Andrea Clarke: A Lifestyle Different From My Own

Andrea Clarke,
local photojournalist and playwright.

by Margaret Abruzzi

Andrea Clarke came south from Cambridge Massachusetts in 1965 to discover her family roots. She lived with her father and great aunt at 119 Valley Street in the East End of Asheville. An attractive woman in her early twenties, she was something of an oddity in the neighborhood, with her natural-styled Afro and Boston accent.

But Andrea was welcomed with open arms by folks in the community, and for five years she roamed the East End neighborhood — camera in hand, to the astonishment of all. “You wanna take a picture of me? Why?” “Because you have a nice smile,” she’d say, or “because you look so good in that uniform.” When she wasn’t taking pictures, you could find her on the front porch weaving cane chair seats, or doing metal sculpture welding in back. Her father hoped she wouldn’t set the house on fire.

“People were friendly and warm. You could go into a little juke joint and play this great music and eat wonderful food. I never dreamed that East End would disappear so quickly. I loved the spirit of the community,” said Andrea.

The first time many homeowners or tenants were aware that their
neighborhood was to be torn down was when the bulldozers appeared on
their streets. The planners of “urban renewal” had doggedly set out to
demolish her beloved East End neighborhood in the name of progress, and
without a political voice the black community was left defenseless.
Twenty-five percent of that community lived below the poverty line at
that time, and had few resources beyond family when their homes and
neighborhood disappeared.

In 2007 the Buncombe County Libraries, recognizing the importance of
her photographs, acquired the Andrea Clark collection. At a meeting
called to help identify the pictures, the enthusiastic crowd of
displaced community members resembled a family gathering to view photo
albums at Christmas.

The pictures were projected on a large screen, and former and current
residents of the neighborhood frequently recognized old haunts and
familiar faces. One comment was, “You knew to behave, ’cos if you
didn’t, your mamma would know it by suppertime,” mused a participant.
Picture after picture flashed onto the screen that afternoon, each one
a work of art.

“In those days,” commented another participant, “you could smell the
cologne from the barbershops, hear the rattle and bump of the mule
man’s cart, and feel joy in the smiles of children at play.”

A 1970 photo showed the dark steps leading underground to a restroom on
Pack Square with the barely faded sign, “For White Women.” One response
was, “I never did wanna step down there anyway. If I was a white woman,
I wouldn’t go down there either!”

What’s left of Valley Street runs a few hundred yards from the new
traffic circle at College Street, flanked by city zoning and the county
jail, and dead ends at South Charlotte Street. Andrea recalls that her
father came to a mental impasse under the stress of displacement. The
book Root Shock has helped her better understand the pressures on her
father when he lost his home.

Dr. Mindy Fullilove writes, “…we have the possibility of preventing
further damage by nurturing the world’s neighborhoods instead of
destroying them; we who care about community are many.” “Valley Street
is gone, and a lot of people are gone too. But they are still here in
these pictures,” Andrea says.

Today Andrea works constantly for a better and stronger community. She
feels strongly about the healing powers of the arts, from writing plays
(The Road) to volunteering at the Stephens-Lee Center’s after-school
program. She prizes her friendships and cares for elderly relatives —
and in so doing she keeps alive much of the spirit of the East End

Margaret Abruzzi is a writer who has found a home in what is left of the East End Community of Asheville.

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