The arts community on Lexington Avenue is nearly a victim of its own success.
Having shaken off a long-standing reputation as one of downtown’s seedier neighborhoods, the area is rapidly being developed into a more upscale, if still largely arts-oriented, part of the city. Now, with cries of over-development and gentrification becoming commonplace, the Lexington community seems to hunger for events that can unite them.
The street “has changed a lot,” agrees Lexington Avenue Arts & Fun
Festival organizer Erin Scholze. “I think that after losing certain things on this street” — namely, seminal coffeehouse/nightclub Vincent’s Ear — “people have started to look forward to LAAFF even more.”
Founded four years ago by Kitty Brown and Michael Love of Sky People Gallery & Design Studio, the one-day event has gained crowds every season. Along the way, the old Lexington Avenue, with its dive bars and rampant panhandling, receded into the shadows.
“LAAFF promotes Lexington Ave. as a safe, fun street,” says Scholze. “It’s not the scary street that it used to be 10 years ago.”
But apparently too safe equals no fun. And therein lies the controversy: “As the street has gotten better, other people are afraid that all the freaks and artists are going to get pushed out. But LAAFF lets you see that the creative spirit of this street is going to thrive, no matter what.”
And it has thrived. With events that range from the kid-happy chaos of bicycle jousting (complete with wacky bikes and padded lances) to the more bohemian fun of an “art car” contest (think automobiles re-imagined as sculptural canvases), LAAFF has found its niche in downtown culture. The festival also highlights artists who often find themselves overlooked by the larger area festivals. Not that it’s a reactionary thing.
“A common misconception … is that LAAFF started as a response to Bele Chere,” explains Scholze. “That’s completely not true. It started as a way to showcase our community. We’re trying to attract people to see what we already have in Asheville, not what we can bring in from outside.”
But while the festival’s organizers want to keep the content entirely local, they are also hoping to lure in plenty of out-of-towners. Not so they can move here — more to show them what they’re missing.
“Because of events like LAAFF, a lot of people who come in to town get to see Asheville for what it really is,” says Scholze. “They aren’t seeing it as a place that’s being taken over by corporate money and people from out of town. They are seeing something that is strictly local.”
And the locals-only cause is one that evokes unusual generosity in its adherents.
“It’s amazing that people want to be involved even though they aren’t getting paid,” Scholze marvels, pointing out LAAFF headliners like local Afrobeat stars Toubab Krewe, among a host of acts who have donated their talents. “Some of these musicians could make a fortune playing somewhere else, but they really want to play here for free instead.”
Even the local merchants, many of them once skeptical about what problems the event would bring to the street, have joined on. Some are even hinting that the festival should expand.
“We’ve gotten a lot of stores to get involved with us, too,” says Scholze. “This year, BoBo [Gallery] and the Shady Grove Courtyard have offered their space, which is great, because now we don’t have to put everyone in one area.”
What’s more, LAAFF has gotten so popular that even some non-Lexington businesses are hopping on the bandwagon. At the request of local merchants, this year marks the first that the festival will extend its borders to include Walnut Street.
“I can see the festival eventually expanding beyond Lexington Ave.,” Scholze says. However, “it can only expand as far as the people in the community will let it.”
The Lexington Avenue Arts & Fun Festival takes place Sunday, Sept. 4, from 11 a.m.-10 p.m., and includes arts vendors, beer and food booths, kids’ activities, two music stages and an art auction. Bands will include: Strut, Toubab Krewe, Stephanie’s Id, the Great Slide, Cabo Verde, Fifth House, Mad Tea Party, the Buckerettes, Aaron Price, and Christina Aurea. Free. See www.arts2people.org for more information.