Local Community Finds Reason for Black History

Asheville community members listen intensely to Parks and Recreation Director Roderick Simmons as he discussed plans for both Walton Street Park and the Dr. Wesley Grant Southside Center. Photo: Urban News

Discussing the Future of Walton Street Pool

An engaged but skeptical group of several hundred area residents descended on the Arthur Edington Center on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017, to begin the process of determining what they want the City of Asheville to do to fix the Walton Street Pool, one of the city’s three public swimming pools and the one in the worst state of disrepair.

Hosted by the Southside Community Advisory Committee and Asheville’s Parks & Recreation Department, the meeting was billed as an opportunity for community residents to actually shape the city’s plan before any choices were made.

Despite an optimistic tone expressed by mediator Tyrone Greenlee, SSCA representative Priscilla Ndiaye, and Parks & Rec Director Roderick Simmons, the audience soon raised questions of trust, generations of broken promises, and spurious meetings held for “public input” after decisions had already been made behind closed doors. The history of 1960s-era Urban Renewal—the process of relocating thousands of people and destroying the fabric of long-established neighborhoods, often called “urban removal” by those affected—colored the proceedings almost from the outset.

Ndiaye recalled the problems that arose from Urban Renewal programs but emphasized, “Our community today is not like it was fifty years ago. I’m glad we’ve come together tonight to discuss something that’s new and dear to our hearts.”

She acknowledged that in the current process, whereby the Parks & Recreation Department is attempting to gauge neighborhood desires before making a decision, not everyone will agree as to what’s best.

But, she noted, “I have been part of the focus group and I’m glad I came to the table. That’s when you get information firsthand with your own ears. Keep an open mind, ask your questions. I hope we can make a decision that is beneficial to the community as a whole.”

The decades of distrust were quickly acknowledged by Director Simmons. “This community has a long history of feeling that it hasn’t received its fair share,” he said in explaining the “new process” designed to elicit community input.

He noted that a dozen years ago the community led a grass-roots effort to renovate the former Reid Center as the Edington Center, raising millions of dollars and asking questions about the community’s needs. Partly because of such community leadership, the city’s 2009 master plan included building the new Wesley Grant Center and renovating the Walton Street Park and Pool. He asserted that City Council had committed to spending $2 million in the neighborhood, “keeping this community together as the Grant facility was being built, and to keep Reid operating and open.”

But when the Grant Center opened, “One of the first things I heard was ‘that’s not for us.’ I thought the community had been with us every step of the way, but that’s not how the community felt,” he said.

On Tuesday evening, he and the elected officials present had no doubt how the community felt.

When Simmons noted that any decision made will last for 40 or 50 years, pointing out that the last facility built by Parks & Rec had been Montford Community Center in 1974, Asheville native Althea Goode recalled, “When they put up Montford it was supposed to have a swimming pool. That was what they promised. But it’s not there. We have no indoor swimming pool in the black community.”

Walton Street Pool

Her point was later echoed by retired Montford Community Center Director Oralene Graves Simmons (no relation to Roderick Simmons), who earlier in her career had managed the Walton Street Pool.

“People here are talking about broken promises,” she said. “They were told that they would give up their homes here and come back to apartments here, but that didn’t happen. When I was at Montford Center, we used city money to rehab the center, and it was told to us we were going to have a pool here at Livingston Center. That didn’t happen. Then we were told there would be a pool in a bubble at Montford. That didn’t happen.

“We think of Walton Pool as our place; we need a historical marker, and we also need the pool there. When I was director, I instituted a learn-to-swim program there. You say attendance is low; why not institute such a program now?”

“How do you build that trust?” Mrs. Simmons asked. “How do we believe you when we’re all working together to preserve our heritage? When you say ‘This money is in the next phase,’ how can we believe it’s going to happen?”

Another attendee described the building of the Grant Center. “There was lots of discussion about what would happen. Would there be a pool there? What other facilities would we get? Now there’s only one building still.”

