Three and a half decades of regional and city fanfare, resident fury and financial despair for an annual taxpayer-funded and city-organized festival aimed at celebrating the region’s art, music and cuisine came to end on Sunday afternoon. Bele Chere was 35.
The City of Asheville confirmed the festival’s worsening condition at its March 12 budget session, when Council announced plans to move away from a city-funded event. The festival, held each summer during the last weekend in July, most-recently cost about $450,000 to put on. The news shocked many who hadn’t been paying attention to the grim lineage of the 2007-08 recession, looming budget cuts and reassignments and the city’s constant struggle to break even on the festival.
Bele Chere, whose name was allegedly Scottish for “Beautiful Living” and harkened to the ancestral roots of the region, lead a multi-generational life that witnessed scene changes spearheaded by the hundreds of businesses that came and wen,t alongside any number of cultural and lifestyle shifts stemming from an expanding population of increasingly-transient and trendy residents.
The festival began in 1979 as a means of bolstering downtown activity and enlivening a struggling business district. It was heralded as the largest free music and street festival in the Southeast. Bele Chere combined the region’s rich cultural heritage and populations of artisans, crafters, musicians and the culinarily adept with local resident’s and visitor’s undying desires to aimlessly wander the would-be busy downtown thoroughfares, tallboy in hand.
But as the city continued to develop its own identity, issues with the festival’s own growth and escalating gaudiness arose. Alcohol sales increased, as did the temperatures and temperaments of evangelical street preachers and atheists who so-often took to yelling at each other through megaphones.
Mounting scrutiny followed in the wake of a decision to allow for cigarette company sponsorship in an area adjacent to the BB&T building. It was compounded by an ongoing and highly-publicized debate over the festival’s continued omission of hip-hop and rap artists, a move that plagued the festival while also bringing up painful memories of the year De La Soul almost performed.
The festival found itself in a thriving cityscape that wasn’t as welcoming or kind as in years past. And as new businesses flourished, some finding dutiful patronage among locals, many retail and restaurant owners began seeing the weekend-long festival as a burden. Many business and building owners continued to vocalize their support through the very end, but others repeatedly noted the negative aspects, citing costs, theft and plumbing issues from non-patrons using the facilities.
Some even closed up shop altogether and joined the flocks of beach-bound local residents that used the weekend as a de facto vacation period.
But despite critical outpouring, Bele Chere continued to grow. It expanded its impact, footprint and itinerary as crowd estimates soared from the 100,000s to nearly 350,000 in most recent years. It took in more food vendors, many of which bore no relation to the developing local foodscape. Artists began pouring in from Texas, Pennsylvania and Charlotte to fill the juried Art Park space aside Patton Avenue. And bigger musical acts began gracing the stages, leaving many area festival goers wondering why the Gin Blossoms were booked so far past their prime.
But while many residents will join hands and remember the dark period that stained the last weekend of July for 35 years in a row, for many, fonder memories will persist.
If you can find an Asheville resident that was around over 30 years ago, an increasingly rare task, he or she may wax on about kinder days with smaller, calmer crowds and a relaxing yet bountiful atmosphere of local arts and crafts. They may tell of gospel singers in the early ‘80s, Motown on Wall Street and a time when people actually danced instead of just gyrating in place. Or maybe they’ll lull you with tale of John Hartford’s elusively-infamous performance from the 1981 festival. They might describe the clack of his heels on a stack of wooden boards and the slowed down, drawn out hums-turned-sighs just before leaning back into a chorus.
Bele Chere is survived by “Ingles 4th of July Celebration” and “Bojangles Easter Eggstravaganza.”