In Asheville, a Black Heritage Trail Ushers In a Whole New Economy

(Bloomberg) -- It’s a blue-skied Friday in April in downtown Asheville, North Carolina, and the rising echo of voices in the brewery-packed South Slope district hints at the looming lunch rush. I spot silhouettes strolling across Banks and Coxe avenues, where a newly installed information panel framed in etched metal recounts how this trendy part of town was once a vibrant Black neighborhood called Southside.

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The panel, which offers a brief history of the area’s urban renewal projects throughout the 1950s and ’60s, is one of 20 that make up Asheville’s 1-mile-long Black Cultural Heritage Trail. Unveiled in December, the trail’s markers are placed in prominent tourism spots across what were three historically Black neighborhoods: Downtown, Southside and the River Area.

The project is part of a wider, government-funded effort costing nearly $2 million. The goal: to honor the significant Black legacy that exists in this burgeoning mountain town, otherwise known for its art scene, breweries and scenic nature areas. More important, it’s a way to ensure that Asheville doesn’t inadvertently exclude its Black communities from the area’s record-breaking tourism boom, which brought in 12.5 million visitors and $2.9 billion in 2024.

“A lot of folks don’t realize the National Housing Act of 1934 really was instrumental with redlining,” says community advocate Joseph Fox, referring to the discriminatory practice of outlining neighborhoods with Black residents and public housing as undesirable and more at risk of bank loan defaults, while green zones were desirable areas where White people had access to loans and to better school systems. Fox has mentored Black entrepreneurs for decades and sat on the trail’s 21-member advisory committee.

Together, we stroll the neighborhood’s leafy sidewalks lined with vibrant murals and red brick buildings that have been turned into cool coffee shops, pubs and restaurants. “The National Housing Act of 1934 literally destroyed thousands of homes and businesses right where we’re standing,” Fox continues, noting it opened the door for designating Black-owned homes and residences as “blighted” and for taking over their neighborhoods.

That was also the beginning of the decline of Black-owned businesses in downtown Asheville—a problem that persists today.All this history could really sober up the area’s brewerygoers, I think to myself. But the trail’s purpose isn’t to dwell on stories of a devastating past nor to sweep them aside.

“A project like the Black Cultural Heritage Trail means connecting visitors and guests with Black-owned businesses here,” says Victoria Isley, chief executive officer of Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau. According to its most recent report, tourism revenue may have jumped $1 billion since 2016, but Black-owned businesses have largely been left behind.

Over the past three years, Isley has allocated $1 million to advertise the destination, including the trail, specifically in Black-owned media brands.

I see the fruits of that while walking the trail with Fox. It’s not, as the name might imply, a single-purpose-built pathway. Instead, it’s a series of disparate walking routes that can be stitched together or explored individually.

By the time I leave South Slope and the brewery district, we’ve walked half of the trail’s total length. Ready to give our legs a rest, we decided to drive between two sections; it’s just a few minutes by car to the River Arts District, formerly the River Area neighborhood, where we park at coffee bar Grind AVL, the only Black-owned cafe in Asheville.

Housed in a deep-red building tucked amid a row of neon-hued art studios, Grind AVL’s menu sports creative drinks like caramel apple chai lattes and strawberry lavender lemonades. The cafe’s founder, J Hackett, Fox tells me, was one of his mentees and is now paying it forward. These days, Hackett is spearheading one of the city’s most exciting Black business incubators, Black Wall Street AVL, which coaches Black startup founders in tourism entrepreneurship.

Over coffee, Fox tells me that a second phase of the heritage trail will add murals and sculptures. “That will help stimulate conversations more,” he says.

A former department chair of business administration at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, Fox has been one of Black Asheville’s loudest advocates. As chair of the Buncombe Community Remembrance Project in 2019, he oversaw the creation of a memorial to three young men who were lynched in the area after the Civil War; he also sits on the Nina Simone Steering Committee in nearby Tryon, which aims to restore the artist’s onetime home and convert it into a historical site.

As we continue on the trail, I learn of individuals—from Black business leaders and doctors to hospitality workers, past and present—who rose above adversity to build Asheville’s thriving communities. Some, like Simone, are familiar. Others are new to me. America’s first Black pulmonologist, John Wakefield Walker, was from Asheville and opened the first clinic for Black people here in 1915. Following his legacy, Black residents built a half dozen more hospitals here that they financed through crowdfunding.

NO VISIT TO ASHEVILLE WOULD BE COMPLETE without a stroll down Biltmore Avenue, which most tourists traverse to reach the Asheville Art Museum or the iconic French Broad Chocolate Lounge, a decadent bakery. I follow it instead to Eagle and South Market streets to revisit an area known as “the Block,” to find the modern-day incarnates of the Black-owned beauty parlors, drugstores and diners that once thrived here.

