A haven from the Jim Crow South finds a modern purpose

November 7, 2021, 12:06 PM UTC

“Most of the landmarks are gone from the old neighborhood,” begins Henry Robinson’s 1992 eulogy for Asheville, North Carolina’s Southside. “They fell beneath the powerful blades of huge earthmoving equipment years ago.”

When Robinson, the first African-American print reporter for the Asheville Citizen-Times, wrote this, Rabbit’s Café was one of the last Southside landmarks hanging on. Clarence Robinson (no relation) would have been ten at the time. He could see his house from the backyard of Rabbit’s, where he and his brother would hang at the back door, absorbing the aromas of sizzling fish, pork chops, chitterlings, and stewed-all-day greens wafting from Lou Ella Byrd’s kitchen.

“I used to come down here and get food and watch Ms. Lou Ella cook from this screen door,” Robinson says, pointing what was once the kitchen entrance and is currently plywood marked with a No Trespassing sign. “It was how the cafeteria in heaven probably smells.”

Courtesy Soundspace@Rabbit’s

Next year, it will be his cooking creating the tantalizing aromas when he reopens the café as Areta’s Soul Food, named for his aunt, with local musicians Claude Coleman, Jr. and Brett Spivey.

Areta’s is the second phase of Coleman and Spivey’s plan to resurrect an overlooked piece of Asheville history. The café sits in the circular drive of Rabbit’s Motel, the tidy six-room motor court Fred “Rabbit” Simpson opened as safe lodging for Black travelers in the 1940s Jim Crow South. Ms. Byrd, an in-law to Simpson, started cooking here in 1968 and outlasted the motel—which closed in 2000—by four years. Robinson, 39, is too young to remember the days when Rabbit’s hosted teams from the Negro Baseball League and luminaries like Count Basie and Duke Ellington, though he’s heard the stories from his father, a childhood friend of Simpson. He does, however, remember the fire: “I was on the West Coast when it happened. I felt like that was the last thing we as a community had to hold on to.”

Since the blaze, the café has been a smoke-streaked cinder block relic you’d drive right past. On the first-floor exterior, you can see where fire and age burned away the periwinkle blue paint, revealing raw concrete beneath. It’s a microcosm for Asheville, whose reputation as a blue politics enclave covers wounds of racism as nasty as anywhere in the South.

Those powerful blades Henry Robinson referenced were both literal and metaphorical: part of the machinery of Urban Renewal, the post-WWII HUD program designed to address poverty through infrastructure projects and real estate development. Whether or not the intentions at the federal level were altruistic, the implementation hinged almost entirely on those of the cities and counties cashing the checks. To many, addressing poverty meant using eminent domain to seize and raze property in majority-Black neighborhoods to build new housing, municipal wish lists items like highways, parks, and post offices, or nothing at all. For Asheville’s Southside, where 58% of Black families owned their homes, Urban Renewal created mass displacement, fractured physical and spiritual community, and dislodged the keystone of generational wealth building.

“The community received a deep gash, deep cut, and it still has not healed,” Priscilla Ndiaye Robinson, Clarence’s mother and de facto Southside ambassador, told CNN’s Abby Phillip in 2020.

Like many Asheville residents, Coleman and Spivey are not from the city. Coleman, the drummer of the indie rock band Ween, is from Newark, New Jersey, and Spivey is from St. Petersburg, Florida. When they started looking for music rehearsal space back in 2016 and came across the Rabbit’s property, they didn’t know its history. But neither do many born-and-raised Ashevillains. There’s no commemorative plaque or municipal signpost marking the address.

“This history is buried,” Coleman says between bites of mac ‘n’ cheese (as terrific as it is tangerine) and vegan collards (impressively meaty and smoky given they contain no pork) from the impromptu buffet Robinson has set up in the parking lot. “[Urban renewal] just whitewashed the history of it and the remembrance of it and the ideas of it. That’s why nobody knows that all this incredible history was here before that, before everything. And it was part of what created Asheville.”

Once he and Spivey researched the property, “We knew we had to save this place.” There were two cash offers already on the table.

“We had no cash,” Spivey says.

“We had an offer and a dream,” Coleman says.

Coleman wrote a letter to Lou Ella and her husband, Benny F. Byrd, who owned the bricks, explaining their mission:

“We think not only would [Rabbit’s] be an incredible venue for our purposes with it having a motel of rooms, but the history of it and the importance of its small but hugely significant efforts toward social change it resonates with us and me personally. My sister is named Angela for Angela Davis. Our father from Newberry, SC became an ex-superior court judge, and I was raised in a heavy tradition of activism.

That same message made back then still needs to be made now and is almost more important, because it is the same struggle. SoundSpace would want to keep a strong tribute to the place of Rabbit’s and we would love to even eventually put a soul food restaurant back in it, to truly recreate that melting pot of unity to serve all walks of Asheville life.”

The Byrds sold to Coleman and Spivey. They renovated the old motel rooms into three state-of-the-art, soundproofed rehearsal studios for local musicians and opened SoundSpace @ Rabbit’s in December. Robinson joined the project almost immediately and has stayed on board despite the long wait to open Areta’s.

Courtesy Soundspace@Rabbit’s

“I’m sticking with it because it hits so close to home,” says Robinson, who promises a chef’s counter, sweet potato-battered pork chops, and plenty of vegan, vegetarian, and pescatarian options. “I [cooked at] just about every restaurant in the city, from line cook to executive chef, and now to be in the area I grew up, that’s pretty meaningful.”

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