The mosaic of North Lexington

Boarded windows, broken glass, vacant storefronts — as recently as 1997, this was how the extreme end of North Lexington Avenue looked to most Ashevilleans en route to and from the thriving and colorful business centers closer to College Street, Broadway Avenue and Haywood Street. But today, a stroll along this block is a delight to the senses, with those abandoned storefronts now occupied by creative, attractive businesses.

An innovative playground

Blue, green and yellow glass vessels enliven the windows of the Crucible Hot Glass Studio and Gallery, at 106 N. Lexington. Next door, Mimi Strang lays out handmade tiles to form mosaic mantels, while outside her studio vibrant flowers bloom in cement containers. The sounds of exploratory jazz and conversational voices mingle with the scent of freshly brewed coffee, drifting out the open windows of nearby Natural Mystic Coffee Company (112 N. Lexington).

If you’ve overlooked this evolving neighborhood, you’ll find it in the final block of buildings on Lexington Avenue, sandwiched between Hiawassee Street and the I-240 overpass. One side is just a parking lot (once home to the Farmer’s Market), but on the other, a cluster of buildings houses a bustle of activity emanating from a mix of old and new businesses, with the recent arrivals staking their livelihood mostly on word-of-mouth advertising and an adventurous downtown crowd.

Getting the party started

Havana, a Cuban-style restaurant, made a substantial investment in what many consider a risky location. Owner Carolyn Patton hoped that, eventually, the block would turn around, as she’d witnessed two years earlier, just a couple of blocks away, near her other business, Reunions Antiques and Collectibles (51 N. Lexington). Seated at a refurbished wooden dining table, she recalls her first year at Reunions: “We had a lot of problems with drugs and things down here. Now this block has cleaned up.”

Havana has done well in its first year, and has even improved on its beginnings, with the addition of Cuban-born chef Mama Lucia, and DJ Frederico Montes, who spins the Caribbean and Latin music that lends the place additional island flavor. Patrons choose Havana for tapas, dinner, drinks and dancing, but Patton stresses that it’s also a place where “parents come in and bring their teenage kids just to dance, and expose them to the culture.”

Though the eclectic businesses that have recently opened near Havana attract a diverse clientele, she views most of them as having a positive effect: “They bring awareness to [this] end of the block, bring people down [here], and people bring change. It helps my business tremendously!”

Where community happens

Though Havana was a pioneer in the neglected and troubled block, many are calling the Natural Mystic Coffee Company the “seed” for the area’s current growth. Owner Jon Alterman and partners Kira Wenger and gourmet baker Ross Habif have spent long hours turning the spot into a place where community happens. As Jon describes it, it’s “a nice nonalcoholic place … that is conducive to people hanging out, and even to bring[ing] music in … basically, a bar scene without the liquor.”

Inspired by visits to coffeehouses around the world, the trio — aided by carpenter Seth Henderson, artists Katie Crawford and Johnny Miller, plus a handful of others — set to work knocking down the old plaster walls of 108 N. Lexington Avenue to reveal the old red brick underneath. They covered the concrete floor with wood and painted colorful murals on bare walls. When asked about the panorama framed by 3-D trees on the wall near the stage, Jon cites it as an example of how he and his partners have turned the worst part of the space into one of its most admired and talked-about features — a strikingly apt analogy for the block itself.

But can Asheville possibly support another coffee shop? Well, just walk past this new place, and you’ll sense what attracts its regular patrons: In addition to the reasonably-priced smoothies, organic coffees and teas, and wide assortment of baked goods (both sweet and savory), there’s Natural Mystic’s ambience. The whole atmosphere is relaxing, note Asheville residents Meredith and James. The couple enjoys the mixed crowd: “Sandals and shoes, ties and T-shirts,” explains James — “and hospital scrubs,” adds Meredith. Others, like Jason, a chef at a popular downtown restaurant, consider the coffeehouse “a refuge” after being asked to move on from other java shops in town. And patrons are permitted to smoke in one section, he notes. Comfortably seated on a well-padded couch, UNCA students Sara and Rebecca enjoy their morning cups of coffee. When asked why they come here, Rebecca says, “They remember your name, and they remember what kind of drink you like best.” Sara concludes, “A lot of people just come in ’cause it feels good.”