What remains of the Block today is largely limited to the Young Men’s Institute Cultural Center, one of America’s oldest Black cultural hubs and a place where Black youth could find training and employment to stay off the streets. Standing across from the two-story, 1893 English Tudor- style building feels like a step back in time. But it’s also a view of the future: The YMI—part of the heritage trail—is reopening this summer with fully upgraded facilities. The hope is that it will boost the presence of Black entrepreneurs by providing them with more space and visibility.

Next door, I pop into the Black-owned gallery Noir Collective AVL, where Guyanese-American artist Tara Singh is showing colorful, bold paintings of female faces and shapes, partly inspired by Frida Kahlo. As we chat, she laments that the heritage trail focuses on past history rather than future potential.

“I understand you can’t erase history,” she tells me. “But what are the action steps towards creating something new?”

“Asheville is trying,” says DeWayne Barton, my tour guide the next morning, crediting the city for its significant efforts to benefit Black communities, including a reparations commission established in 2020.

As we walk down Burton Street, where he offers historical tours through his company Hood Huggers International, he tells me about how in the early 2000s this area had been torn apart by drugs and redlining. All that seems like a distant past now—until Barton tells me that the North Carolina Department of Transportation is still considering building a third roadway through the now-idyllic neighborhood, potentially razing a fresh set of Black-owned homes.

Barton is working toward an alternate reality for Burton Street. He’s already secured a space where, in partnership with the local nongovernmental organization Asheville Creative Arts, he plans to create Blue Note Junction, a cultural center and retail space for BIPOC-owned businesses, named after a famous music club that once stood here. He dreams that one day it’ll be a cornerstone of a profitable Black-owned tourism industry—as iconic as Asheville’s most famous attraction, the 8,000-acre Biltmore estate.

About the Biltmore: On my last day, I buy a $105 ticket and make a beeline for the 15-acre azalea garden. Amid early fuchsia blooms, I spot an information panel similar to the ones I’d seen on the Black Heritage Trail, though it’s more dated. There’s a tribute to estate superintendent Chauncey Beadle and his “azalea chasers.”

But alas, nowhere in the text does Sylvester Owens’ name appear, the Black man who completed these gardens in the 1960s after his mentor Beadle passed.

Change is slow, as Fox said to me in Southside. But at least it’s clearly underway.

Where to Stay in Asheville

Zelda DearestTucked away on a residential street near the bustling South Slope brewery district and Biltmore Avenue, boutique hotel Zelda Dearest opened in October. It has 20 rooms and suites spread across three restored red brick mansions with green trimmings, wrap around porches and spacious courtyards. Rooms from $349.

The RadicalSet in the River Arts District, with views of the French Broad River, the Radical took over a factory building that sat empty for 12 years, covering it in vibrant murals and filling it with 70 street art-inspired rooms. The common areas are a smorgasbord of furniture colors and textures—bright purple chandeliers, yellow velvet couches and patterned rugs, while a rooftop bar offers tranquil sunset views. Rooms from $332.

Where to Eat in Asheville

Good Hot FishChef Ashleigh Shanti was a Top Chef contestant before opening up her own dinerlike restaurant in South Slope, the only Black-owned eatery in this brewery district. Her specialty: “good hot fish” sandwiches made with the catch of the day, an homage to old-school fish camp restaurants of the South.Golden Hour at the RadicalReservations are definitely required at this popular new chophouse where Asheville’s Jacob Sessoms serves Southern tapas—shellfish beignets, mushroom skewers—in an edgy-chic warehouse.Chai PaniIn 2022, the James Beard Foundation named Indian street food restaurant Chai Pani the most outstanding restaurant in America—propelling Asheville onto many food lovers’ bucket lists. Highlights here include the crunchy okra fries, the “uttapams” or savory crepes, and the butter chicken. On May 21, it will reopen in a larger space in South Slope’s brewery district; in the 1920s it was Asheville’s Black skating rink.

What to See and Do in Asheville

The Black Asheville ExperienceA website rather than a shop, this directory complements the Black Cultural Heritage Trail and lists the city’s Black-owned businesses.

The River Arts District You could spend days hopping through the warehouse-size, multistory buildings that double as retail collectives in the district. Among them, Pink Dog Creative sells paintings, photography, stained glass and textiles from more than 33 artists, many of national repute.

Leaf Global ArtsIf you’re looking for experiences and not things, head to this nonprofit organization’s HQ on the Block for a one-hour West African drumming lesson with master drummer Adama Dembele ($15 per person). It’s one of many multicultural events and workshops on the weekly schedule at this vibrant, kid-friendly community hub.

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