JourneyAsheville: Asheville ain’t so unique…Or Is it?

So the other morning, I’m sitting at my favorite table at Green Sage. Yah, I know Firestorm is where I usually hang out, but hey, it’s Sunday and Firestorm is closed on Sundays.

Along comes Liam and pulls up a seat. I’m trying to get some work done, but I notice he’s brought over two cups of coffee — one for him and one for me — so I can’t complain too much. I take a sip of the coffee as I prepare for Liam to launch into one of his philosophical discussions. Something I usually don’t have time for. I don’t enjoy sitting around talking about getting things done — I enjoy being out and about doing them. I’m not a philosophical geek anyway.

Liam’s question for discussion this morning? Is Asheville the only town like it in the country?

My first reaction is to say that yah, Asheville is different than anywhere else in the U.S. Then I get to thinking. Asheville isn’t that different at all.

Think, for a second, about some of the things that people say make Asheville unique.

Thriving Art Scene Nope. While it’s true that Asheville has more artists per capita than any other city — except Santa Fe — there are many towns that have a thriving group of artists.  Besides the usual suspects of New York, San Francisco, Florence, Ore., and St. Augustine, Fla., there’s a fairly bustling art scene right down the road in Greenville, S.C. And another one that typically gets missed on the radar screen is Rockbridge Baths up in Virginia. Somewhere else to consider is the Penland School of Crafts — yep, just up the road a piece. So since we’re not unique in art, how about music? Nope, wrong again.

Thriving Music Scene OK, you’re kidding, right? While Asheville does have a great number of musicians, no one can seriously say we’ve cornered that market here either. How about Nashville, Tenn.? Georgetown (tucked right into the Washington, D.C., area) is another place with a bunch of musical folks. If you’ve ever been to Jackson, Miss., then you know about Farrish Street. Farrish Street would put Broadway and Lexington to shame.

I guess you can see where I’m going with this. Name any aspect of Asheville that you feel makes Asheville unique and I’ll show you 10 cities that compete.

The same is true when you compare Asheville to cities in other countries. Asheville is called the “Paris of the South.” Well, I guess that’s another way of saying Asheville is like Paris –— so again, nothing unique. Great architecture? Check out London. Beautiful mountain scenery? Check out the Andes in Chile. Again, you get the idea.

A couple years ago, I had to be in New England to do a series of photographic gigs. I spent a lot of time in Vermont. When I got home, folks asked me how it was up there. I told them that if you take Asheville and the people and the topography and stretch it out — well, that’s Vermont. Identical in almost every aspect. And you know what? More than one person who has experienced both places agreed.

Liam nodded his head. He understood that Asheville isn’t all that different from most other places in the world. He pondered for a moment and smiled. He figured he had come up with the one thing that makes Asheville unique — the people. Nope.

Free thinkers? Check out any number of cities, but start with Hanover, Mass.

Open-minded folks? Guess you’ve never been to Eugene Ore., Boulder, Colo., or Key West.

Weirdos? Visit New Orleans or Dallas.

Religious fanatics? Stop by any small town in Georgia.


Photos by Jerry Nelson

So Asheville isn’t so unique, any more than that 1,001 other towns and cities around the globe. There’s nothing that Asheville does that the rest of the world hasn’t caught on to yet. Why do some people think it’s so special then? Some folks might say it’s that they feel accepted more here in Asheville than anywhere else they’ve lived. That might be true, but I think a person’s attitude might have a lot to do with that.

I sat down the empty coffee cup, told Liam I had to get back to work. As he stood up and put his jacket on, he said, “Well, Asheville has soul. That makes it unique.”

I wholeheartedly agree with that assessment.

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29 thoughts on “JourneyAsheville: Asheville ain’t so unique…Or Is it?

  1. So what if it isn’t “unique,” according to the comparisons made. It’s still pretty special to those of us who love it. It’s special in spite of a difficult surrounding terrain, poor government, a hostile state government, etc.

    It’s the spirit of the people that make a City special..Asheville’s got that in spades, (same as New Orleans.)

  2. hauntedheadnc

    I believe it’s the Book of Ecclesiastes that notes that there is nothing new under the sun. No, Asheville is not unique among all the cities of the world, but then again, neither are all the cities of the world unique amongst each other. People want the same things and strive for the same things and thus do the same things the world over, and that’s how it’s always been.

