Asheville's Historic Commitment to its Community
Asheville's Historic Commitment to its Community
Asheville has always been a tourist town. From 2000 to 2019, Asheville’s population grew to 92,870 seekers, about 35% growth over three years. That’s a lot of welcoming! Its mountain topographyand the promise of respite and havenhave drawn all manner ofhumans since William Davidson and his kin settled in the Swannanoa Valley in 1785. (see this great story of Asheville.)
I love Asheville. I am a NC girl, born and raised in Charlotte, and I have lived in East-West Asheville since 2017. In that stunning, breath-sucking way that life changes, I found myself at 57, a divorced woman, living in a new city, with an un-remodeled, 50’s hip-roof house on a tiny lot. The first time I heard the steel boom of the Norfolk Southern train cars,coupling in their yard in the River Arts District in the middle of the night, I started.
I knew what I wanted: To walk my Labrador, Jack, out the front door for a few sunny-winter miles of solid streetwalking. To stroll to a restaurant for a meal or meet friends for music and pleasure. I can walk to the River Arts District, easy-peasy over the West Asheville River Link Bridge, chat with artists as they work their creativity, and eat a grilled cheese from a local food truck vendor. Mary Kate at Notch Collective does my hair; the owners of Reciprocity seriously have the catchiest clothes; and nothing says late-lunch stroll down Haywood Rd. in West Asheville like a perfect cup of self-care from Izzy’s Coffee.
Population statistics reveal so much more about a city than per capita expansion. From 1920 to 1930, the hey, heyday of post-World War I, Asheville’s population count grew an astonishing 76%, from 28,500 to 50,200! From 1930 to 2000, though, Asheville’s growth languished, growing only 37% in seventy years.
That exuberance for the art of good living came to an end on October 29, 1929 when the stock market crashed. In the decades that followed, “many cities chose to default on Depression-era bonds and liabilities. Asheville city fathers decided to pay back every dime of the city's debts. Many generations paid the price for this decision until the slate was cleared in 1977. Until that year, Asheville had no money to invest in ‘urban renewal’so popular during the 1950s and 1960s in other cities. The commitment to debt repayment saved from the wrecking ball dozens of Art Deco buildings erected during the city's boom decades earlier.” (Romanticasehville.com).
Asheville paid its debts. I am not a long-time Asheville resident, but I am proud that I live in town that honors its commitments to others. And I understand nostalgia, that desire for a mood, a memory, a time from the past. I have friends in North Asheville who only venture across town to pickup take out at China Taste at the corner of State St. and Short Michigan. (Who wouldn’t?!). They love North Asheville, the remaining evidence, fading, of mountain suburbia on unrestricted wooded parcels and elegant Frederick Law Olmsted-inspired landscaped yards.
The rest of the claustrophobic city just doesn’t compute for them. They lament the congestion on still tree-shaded streets, and the multi-generational DOT projects just go on and on, like a love that has really, really died. You know. The traffic is, indeed, snarly from our antiquated infrastructure. The neighborhood streets are narrow and hobbled. I-240, I-40, and I-26 have long been tied in a gordian knot as trade routes opened from east Tennessee and up from Greenville by the mid-1850’s.
By the late 1800s, those who could afford to hired horse-drawn coaches to take them out ofGreenville, SC to the healing air and sensibility of the mountains. The railroad came at the end of the nineteenth century, and it brought George Vanderbilt II, and his mother for repeated visits. Vanderbilt would purchase 125,000 acres for his residence, the Biltmore Estate, and to preserve his pristine view scape, which was the site of first school of forestry in the US and part of the Pisgah National Forest. Asheville came into the twentieth century on a wave of economic growth, high prosperity, and general joie de vivre. In the 1910’s and 20’s, the city constructed some of the southeast’s most impressive Art Deco collection of buildings, including the Grove Park Inn and the Grove Arcade.
Post-pandemic, what is to become of Asheville? Will the iconoclastic mood and the hope of mountain respite become thin memories? Rest easy. I can get from one side of the city to the other in around 25 minutes, give or take. The massive highway projects of I-240 and I-26 are disruptive at times in their process but will absolutely usher Asheville into the next 10+ years of growth. Disruption is always good for the soul and for growth. Population growth will bring industry, and our entire regional area will be uplifted by progress. My street is busier with more cut-through traffic. And the 75-year-oldmother oak, which used to be part of my property, came down in late autumn to make way for a green built home for someone who absolutely loves our little corner of vibey tranquility. But I have planted five trees –three Japanese maples, an apple, and one which flowers in the spring with lengths of daffodil-yellow tiny trumpets.
The extravagance of post-World War I is a normal day in Asheville. (Soon, dear friends! Soon!). Downtown is both chic and cobbled, glittery parties of bridesmaids slouch alongside our citizens in greatest need, our beloved unhoused neighbors at Pack Square. In 1791, Pack Square was the location of the first small log courthouse in then established Buncombe County. In the center stands the Vance Monument. Erected in 1897, the obelisk memorialized Asheville’s side-taken in the Civil War.
Which brings us back to the present, to all of us, to the succor of nostalgia and to the vast possibilities of an unknown future. If you study just a wee bit about the workings of memory, you will understand with a sigh that memories whole-cloth are a neuronal mirage. Memories are true (sometimes), but they are rarely inviolate. Memories have life because of the present, not despite it.
On March 23, 2021, Asheville’s City Council voted to remove and destroy all evidence of the Vance Monument, named after N.C. Governor Zebulon Vance, a white supremacist. (see this great article)
I had a dream ten days before my father died. He and I stood in a vast desert, the sun all but set, a banked fire lit. As he walked away, we learned that his debts had been paid. There are all kinds of debts we owe as human beings and as cities.
More and more of humankind seeks what we love, honor, and cherish: the spacious vibe of Asheville and the sweet tranquility of the North Carolina mountains surrounding our gritty city. We welcome all comers who are drawn to Asheville and its core of integrity, truth, justice, freedom, art, individuality, love, compassion, and forgiveness.
Be well, Asheville.
Love everybody in the room.