When other coffee shops are winding down for the day, live music — often supplied by local musicians from the Blue Rags or the Larry Keel Experience — draws a crowd here four or five days a week. But Jon admits that he would still like to attract more of the early-morning business crowd. He and his partners plan to expand their menu to include simple lunch foods, to broaden their appeal. Bringing in more people will ultimately mean more money for the coffeehouse, but as Jon (who has a degree in sociology) explains it, “Rather than be a business all about money and business, we are more into the social aspects of it. We want to do well, but also we wanted a place to allow community to happen.”

Artists’ studios and galleries

In the center of the block, individual artists have been hard at work transforming once-empty spaces into functioning studios and colorful shops. Mosaicist/tilemaker Mimi Strang and her neighbor, artist Michael Hatch of the Crucible Hot Glass Studio, have spread the word about their workshops and galleries through events like the City Center Art Walks. Such publicity inevitably draws people to this end of Lexington, where they can handle and admire Strang’s handmade tiles and gaze in amazement as Hatch shapes gobs of colorful, hot glass.

Metal shelves fill Strang’s space, each stacked with boxes of handmade tiles, random broken bits, curved pieces of pottery, and other oddities — some of which will eventually find a place in one of her mosaic mantels, mirrors or planters. Each of these creations is one-of-a-kind, since she uses scraps and bits left over from her kiln-fired pottery. While Strang does retail some of the items on display in her storefront, she most enjoys the time she spends simply creating for art’s sake. Strang also enjoys teaching (she offers classes in mosaic-making at her studio, and occasionally at Odyssey Center for the Ceramic Arts, in the River District).

More to come

All of the new tenants in the North Lexington area speak highly of the Lantzius family (who own the buildings on the block) and their intentions: “The landlord is a critical part of this whole thing. They specifically wanted to upgrade this block with this vehicle of art,” says Strang. They continue to rent to creative and community-oriented businesses, like On-A-Roll-Inc., at 100 N. Lexington, who printed Natural Mystic’s trademark T-shirts and are producing shirts for both the L.E.A.F. and the Black Mountain music festivals. Owner David Waller is excited about the changes on the block and hopes his screen-printing shop, scheduled to open in November, will be an additional positive presence; the shop will include a retail space for displaying and selling Waller’s shirts.

Other perspectives

J.C. Maynard, of J.C.’s Auto Service, is 71 years old. Dressed in a white workman’s jumpsuit, he says it might be nice to retire, but concedes, “I can’t stand around the house.” So, instead, he continues to service cars and trucks in his shop at the south end of the block.

His neighbor, Harold Spurrier, tried to retire from his carpet business three years ago, but found it tough to turn away his loyal customers. So instead, he continues to use the space behind his red, wood-paneled storefront as a showroom, workspace and storage for his carpets. And every so often, Spurrier, an avid square-dancer, rolls up his carpet remnants and offers his floor to amateurs in need of a few extra lessons.

Both men have witnessed businesses on Lexington come and go over the years — from the Farmer’s Market and various produce houses, to Charlie Johnson’s flooring business and Shipman’s Paint Company, to the days when a dark and dubious sort of place called Wally World drew an intimidating crowd in search of liquor, women and drugs.

“The street is peaceful now,” Spurrier observes; hence, he feels more comfortable bringing clients by to select their carpets. From time to time, he even ventures next door for a cup of coffee at Natural Mystic, which he thinks is a “real friendly” place, though he adds, “They tend to cater to the modern folks.”

Time will tell

One business that recently came and went was Willow Branch Antiques, founded by Louie Palmer. After just two months, he decided to close his doors and move to a location up the street, where his clientele would feel more at ease. The move has paid off, he says, but he’s impressed with what’s happening on the block he left, and wishes its businesses — both old and new — well.

Future changes

The rejuvenated block seems to be shaping up quite nicely, due to the efforts of both landlord and the new inhabitants, although most occupants agree that the street could still stand some further improvements. Many would love to see a sort of “gateway garden” and identification sign installed at the corner of Lexington and Hiawassee Street, as an attraction to lure those who might hesitate to venture across the intersection. Reinstating an open-air market on the paved lot where it used be is also under discussion, with most on the block saying they would welcome the additional commerce and community interaction. There’s even talk of hosting a block party one day.

But at present, the new owners are still adjusting to the daily challenges; as Strang put it, “Everyone, I think, is just trying to catch their breath.”

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