If you live in Asheville (especially if you’ve been here long enough to explore the town, get to know its arts scene and participate in a gallery crawl of two), you probably know about the River Arts District — the slice of real estate trianglated by the Grey Eagle, the railroad tracks and the abandoned warehouses that separate downtown from the French Broad River.
But even frequent visitors to Curve Studios, the Wedge Gallery and the Clingman Cafe probably know little of the area’s history, from its prominent role in the “new South” as a processor of cotton, to its storied neighborhoods and passenger rail system.
That’s right: The River Arts District was once home to not only a grand depot (the train finally rumbled into Asheville in 1879 — only to stop passenger service a mere 60 years later) but a rich culture of tourist hotels attracting travelers to now-defunct events such as the five-day-long Rhododendron Festival.
So where have these interesting historical kernels been hiding out? In just-released Asheville’s River Arts District (Arcadia Publishing, 2008) by Citizen-Times book reviewer and “Together We Read” director Rob Neufeld with his son Henry, a senior at Asheville High. The slim book is a wealth of faded images and bygone facts, culled from libraries, universities and personal collections. It’s not a history tome as much as a scrap book, where images are given prominent placement and text is relegated to glorified photo captions. Still, its enough to give the curious reader and the lay history buff a substantial taste of local lore.
“The Asheville Cotton Mill employed an average of 300 workers through the years,” we’re told in the book’s opening chapter, which begins with the River District’s most prolific period, as an industrial hub. “It shifted production to the war effort during World Wars I and II, turning out denim and experiencing high volumes within a 70-year history of ups and downs.”
A later chapter informs readers that the name of the French Broad River “derived from traders who had pushed past the Broad River to a similarly wide one in what has been French territory.” Less of a fun fact but equally relevant to the Asheville area: “The Hillcrest Apartments, built in 1959, were called the West End Housing Development for Negroes in newspaper report.”
While District isn’t the sort of book to be plumbed for social impact (it’s suggested, in a few all-too brief sentences, that the cotton mills didn’t regularly use child labor; that the mill house village known as Chicken Hill was home to poor but generally happy residents and the Booker T. Washington Dance Hall hosted famous performers such as Nat King Cole and Count Bassie before the building was condemned), it does offer clues to Asheville’s intricately layered past. There is a level of randomness to the book — it dances through history with little regard for linear time — but the layout of the chapters (“Roberts Street,” “The Clingman Triangle,” “The Warehouse Area,” etc.) provides a casual self-guided tour, and the Neufelds have done an excellent job of juxtaposing maps and photos of yore alongside more current views, so a reader can actually find the addresses of note in the book.
With District comes a companion postcard set, containing 15 sepia-toned images of the River Arts District. The collection is a compelling slice of local history, probably better suited to the coffee table than to the mail box (does anyone send post cards anymore? And if so, who but someone already living in Asheville would grasp the significance of the River District photos?) but none the less enjoyable to browse.
All in all, the Neufelds’ scrap book tour of this section of Asheville provides a balanced and informative look at an up-and-coming area and just how much change it has endured. That, and for newcomers and old timers alike, it’s refreshing to know that Asheville has witnessed major change far longer than any of us can recall. Its anecdotes, successes, failings and aspirations are palpable within the pages of District.
— Alli Marshall, A&E reporter
More literary events around the area:
• On Saturday, Aug. 9, Skyland Library (260 Overlook Rd.) holds its Big Book Sale from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Proceeds benefit the Skyland/South Buncombe Library. Info: 250-6488.
• Family Matters: Homage to July, the Slave Girl by Shelby Stephenson of Benson, North Carolina is the winner of the 2008 Bellday Poetry Prize.
• Rick Boyer (award-winning novelist and English department faculty at Western Carolina University) has based his writing career on Sherlockian adventures. His 1976 debut novel, The Giant Rat of Sumatra was called “the best and most authentic modern Sherlock Holmes tale yet written,” and now, three decades later, Boyer has published The Quintessential Sherlock Holmes, a collection of five full-length stories about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective.
• The Friends of the Mountains Branch Library (150 Bill’s Creek Rd., Lake Lure) present From Violins to Violence by Marshall Frank. This is the autobiography of a classical violinist, dancer and stepson of a Miami Beach mobster who eventually becomes one a homicide detective. The 3 p.m. event on Sunday, August 17 is free.