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Hundreds pack Asheville meeting to support Southside Farm

Residents pack the Asheville Housing Authority board meeting on April 24.
Laura Hackett
Residents pack the Asheville Housing Authority board meeting on April 24.

Of the more than 200 people who attended Wednesday night’s Asheville Housing Authority meeting, only eight were allowed to speak during a tight 30-minute public comment period.

But their presence was impossible to ignore. The sign-up line for public comment was nearly out the door. Every chair in the meeting room was filled. Dozens of community members stood or sat on the floor, lining the walls of the gray, fluorescent-lit room.

From outside, the rumble of an overflow crowd – waiting to get inside the meeting – could be heard through the doors.

They gathered to support the Southside Community Farm, a half-acre operation that sits on housing authority-owned land. For the last decade, the farm has fed the surrounding neighborhood.

Hanan Shabazz, a legendary local cook in Southside, showed up to support keeping the farm in place. Shabazz is known for feeding the neighborhood through the Southside Community Kitchen and other food aid organizations.

“The garden is very important,” she said. “It means a lot to be able to go out there and pick food up from the Earth.”

The farm is facing the threat of demolition. Last month, housing authority president Monique Pierr, who took the post last year, proposed that the farm be dismantled to make room for a $200,000 playground.

Pierre wants to create a safe youth play area for the more than 150 children who participate in after-school and summer camp programs at the Edington Center. The center, owned and operated by the Housing Authority, is next to the Southside Farm and primarily serves children who live in public housing.

“One of our biggest concerns is that our children have a place to play where they have fun activities, basketball courts, and engaging games that give them that social-emotional developmental opportunity to run around and be kids outside,” Pierre told BPR in a phone interview.

Since the playground was proposed in March, communication between Southside Farm and the Asheville Housing Authority has been limited, according to farm manager Chloe Moore.

During public comment, Moore said she wished the farm had been consulted by the housing authority before the playground plan was proposed.

“We have not yet been granted the opportunity to speak with most of the board members or with Ms. Pierre about our work,” Moore said.

Addressing Pierre, Moore continued: “We hope that we can receive clarity and understanding by meeting with you soon to discuss how the farm and [the housing authority] can work together to meet the needs and desires of the public housing community.”

Monique Pierre responding to crowd members.
Laura Hackett
Monique Pierre responding to crowd members.

Pierre acknowledged she’d been contacted previously but said farm leaders needed to make an appointment to meet with her.

“What I would encourage you to do is to get on my calendar,” she said, adding that she’d received an email from Moore. “But you have to include a phone number. I need to be able to communicate with people and if you don't include a phone number, I can't call you back.”

Shuvonda Harper, a Southside Farm founder, said the farm is a crucial part of a community, which lost countless resources under the city’s urban renewal policies. Through the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, land development policies ravaged the Black community, stripping them of property and relocating many into public housing.

She listed more than 25 businesses, including 14 grocery stores, that served the Southside neighborhood prior to urban renewal.

“I want to remind folks of the grocery stores that are not in this community and why growing food is a necessity for a healthy community,” she said.

Pierre said she is open to finding a solution with the farm, but that the land must serve public housing residents.

“I know the importance of urban farms. I know the importance of the work that you're doing. And so please don't take it as if I don't understand or don't appreciate it,” she said.

“And I think that it's going to be really important for us to sit down and I also have another partner with the City of Asheville who wants to join us in those conversations.”

Pierre did not say who the city partner was. She also said the timeline to build a new playground is still undetermined.

Laura Hackett joined Blue Ridge Public Radio in June 2023. Originally from Florida, she moved to Asheville more than six years ago and in that time has worked as a writer, journalist, and content creator for organizations like AVLtoday, Mountain Xpress, and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. She has a degree in creative writing from Florida Southern College, and in 2023, she completed the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY's Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program. In her free time, she loves exploring the city by bike, testing out new restaurants, and hanging out with her dog Iroh at French Broad River Park.
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