Saving Walton Street

by Priscilla Ndiaye November 29, 2015

For too long the city has neglected the Walton Street park and pool, a place of history and community. It’s time to change that

Three months ago, the Southside Community Advisory Board started a petition to save the Walton Street Park/Pool in an effort to galvanize not just the Southside community, or Asheville’s African-American community, but the whole community — anyone who cares about doing the right thing or holding authority figures accountable for doing the right thing.

There is a sentimental value attached to Walton Street Park/Pool, but there is more too. It is the entity that allows many community members to feel connected to Asheville. It gives a sense of belonging. Families still use the park. Youth still use the pool.

The petition was started to voice the fact that we care about what is happening and what will happen to the Walton Street Pool/Park. The petition was started to send a message that there is a place — a community, a part of Asheville — that has a need. The petition was started to say we know that there is a budget for park and recreation. But we often somehow see funding for other projects. What about Walton Street Park/Pool?

Perhaps people believed there was no one advocating for it? So the petition was started to send a message that there are many, standing together, advocating to keep this part of our community alive.

The petition was started for a community to be proactive and not reactive. We need a place for our youth, one that is convenient and affordable for them to access. In this process, many African-American community members expressed a feeling of exclusion from the planning processes which impact them the most. Even more community members feel their voices are being shut down.

“It doesn’t matter what we think or what we say, they have already made plans and are going to do exactly what they want to do,” a lifetime Southside community member told me, with “they” meaning Asheville city decision makers.

It’s disheartening that so many community members carry the same thought; and I understand why. However, many of those same community members were excited about signing the petition and want to be a part of the decision making process.

The petition created a major discussion throughout the community and in the political realm. Now we can watch to see what actions will be taken. We are pleased with the 800+ signatures and 300+ comments by such a diverse group of people. Many of the comments have been submitted via the petition space and some discussions were presented directly to me and other community members:

“I learned how to swim at this pool and it’s a place of many of my childhood memories. Restore it so others have the chance to do the same,” wrote Tiffany Williams.

“As a former Parks & Rec board chair, I know how important this neighborhood park is for the residents who live nearby,” wrote Carolyn Tingle. “I also know that revitalization efforts in the past and development pressures of recent times have made it difficult for some older, established neighborhoods. I know it’s difficult and expensive to maintain pools, but I would really encourage the City to find a way to fund this.”

“Because the city of Asheville has taken majority of the African-American sites destroying our history,” commented Melissa Brewton about her reasons for supporting the petition.

“This is part of the black history in the Asheville area, and should continue to be a gathering place for our community,” asserted Anita Askew.

But the most interesting and somewhat disheartening conversation was with an authoritative Asheville City staffer whom wanted to know why the petition was started and what did we plan to do with it. I was also told that some people were saying, “there they go complaining again.”

I don’t understand how starting a petition could be considered complaining. Are any of the reasons stated above a complaint? Labeling community members’ expressed concerns or actions of advocating for something of interest as a complaint is a form of oppression. That mindset hinders relationship-building and breaks trust. I have been taught that the role of a caring leader or authoritative figure includes listening to gain understanding and gain understanding to address the peoples’ concerns or needs. If nothing else, the process is an opportunity for all parties to learn from each other- in the midst of rapidly occurring changes throughout the Asheville/Buncombe community.

I was also reminded of the previous conversations over the last five years referencing the pool and park. “No one has said anything about getting rid of Walton Street Park,” stated the city staffer.

I responded: “you are correct and that’s what the problem is.” No one is saying anything at all. Different members of the community have asked the same question, but received no answers. About three years ago, at a community meeting Asheville-Buncombe Technical College presented their interest in purchasing the Walton Street Park/Pool property to run a thru-street. We are thankful that hasn’t happened — yet. We also heard that Walton Street Park/Pool was on the top of the list and funded for repairs in 2009. However, city funds went to projects like soccer fields instead.

Then we heard, from another community advocate, that nothing was going to be done to the pool because Asheville-Buncombe Technical College was building an aquatic center on the Grant Center location. Supposedly, that would replace the pool. Although these conversations may be just rumors, one thing for sure is there have been no repairs to the pool.

In fact, a community member just talked about the bath rooms not being in working order we he stopped by this past summer. The phrase, “Save Walton Street Park/Pool” means both save it from being sold and save it from falling into blight status. We are hopeful that the City of Asheville’s leaders, both staff and Council, will listen to the voices of the community and strategically and inclusively plan actions surrounding Walton Street Park/Pool.

While we are having this conversation, let it be known that there was a previous cry and a Facebook page established to “Save Walton Street Pool and Park” I came across a posting below, from that page, quoting from an Urban News article about this very situation:

It is the opinion of the black community that we were sold out by our black leaders, starting with the Asheville City Council, Model Cities, and Urban Renewal projects. The only people who will be emotionally disheartened and affected by the destruction of Walton Pool is the black community, a community that continues to be underrepresented, silenced, and squeezed out of what we consider to be our history. Soon there will be nothing of that history that we can share with the current and next generation of black children.

We urge the City of Asheville to reconsider the development of its traffic plans, so that the Walton Street Pool and Park can remain in existence. Within the past five years the community has held a SouthSide Family Reunion to commemorate our relatives and friends that have passed. We have attempted to revitalize the spirit and unity of the community that was instilled in us as children.

To erase such a landmark will be a slap in the face to the many generations for whom the historic Walton Street Pool has come to symbolize strength, endurance, pride, and respect.

That statement is dated December 6, 2010. Almost five years later, it’s far past time to give Walton Street Pool and Park an upgrade and inclusive connection to Asheville.

Priscilla Ndiaye is an Asheville native, activist and chair of the Southside Advisory Board.

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