Bele Chere dies in the streets at 35

Three and a half decades of regional and city fanfare, resident fury and financial despair for an annual taxpayer-funded and city-organized festival aimed at celebrating the region’s art, music and cuisine came to end on Sunday afternoon. Bele Chere was 35.

The City of Asheville confirmed the festival’s worsening condition at its March 12 budget session, when Council announced plans to move away from a city-funded event. The festival, held each summer during the last weekend in July, most-recently cost about $450,000 to put on. The news shocked many who hadn’t been paying attention to the grim lineage of the 2007-08 recession, looming budget cuts and reassignments and the city’s constant struggle to break even on the festival.

Bele Chere, whose name was allegedly Scottish for “Beautiful Living” and harkened to the ancestral roots of the region, lead a multi-generational life that witnessed scene changes spearheaded by the hundreds of businesses that came and wen,t alongside any number of cultural and lifestyle shifts stemming from an expanding population of increasingly-transient and trendy residents.

The festival began in 1979 as a means of bolstering downtown activity and enlivening a struggling business district. It was heralded as the largest free music and street festival in the Southeast. Bele Chere combined the region’s rich cultural heritage and populations of artisans, crafters, musicians and the culinarily adept with local resident’s and visitor’s undying desires to aimlessly wander the would-be busy downtown thoroughfares, tallboy in hand.

But as the city continued to develop its own identity, issues with the festival’s own growth and escalating gaudiness arose. Alcohol sales increased, as did the temperatures and temperaments of evangelical street preachers and atheists who so-often took to yelling at each other through megaphones.

Mounting scrutiny followed in the wake of a decision to allow for cigarette company sponsorship in an area adjacent to the BB&T building. It was compounded by an ongoing and highly-publicized debate over the festival’s continued omission of hip-hop and rap artists, a move that plagued the festival while also bringing up painful memories of the year De La Soul almost performed.

The festival found itself in a thriving cityscape that wasn’t as welcoming or kind as in years past. And as new businesses flourished, some finding dutiful patronage among locals, many retail and restaurant owners began seeing the weekend-long festival as a burden. Many business and building owners continued to vocalize their support through the very end, but others repeatedly noted the negative aspects, citing costs, theft and plumbing issues from non-patrons using the facilities.

Some even closed up shop altogether and joined the flocks of beach-bound local residents that used the weekend as a de facto vacation period.

But despite critical outpouring, Bele Chere continued to grow. It expanded its impact, footprint and itinerary as crowd estimates soared from the 100,000s to nearly 350,000 in most recent years. It took in more food vendors, many of which bore no relation to the developing local foodscape. Artists began pouring in from Texas, Pennsylvania and Charlotte to fill the juried Art Park space aside Patton Avenue. And bigger musical acts began gracing the stages, leaving many area festival goers wondering why the Gin Blossoms were booked so far past their prime.

But while many residents will join hands and remember the dark period that stained the last weekend of July for 35 years in a row, for many, fonder memories will persist.

If you can find an Asheville resident that was around over 30 years ago, an increasingly rare task, he or she may wax on about kinder days with smaller, calmer crowds and a relaxing yet bountiful atmosphere of local arts and crafts. They may tell of gospel singers in the early ‘80s, Motown on Wall Street and a time when people actually danced instead of just gyrating in place. Or maybe they’ll lull you with tale of John Hartford’s elusively-infamous performance from the 1981 festival. They might describe the clack of his heels on a stack of wooden boards and the slowed down, drawn out hums-turned-sighs just before leaning back into a chorus.

Bele Chere is survived by “Ingles 4th of July Celebration” and “Bojangles Easter Eggstravaganza.”



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About Kyle Sherard
Book lover, arts reporter, passerby…..

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9 thoughts on “Bele Chere dies in the streets at 35

  1. boatrocker

    At least Bele Chere was old enough to run for president (35 yrs old) and rent a car in North Carolina. Weird music choices aside.

    Which remaining music festival/s is/are still
    megaphone friendly? Let’s take it back from the
    Westoboro visitors.

    Maybe the few remaining local music festivals learn from economic crash landings. It’s about the music, not the ‘scene’.

