Witness to the Lost City
ON THE TWILIGHT OF A NEIGHBORHOOD
The year was 1968. It was the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Woodstock had yet to happen. No one had walked on the moon. The power of the image was just beginning to influence the American public as shocking images—Civil Rights demonstrations, wounded Viet Cong and American soldiers, beaten protesters at the Democratic National Convention—entered the American living room. It was the beginning of the visual culture that dominates today: the graven image come to life. It was also the year that photographer Andrea Clark came to Asheville and took a walk, camera in hand, through the city. That is, through the city as it was, back then. That city does not exist anymore.
The images Andrea developed in her darkroom live on today as the only collection of photographs documenting the Historic East End neighborhood—which once extended from College Street to Buxton Street, from the mountain slope above what is today South Charlotte Street to and beyond the river. Dense with white clapboard houses, porches hosting conversation and caregiving, the neighborhood was the grandchild of the strong migration of freed slaves of the South. But to the people who lived there, the people whose faces speak to us through Andrea’s lens, this area will always be “home.”
The core of this “Home” was devastated by urban renewal during the 1970s, when the houses on Valley Street (and others) were erased from the map and replaced, summarily, with a jail and a five-lane bypass of downtown. This “Home”—row upon row of houses—had sheltered Asheville’s industrious African-American families for a century. Apartments on Market Street where laundry once hung on the fire escapes and where families gathered around tables for supper, caved under the pressure of paperwork and a wrecking ball. Today’s Ashevilleans park their cars where stories of life once unfolded through screen doors and wood-frame windows. The community that dwelled in the area, despite protest and hand-written pleas, was dispersed to projects such as Hillside Street, described by some who were moved as “barracks-like dwellings.” Entire lives were changed; stories ache to be told. Andrea Clark’s photographs tell a part of this story.
“I knew that something worthwhile would happen with these photographs one day,” Andrea says in her artist’s statement. “I didn’t realize how important this Asheville collection was going to become to me and the community. I’m very grateful that the photographs have been saved for all to see. Remembering our history is so important. That’s how we honor people. That’s how we stay connected.”
The collection is entitled “Twilight of a Neighborhood.” If the collection speaks to the power of the image to draw forth stories from silence, the title reflects the power of the moment. Children play in the yard. A man plows a field. Women bake. A parade of hats floats above a tall fence on a Sunday morning while the bells of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church ring across the tin and slate roofs of the neighborhood. The viewer’s imagination complements the quiet of the paper print. A man sits by the coal-burning stove. A group of young men stand proudly at the corner of Valley and Market Street. A small girl wearing a pretty dress sits in an alley, surrounded by litter and stones.
The images show the very real implications of “urban planning” and raise critical questions regarding the collective psyche of racism.
Andrea grew up in one of the most integrated communities in the Northeast. The psychology of Jim Crow was as strange to her as Cheerwine. When she took these photographs, she was living in East End, which she compared to a “movie set” for the way the neat houses were arranged on the mountainside. She felt at home as she walked around with her camera. Her new neighbors welcomed her and smiled. To these faces, Andrea lifted her lens.
Through the ages, people have ascribed a number of purposes for “art.” To be beautiful. To be true. To document. To inform. To unite. To illuminate. To heal. Andrea’s “Twilight of a Neighborhood” accomplishes all of these and more. Andrea’s images have become a civic necessity, something everyone who wants to call Asheville “home” should see.
People continue to recognize themselves and friends in the photographs, and these identifications appear on the Pack Memorial Library website. Looking at the East End images, viewers see the homes, the businesses, the youth, the children, and the elders. Pansy Johnson sits in the doorway of a home she shared with forty cats. A group of men in suits gather in front of Crown Williams Service Station. The images of houses and businesses along Valley Street render driving South Charlotte Street more of a drive through a spirit world than a short-cut to the interstate.
The world is not changed by art. Art can only inspire people to make change. Andrea continues to show her photographs and to gather the stories behind and surrounding them. She frequently works with Dr. Mindy Fullilove, professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia University, applies the term “rootshock” to the repercussions of urban renewal. It is a gardening term, but it applies to people as the “traumatic stress reaction to the loss of some or all of one’s emotional ecosystem.” Together, Andrea and Mindy forge trails of understanding as people revisit the power of Neighborhood.
Andrea Clark’s photographs of East End are on exhibit through August at YMI Cultural Center in East End, 39 South Market Street. She continues to work as an artist and an activist. Her book, Twilight of a Neighborhood, is available at Grateful Steps and other bookstores.
Laura Hope-Gill produces Asheville Wordfest, a multi-cultural poetry festival hosted in 2011 at the YMI. The theme for 2012 is Home. Laura is the author of Look Up Asheville: a Journey Through Architecture.