River [blank] District

Image 2. The River District was “a starting point,” says longtime River District artist Sean Pace, right, pictured here with artist Melissa Terrezza. The two recently moved to Alexander.
Image 3. This trend happens in every arts city, says ceramicist Alex Irvine. Photos by Yeager St. John.

The area between Depot and Craven streets has always been a place of flux

When artists Lewis and Porge Buck first bought the Williams Feed and Seed building on Lyman Street in 1987, the surrounding neighborhood was a long way from what is now the brochure-ready, browser-friendly River Arts District.

The river was there, of course, and the vestiges of the area’s industrial period. But there wasn’t much art. “We weren’t looking for a riverside location,” Porge says. “We would have bought a studio anywhere. All we were looking for was a space.”

In the late ‘80s, early ’90s there was space aplenty, and it was cheap. Low prices and expansive warehouse spaces brought artists into the gritty, off-the-radar area.

Lewis, a painter, and Porge, a printmaker, worked in one part of 170 Lyman — christened Warehouse Studios — and rented the remaining space to other artists. Porge had three printing presses in her first-floor studio, which she allowed other printmakers to use. Among those artists were Kevin Hogan, Gary Byrd and Tony Bradley, all of whom still live and work as artists in Asheville.

RiverLink, an organization “spearheading the economic and environmental revitalization of the French Broad River,” later bought the building for its offices, and maintains Warehouse Studios still. The Bucks relocated to Black Mountain.

Nobody, it seems, gets to stay in the river district for very long — the factory workers, the train conductors, the barbers, the workaday people. Will the artists be the next to leave, or will they show staying power? Yesterday’s mill town is today’s arts district, and maybe tomorrow’s brewery hub and the next day’s mill town (or green energy-plant town, or tech-start-up town) again.

Factory Hill

Here’s your hurry-up history of the area now known as the RAD.

Throughout the period of Reconstruction and through World War II, the area was a mill town in miniature, with so-called Chicken Hill as its residential crown.

The cotton mills came first, then the textiles (and a steel plant and a biscuit factory), until these industries began to wane in the 1940s and throughout subsequent decades, leaving the husk of American factory life common throughout most regions in the country.

Although the river district is now considered the fringe of town, it was once the entry point for visitors coming to Asheville via passenger rail, which was discontinued in the 1970s. On Depot Street, the Glen Rock Hotel received legions of tourists and other travelers. The block included the train station, a hotel and shops, among them a café, a drug store, a pool hall and a barber.

Into the ‘50s, the Depot neighborhood developed into a mostly African-American community, replete with businesses and residential blocks.

The thriving industry left brown fields, a polluted river and a string of blighted buildings. Federally mandated Urban Renewal projects all but razed the Depot neighborhood. The area declined further, along with the rest of Asheville, throughout the 1980s.

And then the artists moved in. The place looked better year after year. The number of visitors increased. New restaurants opened. And here we are.

There’s much more to all of these stories. Pick up one of those “Images of America” books with the sepia photographs or go to the library for more.

Change is the only constant

“When we had the first few studio strolls, there were only 200 people showing up,” says Karen Cragnolin, executive director of RiverLink, which remains a major player in the area’s development, culturally (a riverside concert series with New Belgium) and environmentally (the Wilma Dykeman RiverWay), among other projects.

The first studio stroll was a one-day event in December 1994 and encompassed three buildings: Odyssey Center for the Ceramic Arts at 236 Clingman; Warehouse Studios; and the Chesterfield Mill (which burned down in 1995 due to arson; the case was never solved).

Contrast that with this June’s weekend-long Studio Stroll. Crowds, estimated in the thousands, visited dozens of studios, according to RAD association president Wendy Whitson. But the strolls are no longer the sole public appearances for RAD artists.

“Ten years ago the studios were only open twice a year, for the strolls,” Whitson tells Xpress. Now many of the artists keep their studios open to visitors year-round. The upcoming stroll will feature dozens artists and almost as many buildings. The RAD itself now has its own organization with 190 members.

“So has the area blossomed? That’s not even a question,” says Cragnolin.

The district a decade ago looked pretty different — even two years ago. Depot Street, once dilapidated territory, now shines at night. Pink Dog Creative at 342-348 Depot St. turned an old Nabisco plant into artist studios, an arts supply store, a gallery (the Artery), the Asheville Area Arts Council’s offices and a restaurant (The Junction). Next door, nonprofit development organization Mountain Housing Opportunities built the Glen Rock Depot, a mixed-use complex that includes street-level businesses, such as The Magnetic Field bar and theater. The second through fourth floors offer affordable or “workforce” housing: one, two and three bedroom apartments ranging from $350-$750 a month for qualifying applicants.

