Known for its award-winning farm to table restaurants, eclectic style, and beautiful lush forests tucked away in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains is Asheville. It is the largest city in the western part of the state of North Carolina. As a small business owner and community influencer, I rarely have time to enjoy all of the things our city has to offer. So this weekend instead of kicking it in Charlotte or Atlanta, I thought it would be fun to have a staycation, or as our Vice Mayor Shenieka Smith would put it, I thought it would be cool to “date my city”.
Staycations are great for me because sometimes vacations leave me exhausted. A couple of weeks ago I had a blast with my mom at the Georgia Aquarium. First we took the backstage tour, afterwards we had to speed walk so we didn’t miss the Dolphin Show. Before we left the aquarium, we walked every inch of the place laughing, talking, posing for pictures. Needless to say, we were exhausted and we decided to extend our stay for an additional night.
Planning the Perfect Staycation
The keys to any successful staycation are to make sure (1) you don’t venture too far and (2) you don’t just end up sitting at home and catching up on work. To avoid any of this, I had my son drop me off at The Biltmore DoubleTree Hotel promptly at check-in. The smell of their homemade warm chocolate chip cookies dancing in the air always draws me in. The hotel is minutes away from some of the best shops and restaurants in Biltmore Village and the historic Biltmore Estate. The Biltmore House on the estate was built by George Vanderbilt and is the largest private residence in the United States. This area attracts people from all over the world, and it is azalea season. I can imagine all the pinks and purple peaking through the gardens, making the tours extra lovely this time of year. I am sure that’s where more than half of the people I passed on my way to my room are here. Some can’t wait to marvel at its beauty and others want to hear the family’s stories. They even have their own brand of wine. It is all quite impressive, but not what I had in mind for myself. Not every vacation is for resting; some might be for getting energized and inspired.
As the program developer of the Lenoir-Rhyne Equity & Diversity Institute, I spend my work days helping leaders work to untangle their bias, address complex social issues and close equity gaps. This means facilitating hard conversations and leaning into uncomfortableness in order to create safe and brave spaces. Sometimes, taking time to unwind means reflecting on my own historical progress and celebrating how far we – the black community – have come. These opportunities seem to rejuvenate and inspire to move forward.
The History of The Block in Asheville, North Carolina
Once settled in the room. I made my way to “The Block”, previously home to more than 150 Black businesses… all before integration and “urban renewal” of course. This historic area located close to the center of the city remained the cultural and economic center for all African-Americans throughout Western North Carolina.
Hanging out at Triangle Park
My first stop was Triangle Park. Through a mural, it tells the stories of Asheville’s oldest African-American neighborhood, East End, and celebrates The Block. The mural is painted across two sides of the park, at the intersection of Sycamore Alley and South Market Street. It was a great place to catch up on some reading and take in the spring breeze.
Shopping with the Noir Collective
Right up the block in walking distance is the Noir Collective. The Noir Collective AVL is a boutique style shop and art gallery. The collective is made up of community wellness warriors, creative activists, social justice visionaries, cultural keepers and peace makers. They offer everything from skincare items like shea butter and soap to jewelry, clothing and original art, prints, cards, and incense – all designed or created by African Americans. According to one of its members “The Noir Collective is much more than a convenient shop for personal goods; it serves to ensure our history is not erased, and to highlight the promise of the future.”
Attend a Party at the YMI
Before picking up my dinner from Addisae (I was in the mood for Ethiopian food), I stopped by the Young Man’s Institute (YMI). The YMI is one of the nation’s oldest African American institutions. Its co-founders, Mr. Isaac Dixon and Dr. Edward Stephens, were funded by George Vanderbilt in 1892. They created the institute for the Black construction workers who were employed at the Biltmore Estate. They set out to improve the moral fiber of the black male. Back in the day they provided night school for adults, a day school, & kindergarten classes. They even had a Sunday school. It had a lot of amenities including a gym, a doctor’s office, and a drug store… There are so many wonderful stories and memories. To date, the YMI continues to be a popular location for events, exhibitions, and meeting spaces for several local business and community members. I caught up with a few community members at the door, and everybody is excited for First Friday On the Block (an upcoming monthly event) starting soon.
Returning to my room, I ran into a bus load of people returning from a formal event at the Biltmore House. It looked like they had a great time. Spending time on The Block checking out Black artists and makers was just what I needed to reconnect and rejuvenate. Maybe I will save the Biltmore House for this summer.