It’s been a year on the roller-coaster of self-government, i.e. “democracy”!
While the economy continued to expand (in most sectors), some regions and industries were hard hit by the erratic policies of President Trump’s chaotic administration. Soybeans, steel, manufacturing, coal, corn, and other middle-American stalwarts have been hurt by trade embargoes and tariffs. Wall Street continues to profit off the backs of students facing higher tuition and reinstated private loan services, formerly middle-class workers falling behind on the pay scales, and predatory lending schemes for everything from homes to cars to day-to-day credit card use.
In January Rep. Nancy Pelosi was reinstated as Speaker of the House of Representatives, and she and her solid Democratic majority began passing law after law to restore some equity. Among the highlights was the Voting Rights Advancement Act, designed to reaffirm and once again guarantee the right and opportunity to vote for all people disenfranchised in recent years. The Voting Rights Act was first passed in 1965.
Here in North Carolina, a similar, though not as far-reaching, change resulted from the 2018 elections: Democrats broke the Republicans’ veto-proof majorities in both houses, giving Governor Roy Cooper a far stronger hand in dismissing regressive legislation. The GOP could not even pass a budget for the state; when Cooper vetoed their every attempt, they resorted to “mini-budgets” that leave much of the state’s needed improvements out on a limb (See “Good News/Bad News”).
Also, Rev. William Barber, having stepped down from his leadership of the NC-NAACP, took on the larger, national role of reinvigorating the Poor People’s Campaign, with the aim of developing a coalition of all those overlooked, or deliberately trampled, by the coalition of money, corporate power, Big Pharma, for-profit medicine, anti-union trade coalitions, and even white-supremacist organizgions. Barber has stated that there is no conflict, but instead a confluence of interests, among the disparate groups he brings together: black, Hispanic, immigrant, women, LGBTQ communities, and diverse religious groups—all those who are not part of the entrenched power structure.
Here at home
At home in Buncombe County, Wanda Greene and her former colleagues have all gone off to serve prison terms, allowing the populace to breathe a sigh of relief that a new County Manager will—ideally—not just drain the swamp but usher in a new era of openness and honest government.
Greene was, ironically, a remarkably gifted manager: during her 20+ year tenure, she kept the county’s finances on an even keel, oversaw steady growth and maintained taxes at reasonable rates, even through the Great Recession of 2007-09. But maintaining that reputation became, itself, a reason to cheat, first by misusing bond funding for A-B Tech to present a “balanced” budget. As with any sin, the deeper she dipped her toe in the water, the easier it became to turn bad business choices into even more venal personal corruption. Now in a federal prison in Texas for seven years, she is truly paying the piper.
A new broom—three, in fact
Speaking of county management, it should be pointed out that for the first time in history, three of Buncombe’s most powerful officials are African Americans. Buncombe County Manager Avril Pinder came on the scene last March, following the November, 2018 election of Sheriff Quentin Miller and the arrival last December 3 of Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell. With Sheneika Smith and Keith Young on Asheville City Council and Al Whitesides as a Buncombe County Commissioner, there is stronger and more highly placed leadership from the black community than ever before.
All the same, many of the most long-lasting, intractable problems that have plagued Asheville’s non white communities remain.
Job-seekers continue to face discrimination, overt or casual. Pay disparities increase year by year, as younger, white entrepreneurs find financing for every sort of new venture while black-owned businesses languish without even being considered for government or private contracts. The wealth gap is wider than ever before, with African American families having less than one tenth the wealth of white families. With less equity in their homes, black entrepreneurs can borrow less to start or grow their businesses; with less business growth, they struggle to pay ever-rising salary demands in a low-unemployment economy. And the farther behind they start in the race for capital and investment, the farther behind minority investors fall with each passing year.
Many of the once-segregated parts of Asheville and Buncombe County are no longer segregated, and that’s a good thing—in general. Often enough, redlining and subtle discrimination by realtors has kept even the most prosperous and successful minorities from buying, or even being shown, homes in all-white neighborhoods—and while the practice continues, it’s far less common than in years past.
But that also means that historically black communities like Burton Street and East End now have, in some cases, more white residents than blacks. New houses overlooking S. Charlotte Street (which old-timers recall as Valley Street) cost hundreds of thousands of dollars; condos on Short Coxe Ave. and McCormick Place, near the baseball stadium, are priced at over $600,000 to $700,000—hardly within reach of the now-adult children of African American families who grew up in the city center, Southside, and other nearby areas.
Even the historic center of the black business district, the Block, is now almost completely gentrified. Except for the YMI and, to some extent, the DelCardo building (which houses Eagle-Market Streets Development Corporation along with 62 apartments, of which 32 are “affordable” for residents at 60% of median income), walking down Eagle Street today is almost an all-white experience. Guests at the Foundry Hotel are overwhelmingly white. A new multimillion-dollar condominium project opposite Triangle Park often seems empty—because so many of the buyers are out-of-town residents who use them as second homes. It’s even been reported that several black youth visiting the YMI, the oldest African American community center in the United States, have been challenged on the street by a white resident asking, “What are ‘you people’ doing here?”
With the influx of new young (25-40) professionals and entrepreneurs, and senior (65+) retirees, the population of Asheville reached an estimated 90,000 in 2019 (from <62,000 in 1990). That meant that while the total number of African Americans in the city and county stayed approximately the same, their proportion of the population has fallen from about 18% 25 years ago to barely 12% today. That translates into diminished political clout and cultural influence, to say nothing of lower visibility in public spaces.
Doctors Dolly and Dwight Mullen, Professors of Political Science report each year on the State of Black Asheville; their reports, in the context of this continued gentrification, growth, and displacement of our historic minority communities reflect a troubling future of even greater stratification and separation.
The big story of 2019 was, of course, the takeover of nonprofit Mission Hospital by the for-profit HCA Corporation out of Tennessee. It took intervention by NC Attorney General Josh Stein to force HCA to set up a $1.5-billion fund to support the community—required because Mission had, as a nonprofit, paid no property or other taxes for 100 years—and to promise not to close hospitals in the rural counties of western NC. How Asheville and Buncombe County will fare in the coming years will reflect the extent to which HCA actually wishes to be a good member of the community, rather than simply a profit-driven corporate investor with little interest in anyone’s welfare but its own.
The other big story is one that has been ongoing for years: several dozen new restaurants, all in the “foodie” category that attracts tourists and high-dollar residents; breweries born, growing, merging, selling out; and—hotels, hotels, hotels.
The focus on the latter reached a peak in late summer when the historic Flatiron Building was sold, and Asheville City Council had to decide whether or not to permit it, too, to turn into a hotel. Council voted 4–3 to allow it, but then put a year-long moratorium on any more hotel construction. Late in November, Ami Worthen wrote a powerful op-ed piece calling on the Tourism Development Authority to be disbanded, as its role—to bring in tourism to Buncombe County—was envisioned at a time when the area was reeling from jobs losses, infrastructure deterioration, and general malaise. Similarly, its structure of collecting occupancy taxes from visitors and spending them to bring more visitors—with only a small portion dedicated to building, rebuilding, and maintaining the infrastructure that those visitors wear down—has generated calls for a legislative redo that would require more money be spent for the good of residents rather than tourists.
Where the controversy will go will depend, in large part, on who is elected to the legislature next year—not just from this area, but from across North Carolina.
There’s lots more in this year to review—but not much more space, so, our best wishes to you all for surviving 2019, and for a far better, more positive, citizen-centered, small-d democratic, and American 2020!