Anyone who has lived in Asheville long enough has grown accustomed to the unusual.
For them, it’s a normal way of life to see living statues collecting tips downtown, or a traveling beercycle manned by a goggle of tipsy tourists, cruising its way slowly down Biltmore Ave. to the tune of “Oh, What a Night.”
For a majority of Ashevillians, things like this define what we know of the city, and define what tourists come to Asheville seeking. But lately, there’s a new tour bus on the scene, and it is giving both tourists and Asheville citizens alike a new perspective.
“Hood Tours” is the work of social entrepreneur, artist, and community leader DeWayne Barton. It is an extension of “The Pearson Plan,” an initiative implemented by Hood Huggers International. The tour, with Barton at the helm, takes people on a journey through historic African American landmarks and neighborhoods of Asheville, and also shines a light on the work being done by local African American community groups and businesses.
“Hood Tours highlights the work that’s done through Hood Huggers. It highlights the history, the past, the current programs that are occurring, and what may be future opportunities or threats that may affect the neighborhoods,” said Barton. “Through the Pearson Plan, Hood Tours is designed to help support our community. We’re trying to create a model where businesses help rebuild the infrastructure in historically African American neighborhoods that have been forgotten. How do we deal with the infrastructure, how do we connect them to the larger economic development that is happening around our city? This is a grassroots effort to try and address that and be a model, an example, for other businesses to do the same, because it has to be sustained in the long run.”
The colorful minibus visits places like “The Block” off of Biltmore Avenue, which has historically been a black community of businesses and residents. Now though, the area has been overrun by the cities development and persistent gentrification.
Down the street at Triangle Park, one can find tribute to the legacy of the area in the form of a beautiful, sprawling mural of local African American history on the concrete enclosing the space. Triangle Park has been a staple in the black community of Asheville for generations, and the mural project and other future artistic development plans are moving forward to ensure that the space remains recognized as such.
Another stop on the tour is the community of Shiloh. The bright spirited Anita White-Carver, a Shiloh native and part of the “Shiloh Community Association,” meets the group here to enthusiastically share the communities history. Shiloh was established for the workers of the Biltmore Estate in the 1880s, when their land was bought by Vanderbuilt as he prepared to build the estate. They, along with their church and all their ancestor’s graves, were relocated to what is now Shiloh.
The community is very tight knit, as many of the residents are part of families that have been there for generations, and some even have ancestors from the “old” Shiloh. The neighborhood enjoys a central community garden and amphitheatre, four churches, and the Shiloh Elementary School.
While riding from stop to stop, Barton points to one building or landmark after another to describe its significance to the Asheville landscape. Whether they be tidbits of rich history or reflections on current challenges the black community is facing, by the end of the tour, one can’t help but feel a deep sense of humility and awe. The historical tapestry of African American influence in the area is almost all encompassing, yet these days seems to only whisper through the cracks of gentrification.
That’s why what Hood Tours does is important — it acts as a megaphone for those whispers.
For Barton, this accomplishment is just one of many ways he has sent the ripples of change into the Asheville community. He and his wife, Safi Mahaba, co-created the Burton Street Community Peace Gardens in West Asheville, a jaw dropping work of sculpture art and gardens that is a centerpiece in a neighborhood once plagued by drug problems. He also co-directed “Green Opportunities”, an initiative that connected black youth with the education and resources needed to set them on the path to “green collar” jobs.
Through the current “Youth Led Credit Union” initiative, Barton aims to empower young people to understand and take control of their money, as well as giving them the tools to pursue future entrepreneurship.
As for the future of Hood Tours, Asheville is far from the last stop.
“Our first focus has been here in local Asheville, in the Affrilachian region…we want to see how we can duplicate it regionally and then move to international,” commented Barton. “If I’m around during that time, great. If not, than that’s the foundation that we want to expand.”
In the meantime, Asheville can boast to be the first place to offer such a unique and substantial tour of its city — and it’s one you don’t want to miss.
To learn more about Hood Huggers or schedule a Hood Tour, visit the website at www.HoodHuggers.com.