Montford memories I

It wasn’t until the new neighbor showed up on our front porch and announced that he was starting a fledgling bookie operation in the basement of his place across the street that we realized we weren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto. He said he intended to run a quiet operation and hoped we would not be upset on days when folks came by to place a bet.

Living in Montford in 1982 required a keen ability to adapt to life in an area that, although it was mere blocks from City Hall, might as well have been in a parallel universe. Since the 1960s, the city had pretty much forgotten about Montford and the 600 or so homes that made up Asheville’s first residential development. Once Interstate 240 was finished in the mid-‘70s, Montford was destined to be physically separated from the Asheville psyche for almost two decades.

In the ‘80s, the neighborhood’s population was about 60 percent black. A number of older white families who’d lived in Montford since the early 1900s, when it was a predominantly white neighborhood, were still in those homes. Meanwhile, a small but growing group of urban pioneers, drawn by the beauty of the mountains and the lure of neglected but architecturally significant homes and even mansions that could be had for well under $50,000, were starting to have an impact in Montford. Some houses were bought on the courthouse steps for a few thousand dollars.

A number were lost to a rash of mysterious fires that broke out around the neighborhood, mostly in winter. Some were caused by homeless people seeking warmth; most were purposely set by owners not wanting to bear the cost of demolishing property that was no longer worth renovating. Some once-fine old homes met their demise as “insurance burns.”

By the mid-‘80s, Montford was dotted with dozens of vacant lots, overgrown but still showing remnants of landscaping from a happier time. At that point it was virtually impossible to give away a building lot in Montford, much less sell one. But by the late ‘90s, most of those lots had new houses on them.

These new homes had to meet the Historic Resources Commission’s architectural guidelines: They couldn’t look like modern intrusions. Consequently they were expensive to build, and they sold for close to half a million dollars on average—easily 10 times what any house in Montford had ever sold for before the early ‘80s, when the stately 1915 foursquare on Flint Street that was to become the neighborhood’s first bed-and-breakfast—and, a few years later, the elegant mansion on Montford Avenue that became The Lion & the Rose B&B—each sold for around $60,000.

Living in Montford in the early ‘80s entailed coexisting with a mélange of alternative businesses—some legal, many not. Shot houses and drug dealers flourished cheek by jowl with small inns and corner stores. Shot houses were private homes that operated as ersatz bars, selling shots of booze for two to four bits, mostly to working-class residents, addicts and the many sidewalk princesses who plied their trade along the streets of Montford when Asheville’s finest chased them off of lower Lexington Avenue.

Unlike the B&B owners, these entrepreneurs had chosen not to involve themselves in the bureaucratic intricacies of business licenses, inspections and the like. For the most part, we studiously ignored one another, since we weren’t competing for clients.

This live-and-let-live attitude prevailed for a few years, until the drug dealing and gambling began turning openly raucous and ugly, becoming a threat to the legitimate businesses. Although we generally had an open-minded clientele at the inn, the guest comments were increasingly making it clear that something had to be done. A weeklong search for the offices of the Metropolitan Enforcement Group—local law enforcement’s joint undercover drug division—eventually led us to an office in a commercial building downtown, just off 240.

We knocked and, after getting over their initial surprise at finding us in the doorway of their supposedly secret location, the officers heard our plea for help and committed to a long-term plan for better policing of the newly designated historic district. It started with undercover operations taking place around Montford. And later, after prodding by other residents, a police substation was opened in the neighborhood.

As part of this plan, the MEG wanted to place an officer with a camera on the inn’s front porch to record the license-plate numbers of those locals who came by to place bets with our bookie neighbor across the street. But as much as we were inclined to help, after much consideration we said no. Having an officer with a camera mixing with guests on the front porch while recording illegal activities across the street might not be the best approach to growing our business, we decided.

Nevertheless, we knew a tipping point had been reached when two black sedans pulled up in front of the bookie operation one Sunday morning and two DEA agents wearing bulletproof vests jumped out of each car, popped the trunks and, in a very businesslike manner, started chambering shells into a couple of 12-gauge shotguns. We had a front-row seat on the porch of our B&B as they proceeded to storm into the building and, a few moments later, bundle three suspects into the two cars.

Although it took a few more years for prostitution and drugs to be swept from Montford’s streets, it marked the beginning of the end for most of the neighborhood’s illegal activity. In the meantime, the parade of pickup trucks still cruised the neighborhood on payday, their newly flush drivers eager to swap their hard-earned cash for a wide variety of services provided by the local working girls.

[Rick and Lynne Vogel opened Asheville’s first bed-and-breakfast in Montford in 1982. In 2005, they closed down the business and retired to Wolf Laurel. They remain active in local issues via their Web site (http://www.wncsos.com) and blogs (TheMountainBlog.blogspot.com and WNCSOS.blogspot.com).]

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