“I can see my house from here.”
“In fact, that is my house.”
Those were my first thoughts reading over Emily Badger’s Atlantic Cities piece extolling Asheville’s downtown revitalization as a model for other cities to restore their fiscal health. First up was none other than the Asheville Hotel, a subject I’m pretty well acquainted with, as I’ve lived there for some years.
Badger’s pithy and well-analyzed post is certainly welcome: I always like to see Asheville’s success stories get the attention they deserve. I chose to make downtown my home, and I enjoy living here.
However, as the national eye is turning to our fine city, it’s worth adding the necessary grains (or shaker, to be honest) of salt into the mix. Visitors coming into town with cash to blow all too often only see one side of our city. That side isn’t false, but it misses a lot. Asheville’s story is much more complex, and those wrinkles reveal a lot about topics that commonly get short shrift in discussions about urban futures.
Let’s start at the same place Badger’s story does. The Asheville Hotel is notable not just as a revitalization success story, but also because its owners wisely keep the rent comparatively affordable. They’re an exception. Bluntly, many of those working in downtown can’t remotely afford to live here, and it gets worse. Asheville area wages are almost $100 less a week than the state average. Over a third of our population is low-income. The people who make our city work often don’t even have enough to eat: we’re third in the country in food hardship.
In those circumstances, it’s easy to see how many citizens become disillusioned and indeed, our local voter turnout is repeatedly anemic. Even extending the type of density Badger extolls outside of downtown remains a major political fight.
Yes, the city of Asheville has seen increased revenues from downtown, but that’s not enough to save it from the annual ritual of tackling a budget crunch (the city has its own report on the issue). In part this is because many of the people who use Asheville’s services don’t pay property taxes here, and the city’s ability to generate revenue is further limited by the control the state legislature exerts over local affairs. Relations with Raleigh haven’t exactly improved lately: there’s a battle over the fate of the water system going on right now that may result in the state taking it from Asheville entirely.
Urbanism discussions often do an excellent job of assessing the factors highlighted in Badger’s piece — development, finances, tax revenue — and those are certainly important. But in the long run political participation, the opportunities available to working citizens, and the balance of power with outside authorities play an even greater role in how a city lives or dies.
Twenty years ago, Asheville pulled off a miracle, turning blocks of derelict buildings into a cultural and economic powerhouse. While rightly held up as an example for others, tackling today’s thornier problems will truly determine if our city has a future.
In that, the downtown revival can offer a lesson: the best way to face this is head-on.