“Get on the ground,” my friend and neighbor Odell Irby often says, referring to the importance of in person encounters. And he means it. Frequently sitting on the corner in front of his house, Odell knows all of his neighbors’ names (and their dogs’ names), and is always greeting passers by. Though he’s never been on the internet, he’s more connected than many of us.
Last month, we made a dream of his come true — we got a permit to hold a Block Party, closing the street by his house to gather family, friends, and neighbors for fun. This kind of party used to happen all the time in Montford, but demographic changes have made them more of a rarity. By holding the party, we claimed space for residents in a place where tourists continually encroach on our lives.
My sweetie Jason, aka DJ Krekel, spun classic tunes, including songs discovered by listening to WRES 100.7 FM. People shared stories and laughs, I took and printed photos, Odell grilled mountains of food, and we danced in the street. A believer in the transformative power of such joyful connection, I was nourished by the company of loved ones, and by witnessing neighbors meeting for the first time. I’m so glad it happened.
As disappointments knock me over like waves, remembering that party is like a life jacket for my heart.
Honoring with art
One of those waves — what happened to Hill Street — still haunts me, of course. I recently confirmed that the Duke land is under contract for around $8 million, though there’s still no confirmation of who is buying it. (Do you know?)
The day after the Block Party, I had the opportunity to mark the historic significance of Hill Street during the “Bananarama Bikerama Diorama Scavenger Hunt” organized by a couple of creative friends of mine. Like the title implies, participants rode bicycles around town on a scavenger hunt to find 20 different dioramas. It was a super enjoyable and inspiring experience which raised money for abortion access in the south.
The diorama I created for the event honored the history of Hill Street and the Black families who lived there. It was placed exactly at the bottom of what were the stairs to the Torrence Hospital and home (which was pictured in the diorama, along with a photo of Dr. Torrence and old photos of the area). That morning, Jason dug out the space for the installation, and we both cried as he unearthed the concrete under the pile of dirt that had collected there.
On the side of the diorama was a print out of comment Gene Ettison posted on instagram, “My grandmother, aunt and cousins lived on Hill Street…A huge beautiful three story home with a back yard, all gone! Now my cousins live in Hillcrest Apartments — been there 30+ years making below a living wage.”
Get on the ground. Again. This time to grieve.
Aiming to educate and activate as we honored, the installation included a notebook with demographic data and lists of the names of former residents, as well as information about the Montford & Stumptown Fund.
It was a humble homage. I may put it up again sometime….
Stories and solutions
Another neighborhood event in September was the Montford Paint & Sip, a backyard gathering to learn about the work of the Asheville-Buncombe Community Land Trust in Montford & Stumptown and across the city and county, and how to support them. Attendees engaged in casual and complex conversations, leaving with much to muse on. The photo below of Jenny Pickens, who led the art activity at the event, shows her with a painting made by one of the attendees, which captures how displacement might feel.
After and beyond these events, I’ve been reflecting on numerous things. One is the fact that, when stories are shared about how forces took homes and opportunities from Black residents, individuals and institutions who have directly and indirectly benefited from this theft are often still unwilling to actively address the harm done.
We have the resources to make real change, it just takes the will to truly act from our fundamental interconnectedness.
For me, that means practicing community care, in all its messy beauty. The solutions we are experimenting with are not perfect or all encompassing, though they are worthwhile. Rather than be paralyzed by seeking the perfect solution, we can be energized by learning from every attempt to repair. Iterating on new strategies rather than being stymied by status quo.
Abundance for all is possible.
And thus, as much as it often makes my heart ache, I continue these inquiries and efforts out of love for where I live. As Jenny Odell writes in the last line of her clarion book, How to Do Nothing, “May we all be so lucky to find our muses in our own neighborhoods.”
I am lucky to be able to keep listening to and sharing stories of home, and dreaming towards a day when we have more and better block parties for all of the best reasons.
As I navigate heartbreaks and hope, I am continually grateful for the people I am in community with who are demonstrating their dedication to collective liberation. Some are in this photo, which was taken at a Tzedek Connect event earlier this year. In it are representatives of PODER Emma, CPC, Raíces Emma — Erwin, Sisters Caring 4 Sisters, JMPRO TV, Terra Fertíl, ABIPA, WNC Workers Center, Youth Outright, Cenzotle Language Justice Cooperative, EMSDC, and Aflorar. These people and organizations and so so many others fuel me daily with their passion and action and love.
Beyond Asheville, I am grateful for the work Prentiss Hemphill and others are doing through the Embodiment Institute and the Finding Our Way podcast. I had the profound experience of studying with the Embodiment Institute last fall, and listening to Finding Our Way has been one of the ways I care for my heart. The latest season was incredible, and I have been deeply engaging with books by two of the guests, Jenny Odell ( How to Do Nothing) and Alicia Garza ( The Purpose of Power). I invite you to read with me! They provide generous tools and insights which can assist as we traverse these tender and trying points of transition.
Love, love love.
More next month.