visitors to take note of include Pennycup Coffee, a small-batch roaster that leases its space from the YMI, and Sole82, a high-end sneaker-meets-art boutique. The latter is part of a business incubation program sponsored by the YMI.
There’s also LEAF Global Arts, a music education nonprofit that resides in the former Club Del Cardo (a historic jazz club) and offers visitors the chance to catch live performances, as well as get their own hands on a variety of musical instruments in what it playfully calls an instrument “petting zoo.”
Asheville is growing, and Ellison is hopeful that business owners, regardless of their cultural background, will open on the Block if that’s where they want to be.
“The Block is probably the best-case scenario for what you want a city like Asheville to become,” says Ellison. “A place that we can honor the fact that it is historically Black, and while gentrification does exist, there are still Black businesses there that are doing well and thriving, and they are co-existing with white-owned businesses who are aware of the space that they filled in and are attempting to do what they can to honor that.”
>> Next: AFAR’s Guide to Asheville
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