Town Branch, also called Nasty Branch, is the longest creek that flows through Asheville. It’s also the most polluted. Environmentalists and residents of the Southside neighborhood are hoping to change that, and in the process, they’re also hoping to reverse the current of development in the city.
The 1.6 mile stream goes by two names -- a reminder of the fragmentation caused by Urban Renewal. Southside resident and community activist Roy Harris puts it bluntly.
“If you’re Black, you say, ‘Nasty Branch.’ If you’re white, you say, ‘Town Branch.’ If you’re a developer, you say, ‘Town Branch,’” Harris said.
The creek holds particular significance to Asheville’s Black community. It once connected several neighborhoods and provided a natural playground for youth during sultry summer months. During the 1950s, homes along the river were demolished, industrial waste emptied into the creek -- and many of the city’s Black residents were displaced.
“If we go back and look at the history of the Southside neighborhood, that every time somebody wanted to do something, because it was predominantly Black, it headed this way, it headed this way," Harris said. "But this time we say, 'no.' No, no, no.”
Harris is on the board of Riverlink, a regional non-profit that just completed its Central Asheville Watershed Restoration plan to address water quality issues throughout Asheville. But it’s more than an environmental cleanup effort. It also aims to heal some of the wounds still felt by residents in the surrounding predominantly-Black neighborhoods.
"That's one thing that Riverlink and our community partners would like to do is, in addition to cleaning up the stream, just reconnecting the community to this waterway that flows through their back yards and past the community center," Renee Fortner, water resources manager, said.
Fortner says the restoration plan started out as a series of listening events with community members, including at Erskine Apartments and the Edington Center. Fortner recalls residents expressing frustration with how development has historically intervened and disrupted their neighborhoods, without transparency.
"I've heard that from other residents of the Southside community, this need for better communication, across all segments of Asheville, and more connections as a way to better understand the needs of the community and how they can be better addressed,” Fortner said.
That sentiment was echoed by Kwan Pearson, Jr., who was out walking along the creek during this interview.
"We all need to come together to make a better community," Pearson said. "Instead of misinformation and a lack of communication, I wish that everybody could communicate with one another to make this a better environment, instead of the way it is right now."
Pearson grew up in the area, his grandparents still live a few blocks away from the Edington Center. He says he thinks about Nasty Branch often and wishes it could be a clean, natural resource for residents to enjoy again.
"We need water to function, so why not have the creek open for people to make use out of it? Like, fishing, bathing, swimming," Pearson said.
The Riverlink proposal includes a solution neighbors requested -- the removal of an unsightly chain link fence that runs down the middle of the Erskine Apartment community, effectively splitting it in half. A bridge would replace the fence, so neighbors can more easily visit and walk to the community center just across the street.
It’s the sort of community-centered change residents like Roy Harris have been fighting for. He also runs the Southside Community Garden, which just a few years ago was a vacant lot. Now, it’s a flourishing food forest.
“Five years ago, you would not have heard the birds," Harris said. "Just sitting here right now, I've probably detected...all the different birds out here that have now decided 'South Side garden is a nice place to be.'"
He says the garden represents the neighborhood's resilience, and he hopes the Nasty Branch cleanup will bring about a similar form of transformation.
The Southside Community Stormwater Project has so far received $54,000 total. Fortner says final design is slated to be complete by December. If additional funding comes through, construction could start by mid-2022.