Montford memories II

By the late ‘80s, Asheville was beginning to realize that it had a potential gold mine in the hundreds of undertaxed properties sitting in the historic district mere blocks from the slowly awakening downtown. All the city had to do was upgrade the neighborhood infrastructure—a legal activity that caused the property owners in Montford almost as much trouble as the drugs and prostitution.

Asheville’s version of the “Big Dig” began in various places around the neighborhood. Flint Street was typical, with a wide and ever-deepening ditch running right down the middle of the street. This was necessary in order to place the catch basins for the storm drains in the deepest part of the street and then lay the sewer lines.

Each house on the street had to be severed from the old sewer line and then connected to the new one. During this period, the mantra of the workmen in the ditch was, “Please—nobody flush!” For health reasons, the new water lines were run above the sewer lines (to protect water quality in case a leak occurred) and then connected to each house, though this was less of a nail-biter than the sewer connections.

During this part of the project, when mounds of piled-up dirt ran from one end of Flint Street to the other, we began discovering treasures from the neighborhood’s 1890s-to-early-1900s past: a single leather high-top shoe in amazingly good condition, a few intact glass inkwells, and a good bit of broken pottery.

Eventually the work was finished, although a second dig—to lay new natural-gas lines—caused another (albeit shorter) disruption. In the end, we had newly paved streets and brand-new concrete sidewalks. But while these were quite nice, the city had unfortunately replaced most of the original brick sidewalks. These fine old hand-laid walkways had been constructed using local kiln-fired bricks decorated with distinctive bull’s-eye and diamond designs bordered by solid-granite curbing, some of which can still be seen in parts of Montford.

Another result of all this modernization was the inevitable increase in property taxes. Over the next two decades, it wasn’t unusual for properties similar to ours (the Flint Street Inn) to see their tax bill swell from $300 to $6,500. Unfortunately, this forced many longtime Montford residents—both black and white—to sell their homes, because they could no longer afford the taxes. Such were the unintended consequences of gentrification. Sadly, the city couldn’t find it in its heart, early on, to mitigate the impact of those ever-rising property values by freezing taxes for older, longtime residents.

Still, Montford today remains a lot like the Montford of 30 years ago—and not all that different in character from the original little 1893 community, incorporated as a 300-acre, autonomous village just north of downtown 115 years ago. Almost all the original homes have survived into the 21st century—no mean feat in this era of teardowns and bigger is better. And if you walk the streets of Montford today, you may find yourself thinking how lucky the city is to have preserved this vibrant slice of its rich history.

[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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