    Asheville is, however, special. It’s beautiful for what it has. It’s beautiful for what it had. It’s beautiful for the high ideals that so many of its people strive for. So in that respect, it’s soul, it’s spirit — that’s what no other city on earth has. Just as we don’t have their spirit or soul. Just because so many other places on earth are special and beautiful doesn’t make us any less so.

  3. TeflonDon

    The uniqueness of Asheville doesn’t lie in how we measure up to cities in individual features that we think are unique. It is the number of things–culturally, musically, funky, freaky, brewery–that happen regularly in this city that don’t typically happen in cities with a population of only 75,000.

    It is even more unique when compared to cities of similar size in the South. Consider: Macon, GA; Augusta, GA; Albany, GA; Wilmington, NC; Jackson, TN; Decatur, AL; Bossier City, LA; Dothan, AL; Fort Smith, AR; Gastonia, NC; Jacksonville, NC; Lynchburg, VA.

    The uniqueness of Eugene and Boulder are driven by very large state universities. Asheville doesn’t have that as UNCA and Warren Wilson are very small. Jackson, MS abandoned its downtown during the white flight era. New England has more of a widespread political mindset that leads to such things; NC does not.

  4. chops

    Exceptional food, arts, music, culture, spirit.

    And outdoors: don’t forget about our beautiful countryside, and the climate.

    Along with the fact that we’re surrounded by national forest (in the southern Appalachians, perhaps the most bio-diverse public land in the world) — it’s the combination of all-of-the-above that makes Asheville so unique.

  5. Jessica

    “Why do some people think it’s so special then?”
    I have asked myself the same question. My luck has been pretty bad ever since I moved here in the mid-1990′s. I’ve tried to leave but because I make so little I cannot save enough to move.
    I’ve lived in Europe and in five other states and I can honestly say there is nothing about Asheville that makes it special or different.
    The good-hearted southern people that made up the population have been replaced by transplants from other places who claim that they are ‘Asheville natives’ after a month or so of living here.
    The art scene pales in comparison to other places like Charleston, which I saw had many more galleries in comparison to Asheville. IT IS HYPE> Some guy at a prestigious magazine writes an article. The article is read and suddenly people come with the same ideas in their head that the article writer gave to them. People today need to be told what to like, what to wear,..what to buy. I’ve seen it happen time and time again in this area. Why? beats me. We just have some confused, wandering types here looking for some answer. After about five years or so they realize the answer isn’t here and they move on.

  6. Greg

    It’s the multitude of aspects of Asheville that make it unique. Sure, various cities can compete and possibly beat out Asheville for a single quality but when you combine all the qualities together, it’s then that you have something that might be hard to beat…especially at such a small population base.

  7. What Greg said!
    There is a special energy here, that all the uniqueness feeds to the people who are attracted. N# one being an absolutely breath taking setting in a high valley.

    No matter how congested it or an individual may feel one can always escape to pristine-ness in about five minutes. So while reading others thoughts, & thinking further myself, we are indeed a unique place.

  8. dpewen

    I like it here for a number of reasons … good micro brews, good food, good music, great outdoor activities … not so sure about open minded people … this is still the bible belt. I am also not here for the weather … too cold for me most of the time.

  9. Betty Cloer Wallace

    …..and so the Three Billy Goats Gruff outwitted the trolls and crossed over Smoky Park Bridge, clippety-clop clippety-clop, having made a lifestyle choice to move to Asheville.

    Their first stop was Biltmore Estate where they’d heard the finest greens thrived. “Look, look! See, see!” They did find the arugula and chickweed quite tasty, even though the pesky tourists with cell phone cameras were irritating.

    They moved on then toward the city center, questioning strangers along the way. “Is Asheville really so unique? What kind of people will we find here? Is this a good place to live?”

    Three Little Pigs lumbered by and said the construction industry sucked and jobs were scarce for builders, and so they planned to move to Spartanburg. “Employment choices are slim here,” said one little pig. “You can either be a minimum-wage server or be served up on a platter with organic eggs in one of the capitalist restaurants.”

    Little Red Riding Hood, hanging out on Lexington, looked furtively about for wolves. “I have not been fortunate enough to find one,” she said, “but the day is young, and perhaps the MtnX street-style photographer will happen by so I can show off my handcrafted cape.”

