By Lauren Stepp
In the late 1960s, Massachusetts native Andrea Clark headed south to Asheville, her father’s hometown. She soon tasted polk salad and ramps, spoke to school children milling near Petty’s Grocery and watched local George Holmes drive his mule through Montford.
“I had never seen the South before, and it was a different beat,” says Clark, who moved in with family on Valley Street. “I loved listening to people’s stories—people who were interested and interesting.”
Having studied photography in college, she took photos to honor those narratives. But in doing so, her black-and-white frames immortalized the city’s dark underbelly—urban renewal. Specifically, Clark’s photographs captured the ramifications of urban renewal in the East End neighborhood, a predominantly black community once connected to Eagle and Market streets and what is now South Charlotte Street.
Earlier this year, the Historic Resources Commission of Asheville and Buncombe County honored Clark with the Sondley Award. Since 1988, the Sondley Award has recognized individuals in the community who by word or deed have kindled an appreciation for the history of the area, says Alex Cole, an urban planner with the City of Asheville.
“Ms. Clarke captured the residents as they lived, worked and gathered together before and during the upheaval of urban renewal that ultimately decimated her own family’s home and the roads, homes and businesses of her neighbors,” says Cole. “Her lens recorded an unpleasant part of Asheville’s past that is important for all to see and remember.”
Like other cities across the country, Asheville was part of a federal initiative established by the Housing Act of 1949 aimed at clearing blighted areas. The North Carolina Humanities Council estimates more than 1,600 predominantly African-American neighborhoods were razed and replaced by highways, roadways and other buildings in the process.
“Communities were plundered,” says Clark. “It comes down to rich versus poor, black versus white. Everyone is for integration, but not in their neighborhood.”
Beyond segregation, urban renewal also pepertuated multigenerational poverty. Evicted from their homes, residents of the East End were forced to relocate or take up residence in public housing.
“It was more than unfair,” says Clark. “Under the guise of ‘making it better,’ the city locked blacks into poverty. Many educated blacks moved out of Asheville because they had to feed their families.”
Her photos capture intimate moments amid a period of transition: young folks chatting outside Feldman’s Grocery at 91 Eagle Street, a man selling flowers on Haywood Street, Hattie M. Sinclair of 119 Valley Street cooking, farmers herding pigs at the Western Carolina Livestock Market.
Though honored to have received the Sondley Award, Clark is quick to point out how the award itself is a manifestation of systemic racism. Buncombe County native Foster Alexander Sondley, the award’s namesake, bequeathed a library of some 40,000 volumes to the City of Asheville upon his death in 1931. But the books were to be viewed by “well-conducted white people” only.
“You just have to keep smiling,” says Clark. “My hope is that the young people of today will make change.”
To view Andrea Clark’s photographs, visit PackLibraryNCRoom.com.