Why The Block Is Asheville’s Must-Go Neighborhood
Asheville’s historic strip is bustling once again, with a mix of people and places bringing its remarkable past into the present.
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A The downtown Asheville walk can include stops at popular destinations like Pack Square Park and art deco buildings like Douglas Ellington City Hall and S&W Market. In recent years, this downtown promenade has extended to the area known as the Block, the historic business district where black businesses once thrived until urban renewal forced them out.
The community flourished in the 1900s and during the Great Depression. In the 1950s, Block juke joints were a destination for headliners like Louis Armstrong, but from the end of that decade until the 1980s, businesses were evicted 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 Young Men’s Institute, YMI was the brainchild of businessman Isaac Dickson and educator Dr. Edward Stephens, who wanted give black people a safe place to congregate, says YMI operations manager Tonia Plummer. “When the urban renewal took place, the city got money to repair the infrastructure. So a lot of houses were sold and demolished,” she says. “People who lived in the houses have been relocated to other areas in and around Asheville.”
The YMI holds firm and remains a cultural center for the black community in Asheville. Its business incubation program helps black entrepreneurs gain a foothold, and Plummer says it’s YMI’s hope to bring the black community back to the block through additional programs like its workforce development work (which includes training and support) and activities for young people. One business that has benefited from the incubation program is Noir Collective AVL, a boutique and art gallery that showcases black designers 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 Asheville residents as a site for community programs and activities, but it is also an interesting stop for visitors, says Plummer. “When you climb the wooden steps, they have their own story, and it’s like walking in the footsteps of people who have gone before you. It’s just a big space,” she said. “You can see the craftsmanship that went into the building.” The YMI offers tours four days a week for those interested in learning more about the organization and its history. There is also a gallery of works by local black artists.
“I grew up on the Block, so it’s very important to me to keep my design studio in that area,” says Jefferson Ellison, a marketing consultant who also owns fashion brand Jawbreaking. Ellison is an Asheville native whose father, Gene Ellison, was a member of the city council, served as deputy mayor and also owned a restaurant and jazz club on the block in the 90s. “Both my parents were on the council Board of YMI. And so I grew up going to YMI and taking piano lessons there. Then I would cross the street and have dinner at my dad’s restaurant,” Ellison says.
Where to stay, eat and play on the Block
Just 400 feet from Ellison’s workspace on Eagle Street is the Foundry Hotel. The 87-room former steel mill offers guests a modern, industrial setting to sleep in after a day of exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains. The on-site 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 list included James Beard Award nominee Ashleigh Shanti, family members of locals who ran businesses on the block in the 1960s and 1970s, and current head chef Cleophus “Ophus” Hethington. When Hethington joined the restaurant in fall 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 customers might find on the Benne menu include mocking, a Brazilian fish stew and bacalao, a salt cod (aka saltfish) dish served throughout the Caribbean.
Cooking in predominantly white Asheville is a challenge, Hethington says. “It’s always an opportunity to step into a predominantly white space and create space for black people, through black voices, black people. Illuminate certain palaces and certain minds,” he says. He remembers a couple who walked in and Googled everything on the menu, which Hethington was proud of, and he especially loves when he can explain a dish’s story. “It’s always been an exciting part for me because I love history, and I’ve always said that people kind of reap the rewards of my over-eagerness for our knowledge and our history.”
Other neighborhood destinations for visitors to consider include Pennycup Cafea small-batch roaster that leases its space to YMI, and Sole82, a high-end sneaker boutique that meets art. The latter is part of a business incubation program sponsored by the YMI.
There is also LEAF Global Artsa non-profit music education organization that resides in the former Club Del Cardo (a historic jazz club) and offers visitors the opportunity to catch live performances, as well as get their hands on a variety of musical instruments in what he playfully calls a “petting zoo” instrument.
Asheville is growing and Ellison hopes business owners, regardless of cultural background, will open up on the block if that’s where they want to be.
“The Block is probably the best case scenario for what you want a town like Asheville to become,” Ellison says. “A place where we can honor the fact that it is historically black, and although gentrification exists, there are still black businesses that are doing well and thriving, and they coexist with white-owned businesses that are conscious of the space they’ve filled and are trying to do what they can to honor that.
>> Next: AFAR Guide to Asheville