    Snow White and Her Seven Dwarfs said they hoped the film festivals and URTV would survive but lamented the confusion that plagued the funding.

    Old Mother Goose, wanting to wander, snorted some white stuff and rode through the air on a very fine gander, until she crashed at Rosetta’s, causing Henny Penny to scream, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!”

    Wee Willie Winkle stopped by the Thirsty Monk, where no one noticed he was in his nightgown except Jerry Nelson who got an artsy photo of him.

    At the Green Man, the Gruffs listened to some fiddling by Hey Diddle Diddle the Cat, which was much better, they thought, than the street buskers outside.

    “Such variety,” said the eldest Gruff. “People here have soul, even the muffin republicans.”

    “It’s like Santa Fe, or Taos,” said another Gruff as they passed by one art gallery after another. “Or even Paris. And the sidewalk cafes and the brews cruises are awesome! And the drumming is spectacular! But I am concerned about all these homeless people, including us.”

    As the Gruffs admired the Art Deco architecture downtown, Mayor Bellamy and Councilman Bothwell came by in smartly tailored dress-for-success suits, unlike the multitudes of Rastafarians lounging about the square.

    “What kind of place is Asheville?” asked the Gruffs. “What kind of people live here?”

    “What kind of place do you want it to be?” Bothwell answered. “What kind of people do you want to live here? Whatever you are looking for is what you’ll find.”

    (to be continued)

  10. Bjorn

    Like anywhere else, a place is only as good as it’s people & the people are pretty darn good in these parts.

    Seems you’re a philosophical geek anyway.

  11. Asheville is awesome and unique, not for the jobs it does or doesn’t provide…or the government…or even the comparisons to European cities.

    Asheville is, in my opinion not a very good place to compare to the rest of the world…it just doesn’t fit in. You can try to put a cat in a bathtub, but it will never look right. The same is true with Asheville. You can’t move to (or be born in) a magical place, and expect to live a similar life as the rest of our ill-raised civilization. Whether it’s the crystals in the mountains, or that giant gold rock buried under the Mayor’s office, I don’t know, but something about this place just breathes possibility.

    Not the possibility to continue your cubicle-bound slave labor, or to follow the same system of government and economics (which is crumbling while we’re watching), as other places…but, rather the possibility to find something new. I’m pretty sure (as I’ve seen it over and over) that if you first take the steps to find yourself, then you work hard to find your place in this town, you will find that the manifestations that you create here find fruition a little faster than anywhere else. (At least anywhere else that I’ve ever been…and I’ve been to a lot of places.)

    It’s should be your story (so make it a good one), that you’re writing; and so long as you’re letting someone else write it for you, chances are really good that the magic of Asheville will continue to push you away.

  12. Asheville is awesome and unique, not for the jobs it does or doesn’t provide…or the government…or even the comparisons to European cities.

    Asheville is, in my opinion not a very good place to compare to the rest of the world…it just doesn’t fit in. You can try to put a cat in a bathtub, but it will never look right. The same is true with Asheville. You can’t move to (or be born in) a magical place, and expect to live a similar life as the rest of our ill-raised civilization. Whether it’s the crystals in the mountains, or that giant gold rock buried under the Mayor’s office, I don’t know, but something about this place just breathes possibility.

    Not the possibility to continue your cubicle-bound slave labor, or to follow the same system of government and economics (which is crumbling while we’re watching), as other places…but, rather the possibility to find something new. I’m pretty sure (as I’ve seen it over and over) that if you first take the steps to find yourself, then you work hard to find your place in this town, you will find that the manifestations that you create here find fruition a little faster than anywhere else. (At least anywhere else that I’ve ever been…and I’ve been to a lot of places.)

    It’s should be your story (so make it a good one), that you’re writing; and so long as you’re letting someone else write it for you, chances are really good that the magic of Asheville will continue to push you away.

  13. Asheville is unique if you believe it is in your heart. For me, Asheville has heart and I can feel the love throughout the town. Other places may be similar, but for me and many others, Ashevegas stands out front in the crowd. :)

  14. Big Al

    Thank you, Betty, you have finally made Asheville into the fairy tale that I hoped it would be.

    My generation made fairy tales into STAR WARS, so I like to think of Asheville as Mos Eisley cantina with lotsa weirdo aliens. Buncombe is the surrounding farms of Tatooine. I am one of the storm troopers. May this Farce be with you.

