One recent, early-autumn day, I talked a friend into walking the Urban Trail with me. It was Saturday, sunny — a good day to be downtown people-watching while getting a little exercise in the bargain.
Of course, I’d been aware of the Urban Trail for many years — its seemingly random, sweetly idiosyncratic sculptures and plaques are as important to our downtown scenery as the angles of our buildings or the curves of our mountains — but had never taken the time to really explore these various, Asheville-centric installations.
The top hat, gloves and cane known as “Stepping Out” — memorializing the Grand Opera House that once existed in the area — rest on a bench at the corner of Lexington and Patton avenues. Grace Pless, a member of the Urban Trail’s board of directors, reveals that UNCA students (under the direction of Professor Dan Millspaugh) created these small sculptures, early additions to the trail.
But over the last decade, the installations have grown larger and more complex, requiring the board to commission professional artists to fulfill its vision. Only one sculptor was hired from outside North Carolina: Ironically, Gary Alsum of the National Sculptors’ Guild in Colorado designed the five mountain dancers, collectively dubbed “Appalachian Stage,” who cavort outside the Asheville Civic Center.
As the award-winning “Appalachian Stage” attests, the trail is no staid monument to history,but an active hurrah. The 10-year-old project is scheduled for completion by the end of next year. Its 1.7 miles will include 30 stations — and 30 different perspectives on Asheville’s ever-evolving persona. Sculptures now in the planning stage include: a turkey-and-pig piece to enliven “Crossroads,” the existing trail station at the Vance Monument that commemorates the old Buncombe Turnpike (and the Native American footpath that preceded it); a tribute to architect Richard Sharp Smith on Broadway; and a station on South Market Street, titled “Brick Masons,” that will honor a part of Asheville’s African-American history.
But the most eagerly awaited piece, says Pless, is the nearly completed “Thomas Wolfe’s Neighborhood,” on Woodfin Street — a representation of the area as Wolfe would have seen it a century ago.
“Probably 10 groups and individual donors are involved [with the project],” notes Pless about this elusive sculpture. “People have waited a long time for this piece. It’s a work of great faith, because no one can really imagine the end result.”
Of the existing works, station number eight is probably the hardest to miss. This gigantic sculpture of a flatiron — neither more nor less than what it seems to be — makes ironic reference to the nearby Flat Iron Building. As my friend and I approached the dark behemoth, a local favorite that lurks end-up on the corner of Wall Street and Battery Park Avenue, we (somehow not surprisingly) encountered a juggling, masked man. A crowd had gathered to watch him, and one spectator commented that he thought the iron would be great for climbing on — just one example of how residents and visitors have taken these trail installations to heart.
Pless proudly relates the story of a local Good Samaritan who, during a snowstorm, placed a coat around the sculpture that may rival the flatiron as the Urban Trail’s most beloved feature — the pigtailed little girl who stoops for a drink of water at the far end of Pack Square.
It’s not a hard scene to visualize — which is something Joan Farrell, also involved with the Urban Trail’s development, knows well. Farrell calls the Trail “a snapshot of the city” — one that reflects not only Asheville’s history but also the changing times:
“It gives a lasting image — something people can take with them.”
On Sunday, Oct. 15, Asheville celebrates the Urban Trail’s 10th anniversary with “A Walk Into History,” a free downtown celebration running 2-5 p.m. A guide will be on hand at each station; in addition, local historian Rob Neufeld will give a talk at 2 p.m. at the city Development Office on Haywood Street, followed by live entertainment at various Urban Trail stations throughout the afternoon. Acts include Blue Ridge Jazz at Pack Place; Native American dancers from Kituwah at the Vance Monument; opera singers Patrice Tapp and Rachel Pickard-Brown at the corner of Patton and Lexington avenues; The Sequins (oldies) on Haywood Street; and Kamuina Badimu (African dance and storytelling) on Market Street. For more information, call 252-2934.