And, referring to the fast and furious gentrification of Depot Street as the new “River Arts District,” she asked, “Is it only now that white people are moving into RAD that suddenly this is important?”

A similar point was raised by community activist Ray Mapp, who said, “I want to enlighten you: money has been spent in recent years; the city has just remodeled Rec Park, and they’ve worked on Malvern Hills. Walton Street is the only area of town that hasn’t been funded. Will there be decisions made on access and utilization, so that latchkey kids can utilize them? Or will there be fees and obstacles that will keep low-income families and children from using the facility?”

Many attendees expressed frustration at the history of deceit on the part of powerful interests at the expense of African American residents. People asked, referring to gentrification of historically black neighborhoods, urban renewal, and special enterprise districts like RAD/TIP, “Why is all black history taken away from us?

The location of facilities was also questioned by several members of the audience.

Goode said, “When it comes to a decision about building a new facility”—for example, at the Grant Center—“think about the traffic, which is unsafe; children who will be tempted to go to the pool alone, unmonitored.”

Willie Mae Brown, a longtime community leader and beautification activist, also expressed frustration at the decision to locate the Grant Center where children have to cross Livingston and Depot Streets, both heavily trafficked routes. “I was here when we raised the roof at Reid; we raised the money, but at the end we raised several million dollars that did not go to Reid. Then we ended up with Grant Center. It’s not safe for children to get there.”

She also raised the issue of the constant expansion of the A-B Tech campus, which looms over Depot Street at Walton Street. Cutting an access road between the campus and the gentrified RAD district would go right through Walton Street Park. “The park is in the way there at Depot and Oakland,” she said.

Renee White, president of the East End/Valley St. Community Association, questioned claims of transparency in decision-making by the city. Standing “in solidarity with Burton Street and Shiloh, and Southside,” she challenged Roderick Simmons to strong applause. “We’ve been lied to over and over and over. You’re here tonight, but how transparent will you be when you make a decision and the community gets left out? It’s very difficult to trust what the city says. What we want to know is, why can’t the Walton Street Pool just be renovated and left where it is? It’s our historically black pool.”

Businessman Damian Smith, who operates a small business that uses the pool during the summer months, complained that fees charged to use the pool deprive neighborhood children of access. “It’s rented out to the YWCA until 4 p.m., but the pool closes at 6, so the local kids can’t use it unless they’re in the Y program. It’s not really even a public pool. And it’s never open on the weekends.”

Despite the skepticism and mistrust, Mr. Simmons insisted that no decisions have been made behind closed doors, and “I have no secret agenda.” The bond issue passed by voters in November included funding for the second phase of the Grant Center, but he said the community will determine “what that funding will be spent on, what will take shape, what it will look like. Nothing has been decided,” he promised.

He acknowledged that “this community has been told lies before, it has been ignored.” But, he added, while “I can’t redo or undo what happened in the past,” he can help change how this community can work with the government, so they can determine what facilities go where.

Also in the audience was Ray Harrell, a Parks & Recreation employee who manages Walton Street Pool. He said that he lets children in from families that can’t afford the fees in exchange for helping maintain and clean the pool area. But still the pool is underutilized. “I teach swimming every summer,” he said. “I will teach them to swim, but you have to bring them for me to teach them.”

And he expressed frustration at the way others were dwelling on history and broken promises. “Both Malvern Hills and Walton Street need to be blown up and started over. We all have to be involved, and I could tell you what we need, but I’m just one voice. What I’m hoping is that instead of complaining about all the things that have or haven’t happened in the past, we need to all be together to make it happen the way we want it to happen.”

The discussion ended with the announcement that on February 28 a second meeting will address the feedback from the survey attendees were asked to fill out. That feedback will also be posted online at the Parks & Recreation website, including preferences about classroom space and other facilities, what should the pool be like, look like, and whether to rebuild, renovate, or build an entirely new facility.

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