  15. bill smith

    jeah, fine, but none of those places have a crystal vortex!

  16. zen

    It isn’t the number of artists, musicians or free-thinkers that make a place like Asheville unique, but the number of people who aren’t artists who wear masks to LAAFF or sing along with street buskers or enjoy the world of Hatch or Moog or any number of ways to free their thinking.

    It isn’t the official body count of any of these groups, but the number of the regular population that are interested in participating, supporting and even becoming more than just a population.

    And i suppose that includes groups of creative cynics like yourself. In fact, i’m glad it does!

  17. wishdr

    Asheville may not be unique in any one of these aspects… but obviously, if you take them all together… there is no other city quite like it!!!

  18. wishdr

    Having lived In San Francisco, Fremont (CA), Houston, Curacao, Northern Alabama, Cleveland (OH), Sao Paulo (Brasil)… and travelled extensively in Brasil, Norway, the Caribbean, etc., I can attest with conviction.. there really isn’t a place quite like Asheville!!!!

  19. Zen I totally agree, except that creative cynic types would call themselves Darth Vader and not a sheep-like Storm Trooper.
    I think a new online moniker is in order how about “Insignificant Al”.

    I really feel sorry for people who are trapped in a city of people they dislike; I just wish everyone had the ability to drive a U-haul, its just so unfair.

  20. dpewen

    I love Asheville and have travelled to 52 countries … I am planning to move to central america though … still too many amerikans living in Asheville … if you know what I mean.

  21. boatrocker

    I’m still a bit unsure of how Star Wars fits into it all, but living on the outskirts of town, I guess I’d consider myself one of the Sand People.

    That being said, and New Agey stuff aside, I like this town, and if you’re going to be broke and constantly under-employed, I can’t think of a better place to do it in.

  22. dpewen

    I don’t know how/where you posters are getting the New Age stuff … the folks I hang with are weed smokers, all have great jobs, all trail ride and road ride, we all paddle, go to many local shows at the OP, Grey Eagle, Pisqah, Highland, French Broad, drink lots of great local beer, and did this place.
    None of us no crap about new age stuff.

  23. Big Al

    Darth Vader never stepped foot on Tatooine (not as Darth Vader, that is) and Darth Maul is out, as I have no tatoos, so for the sake of most appropriate metaphor, the white, gun-clutching imperialist fits best.

    Good call on the Sand People, I forgot about them. Moonshiners maybe?

    And the Jawas run the pawn shops and used car lots.

    Doesn’t The Force qualify as New Age spiritualty?

  24. Don Talley

    Every small town and city in America is unique in it’s own way. Asheville is certainly unique…especially in the rural mountain south. People either “get Asheville” or the don’t. Some people move here looking for something which compares to their previous place of residence or looking for something which matches their own personal fantasies ….these folks are usually disappointed. Others move here with an open heart and open mind with no preconceived notions about Asheville…..they some as seekers…..and discover themselves and their dreams in the process of exploring all that Asheville has to offer. You can recognize these satisfied seekers around town, not by what they say or do, but by the fact that they find their own niches and become involved in giving of themselves. You can also recognize them by the smile of contentment.

  25. Betty Cloer Wallace

    What are you looking for?

    Whatever you are looking for is what you’ll find.

  26. boatrocker

    The New Agey stuff comes from posters who mention oh, I don’t know, crystals, ‘magical’ places and such. Even so, it’s still a nice place to live.

    Now I get the ‘Star Wars reference’ (thanks for the explanation), but just to be a geek, the Force would be considered an older belief system (”A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”)- plus references to Jung, ancient myths, Eastern thought etc. isn’t New Agey to me by any means.

    I’d consider the Sand People as a mixture of Indian and ‘hillbilly’ culture to describe those not smack in the middle of downtown.

    I’ve enjoyed living here, don’t use “synergy” or “namaste” except to poke fun, had some good times and plan on staying as long as possible. All I’m really looking for is that top to my cooking kit I lost in Pisgah Forest years ago.

  27. What a lot of younger people fail to see is that Asheville is one of the best places in the country, if not THE best place, to raise a family.

    We moved here in the 90s looking for a better place for our daughter. Turns out many like minded people did the same. A lot of those people are talented musicians, artists, etc. I think that this town has flourished because of that.

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