  2. Mary

    I love Bele Chere. I have lived here many years and gone every year for all three days. I go for the music; I don’t go out to night clubs or bars so this is a way for me to hear good music.

    I find the street preachers and opponents to be good theater. I had a friend here last year from Austin and she could have spent the entire festival at Pritchard Park watching the show. They don’t have that in Austin, and it is a lot weirder than Asheville. She thought it was funny and entertaining; get over yourself, people, enjoy life for a change.

    I think the snobs on City Council will figure out how much money this festival is bringing into the city only after it is gone. If you are a business in downtown that does not make money then you are either incompetent or closed.

    This so-called premier citizen who owns the Fine Arts theater and Blue Spiral: who do you think you are? A stupid snob, in my opinion, who over values your own worth and opinion.

    To Esther Manneheimer, future mayor wannabee…guess what, it’s low class people like me who live in your town and love Bele Chere. So moves on or something…get a life or move to some upper class city where you can sit in the air conditioning and sip on white wine while listening to Beethoven.

    I have a friend who has lived in India for many years and she truly believes in festivals; they have a lot in India. Festivals raise the vibration in an area because people are happy. I can only assume that those who hate Bele Chere are miserable human beings with no hope of happiness…go protest somewhere else, please, let those who enjoy life have a good time without you.

    I hope those who live in Asheville and enjoy life and living will band together and vote out the snobs on city council and the self-centered egotists who think they are somehow better than everyone else and continue on with Bele Chere.

  3. Foto-Jennic

    Raven that is interesting – but the success of that festival compared to Bele Chere is that:
    1) it costs a min of $40 to attend
    2) it is produced in a giant park that is better suited to handle a festival than that of our already cramped downtown atmosphere.

    I think if an events producer was wanting to see an opportunity there certainly is one to be had in Asheville. But where would you host it? Street festivals are fun but I think part of the problem is taking over the successful areas of downtown for so many days. Not sure where would be a suitable area to host such a thing were it ever to come back around in some other form or fashion.

  4. Big Al

    “I think the snobs on City Council will figure out how much money this festival is bringing into the city…”

    Is it really? Especially after the Public Safety costs (Police, Fire, street barricades, etc.) are factored in, how much money does this festival REALLY rake in? Does anybody have figures?

  5. Jen gordon

    All snarkiness aside, asheville has built an identity and brand which generates more than a million visitors each year, based on a multitude of outdoor cultural events. More visitors means more sales tax income, more hotel tax income, better property values, etc. I say beware of eliminating street fair culture/ outdoor arts programming. These are element of community that are essential to the health of any city. Without support of creative thinking, it atrophies and fades away. Good luck Asheville

    • Fred Johnson

      Do not mistake crass commercialism and the circuit-riding festival vendors from all over the nation for anything resembling “community”. Real community has nothing to do with amplification equipment and vast numbers of monetary transactions. In fact, from a sociological perspective, the less of these things a community has, the more likely it is to have strong interpersonal ties and resiliency. There is nothing “community” about a giant street festival.

  6. What a great festival! One of the best in America! I came up as it was such a joy. Yes, I spent money at local stores. Yes, I told so many about it and they went too. Of course it gets crowded, jammed, strained, and nerve racking sometimes. Success causes almost as many problems as benefits it creates. but the value to Asheville was enormous. Some of us who never visit, did. And we would come back at other times as we found places that we wanted to visit and know more of, bringing and encouraging friends.

    A small Southern city with a world class festival. People world-wide attending. And it only cost $450,000 to attract people everywhere? Attendance of 350,000? A buck 28 a person to attract? An amount that should have returned far more in business license tax, salaries, tips, retail sales, hotel, food, gas, and more. What an absolutely great return on such a small investment!

    Without Bele Chere, who world-wide would have imagined so much could be had in a small city in the NC mountains? Without Bele Chere, why would they have come?

  7. Tk Smith

    Yes sir, he said it all. All of us bitched about it, but not one person I know born here, hasn’t retracted, and regretted what they said. Like the parkway, bele chere was apart of our identity, as a city, and I feel we have lost one of the key parts, that make us who we are. I for one, would sign a petition in a second, to bring the festival back, and I know many more who would as well.

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