Not your grandma’s community center

“Every other place has the agenda to make money, but our agenda is community.”

— Stephanie Finneran, ACRC

“People walk in and think this is an art gallery,” says Matt Bell, who’s staffing the reading room at the Asheville Community Resource Center. Even as he speaks, two women venture curiously into the cavernous space, which used to house a gallery called FOOD. True, the front room does feature an exhibit of visual art created by survivors of sexual abuse, but this is clearly not your average art space. The first clue is that a training workshop for activist medics (who help people injured during demonstrations) is being conducted right there among the paintings. “Most people get half-way in and then turn around and leave,” Bell reveals.

Sure, the center’s still working out some kinks, but give them a break — they’ve been in their current digs (63 N. Lexington Ave.) for only a few months. Which is not to say that this is a new idea — the current facility represents the fruit of two years of hard, shared work. Besides the reading room, the community center also boasts an office and the front room, where workshops and benefits are held. Assorted other alternative organizations (housed, until recently, in basements and other makeshift spaces) also call the Resource Center home. These groups include the Asheville Prison Books Program (which provides free literature and educational materials to incarcerated people), the Asheville Global Report (a free weekly newspaper spotlighting stories underreported by the mainstream media), the Asheville Free School (which offers free classes and workshops focusing on self-sufficiency), and the Re-cyclery Bike Collective (which provides low-cost and/or free bikes and parts to people in need, as well as free workshops on bike repair and maintenance).

“It’s about education,” notes Bell about the bike shop. “You don’t just get your bike fixed here; you learn to fix it yourself. All of these were donated,” he adds, pointing to a collection of at least 30 bikes.

Like the bike collective, all other aspects of the CRC run on donations. The reading room, which is at the heart of the center, boasts a substantial collection of books on everything from environmental and economic topics to feminism and African-American studies. There’s also a “zine room” that carries nearly 100 independent art zines from all around the country. “Most of the books came from collective members originally,” reports Stephanie Finneran. Together, these folks conduct the organization’s consensus-based governance. “We did put fliers up for a drop-off day, but people would just wander in and leave books,” she explains, adding, “We go through them and keep some, and then we trade the rest at a used bookstore for [titles] we do want.”

The reading room is open nine hours a day, every day, and although books can’t be checked out, the Resource Center provides a relaxed atmosphere for anyone who wants to come in and read.

And yes, that means anyone. Indeed, the open-door concept is what sets the CRC apart not only from its neighbors but also from other community centers. “All the events that happen here are donation-based,” Bell explains. “No one’s turned away for not having money. I mean, we have to take in some money when we have shows — that’s how we pay the rent — but if you don’t have money, you’re still welcome.”

Finneran echoes that sentiment. “People who’d be turned away from other places can hang out here,” she says, adding, “Every other place has the agenda to make money, but our agenda is community, so it makes sense for people to hang out.” That includes the street kids who so often seem to get shooed away by police and downtown business owners.

“ACRC wasn’t set up to solve the problem of kids hanging out downtown,” notes Finneran. “We’re not here to help out the businesses [by drawing “undesirables” away]. That may happen by default, but we don’t care about that. I reject the notion that if you don’t have money, you’re not worthwhile.”

And though both Bell and Finneran are quick to stress that the collective means something different to each of its roughly 30 members, one common denominator appears to be a distaste for capitalism. “It’s a challenge, because we’re in a tourist town,” confesses Bell. “Everything relates to tourists. Sometimes it seems that things that are about the community and not about money get pushed aside.” Developing the Resource Center, he continues, “has been inspiring, since we worked on this and talked about it for so long. Now we have a better place than anything else we looked at. Lots of people are working really hard.”

Like all visionary institutions, however, the ACRC follows in the footsteps of previous grassroots revolutions. One such forerunner was the Hobo College. At the turn of the last century, the railways were crawling with workers, travelers, drifters and families on the move. Seeking to tap into the collective knowledge of this mobile subculture, Dr. Ben Reitman organized the first Hobo College in Chicago. The loosely structured community center was a place where migrant workers and adventurers could come together to exchange job tips, practical info (like how to get rid of lice), and tales of riding the rails. Guest speakers offered courses on composition, philosophy and law; other times, folks just shot the bull. In his essay Hobo Life in America, Doc Bo Keeley muses, “After a week at the College, a former down-at-the-heels walk-on might emerge with a job, flop (hotel), clean clothes, extended vocabulary and association of peers. How often anywhere at any time have masses received such option in taking a bend toward prosperity?”

As if in answer, the CRC’s brochure states, “We hope to foster our center as a place where all can come together and exchange the skills, ideas and resources necessary to effect social change.”

Even after two years, the center is still very much an evolving dream. On any given day, though, you can get your bike fixed, do some reading, take a martial-arts class, and/or meet like-minded people. And pretty soon, you’ll be able to use the free Internet service, too.

“Everyone’s in agreement that this place is for anyone who’d like to be a part of it,” Finneran declares. “ACRC isn’t just for kids. If you come in with a suit and tie and are on the same page as us, that’s great.”

Still, this isn’t exactly your grandma’s community center, or the Grange lodge once common in small towns; you’re far more likely to find a hip-hop show in progress than a square dance. It’s not the Christian Science Reading Room, either; although the literature reflects a liberal orientation, it isn’t pushing a particular agenda. And though the center is open to the masses, the collective’s members aren’t about to hide their own political beliefs. “It’s tricky, because we’re a community center and we want to include the community, but we have definite views,” notes Bell.

As the new kid on the block, the ACRC has had to focus less on business finesse and more on the day-to-day efforts needed to get such an ambitious undertaking off the ground. After spending the first months dealing with the details (setting up committees, moving in, collecting books, building shelves), the group is now a fully operational nonprofit organization. And despite the challenges of finding consensus at meetings, Bell reports, “It’s a tricky process, but it works so far.”

The center, he notes, has been pretty well received. “I’ve been surprised by people’s response. So far we’ve just had good feedback, and people want to help out and donate time.”

Finneran, meanwhile, offers her own take on the community center’s success. “If you want the world to be a better place, you need to lead by example,” she asserts. “ACRC is an example. We’re not forcing our ideas on anyone, and we don’t need a coercive government structure to make this work.”

For more information on programs, upcoming events and how to get involved, stop by the ACRC (63 N. Lexington Ave.), or call 252-8999.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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