Clingman Avenue got bike lanes, new sidewalks and a traffic circle at the once-severe intersection with Roberts Street. Dave Steel razed its Roberts Street building, one of the larger structures in the area, leaving a city-block-size foundation currently being used as a graffiti canvas.

The nearby Wedge building, a flagship space in the area, got sold twice in 10 years — most recently in May, when a group of eight investors purchased the property from the estate of artist John Payne, who established the Wedge Studios and worked there until his death in July 2008.  Several Wedge artists, including some longtime occupants, recently announced that their leases will not be renewed as of Nov. 30. Marston Blow, a ceramicist known as the “Singing Bowl Lady” has worked out of her studio for 16 years. Artists are leaving to make way for a restaurant and other commercial outlets.

The behemouth building next door to the Phil Mechanic Studios is on the market for $2.2 million. There are rumors that the Riverside Drive property just up the street from Wedge is under contract. Across the tracks, the former ice factory has long served as a kind of gravel-floor art gallery for graffiti and street artists.

Down the road (and across the river) on Craven Street, Colorado-based New Belgium Brewing acquired a 6-acre lot, home to the regional stockyard and the Penland Auction House, both now closed. The major craft brewer will build its East Coast brewery on the site while investing in area greenways, river parks and other developments.

And this list leaves out myriad new restaurants, shops, galleries, yoga studios and places for dogs. As more and more comes into the RAD, more and more has to come out. The area is up for a major property-tax reassessment next year (see sidebar).

As the factory goes, so goes the gallery

Some longtime RAD tenants who’ve recently left say they see even more change on the horizon.

Sean Pace, better known as Jinx, and Melissa Terrezza recently left their working spaces at the Phil Mechanic Studios. Jinx’s giant sculptural works had long outgrown his basement studio, but his personal investment in the building and its owners kept him at the space, he says. Both artists have been there since 2000.

“I used to tell people that I lived in Asheville’s drainage ditch,” says Jinx, referring to the district’s combination of crime and geographical position in the bottom of the valley between downtown and West Asheville. No one would call it that now.

Terrezza predicts that “retail boutiques, more restaurants and condos are inevitable.” The restaurants, music venues and theaters added during the past six years have lead to an increase in evening foot traffic (and a decrease in some of the less-attractive activities of the once-darkened area).

Their move isn’t bitter — it’s just the next step. “The River Arts District was never a destination,” Jinx says. “It was a starting point.” As Terrezza puts it, “It grew out of us, and we grew out of it. You gotta move on.”

Pace and Terrezza have lived together in an outfitted bus behind Phil Mechanic for about four years. The two recently purchased some land in the sports field of the former French Broad High School building in Alexander. A group of artists has acquired the school and is in the process of converting the classrooms into studios.

Earlier this year, 22-year RAD dweller Heinz Kossler left the Wedge building after rents went up, citing that and other environmental factors as his reason for departure. He has since moved back to his native Germany.

In a March interview with Xpress, Kossler discussed the commercialization of the district, and the resulting influx of commercial artists. “As soon as the rents go up, well then the commercialism has to go up with it,” Kossler says.

The name of the game

For many of the district’s artists, staying or going depends on affordability. “Artists transform a space into a desirable area, and then get priced out,” says ceramicist Alex Irvine, “It’s the same trend that happens in every [arts] city.”

“If anything saves the district [from pricing out the artists], it’s artists owning the buildings,” says Cragnolin. Whitson, for example, bought her own studio in 2009. She and her husband own and operate Northlight Studios at 357 Depot St., which also houses Asheville GreenWorks, a volunteer organization that has facilitated river cleanups, graffiti removal and other such projects in the RAD. Whitson’s goal is to “keep good artists in affordable studios,” she says.

In the 1970s and ’80s, you could rent downtown studios for less than $100. Downtown Asheville’s all-out renewal over the past decades pushed working artists west, into the RAD. Now artistic cells are popping up in Woodfin, West Asheville, Alexander and Marshall.

“Artists love Western North Carolina. They’re not going to leave,” Pace says. “They’ll figure out ways to survive elsewhere.”

That’s how it goes, says Porge. “Dispersal is the name of the game.”

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3 thoughts on “River [blank] District

  1. Avl Tao

    The threat is that working studios for low-income working artists are being displaced because working studio space that is affordable to them is disappearing in the District. The issue is not whether higher-income property owners who own art galleries and other assets are coming or going in the District, or if higher-earning artists are coming or going. Let

  2. Avl Tao

    The threat is that working studios for low-income working artists are being displaced because working studio space that is affordable to them is disappearing in the District. The issue is not whether higher-income property owners who own art galleries and other assets are coming or going in the District, or if higher-earning artists are coming or going. Let

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