Photo: Johnny Autry
Asheville isn’t often seen as a hub of African-American culture, but it is home to The Block, a historic black business district that dates to the late 1800s. While the area began to fade in the 1970s, it’s now seeing a renaissance—one in which new tenants aren’t forgetting to honor the past.
Anchoring the district is the 87-room Foundry Hotel, which opened in late 2018 in the former steel forge for the Biltmore Estate. The hotel recalls its industrial origins with expansive factory-style windows and original pulley elevators, while at its acclaimed restaurant, Benne on Eagle, chef de cuisine Ashleigh Shanti brings contemporary finesse to traditional Southern and African recipes. (Think fried catfish and waffles, oxtail with cream peas, and Nigerian ogbono-spiced pork ribs.)
“As an African-American woman with roots in southern Appalachia and the Lowcountry, I cook food that explores my ancestry,” Shanti explains. “My mom’s cooking style is incredibly Appalachian, while my father grew up with flavors of the Deep South. Our food strives to express those nuances.”
Hotel guests looking to further explore the area’s past can book two-hour private tours, led by native Ashevillian DeWayne Barton and his Hood Huggers International team. Stops might include the site of the region’s top segregation-era black high school; a community garden and sculpture park made with upcycled materials; and the YMI Cultural Center, which started in 1893 as the Young Men’s Institute, a gathering place for black construction workers at the Biltmore Estate that now houses galleries and performance spaces. “You might hear a creak,” says YMI executive director Dewana Little, “but it was built on a solid foundation.”