I well recall the first time I ventured over the river and way out Haywood Road to a scruffy shop in West Asheville, driven by the desperate need for an appliance part. It must have been about 1984.
Haywood Road definitely wasn’t happening. Vacant storefronts, some boarded up, seemed more the rule than the exception, and pedestrians were scarce. Of course, the same thing could be said about downtown Asheville 20 years ago, though a few pioneering businesses had already taken root amid a handful of survivors from the gilded — and then Depression-gelded — past.
Asheville’s central business district has blossomed remarkably since then, with upscale restaurants, art and craft galleries, diverse shops of every description, street performers, festivals and even silent films in Pritchard Park. And these days, downtown’s western stepchild is also flourishing.
When Xpress last took an in-depth look west two years ago (see “Grassroots Revival,” April 24, 2002 issue), the Haywood Road corridor was rising fast and about to bust loose. The Bledsoe Building, arguably the epicenter of the western renaissance, had changed hands, and its first new tenants were open for business. Next door, the West End Bakery was bustling with walk-in trade.
One early entry in the downtown revival was the vintage-clothing/retro emporium Zoots (now called Diggin’ Art), which owner Corky Kurzmann ran on Lexington Avenue for more than 15 years before moving it to Haywood Road two years ago. “I was downtown for years and made a conscious decision to move here, because I wanted to be part of a community,” she explains. In February, Kurzmann once again relocated her shop a few blocks farther west to the Bledsoe Building, which is also home to Orbit DVD, Beauty Parade, In Your Ear Music Emporium, the Haywood Road Market and the Westville Pub.
But the current West Asheville development boom didn’t happen in a vacuum. It had to wait until the downtown renaissance pushed prices high enough, the city population had bounced back (from 59,000 in 1980 to 65,000 around 1998, matching its 1960s-era high) and an older generation of property owners was ready to pass the torch. Young people needed affordable housing, and longtime residents (or their heirs) were pleasantly surprised to find homes owned for a lifetime could now command prices that looked like bargains to two-income, fin-de-Clinton families.
It’s not a novel story — young families moving into older neighborhoods inevitably bring new consumption patterns with them, prompting existing businesses to shift their emphasis while others spring up to supply the younger clientele. Social life reorganizes around family-friendly activities, and a moribund <#213>burb finds new life. But the speed and scope of change in West Asheville have been striking.
If anything, the influx of young families Xpress noted two years ago has accelerated. Witness the following comment overheard recently at Kelly’s Barber and Style Shop: “For 20 years, I hadn’t seen a baby carriage on Haywood Street, and now there are so many you can’t walk down the sidewalk without tripping over them.”
The perfect store (for bread and milk)
Though the Ingles supermarket on Haywood Road was upgraded in 1991 and a few new businesses took root during that decade, commercial rents in the immediate area stayed low enough that both the Salvation Army and the Alzheimer’s Thrift Shop (not to mention assorted for-profit secondhand stores) could still afford them. At least one rented storefront was used as a warehouse, and even four years ago, many remained vacant. These days, though, there’s competition for the few remaining spaces, say rental agents.
Used appliances and furniture still figure in the mix today, along with various repair shops (auto, business equipment, electronics, jewelry) and printers. Builderway Lumber, which recently segued into Builder’s Firstsource, was emblematic — a retailer whose stock-in-trade requires warehouse-priced floorspace plus easy access to a four-lane highway.
In an earlier era, fast food was the province of such still-surviving old-timers as the Silver Dollar Cafe (open since 1934) and the Tastee Diner (a relative newcomer dating back to 1946). Although the Silver Dollar sits across the river, it’s clearly on the cusp of “<#213>Stashville,” “Best Asheville” or “West A,” as the area is variously known. In 1994, Pastabilities broadened the western culinary horizon, joined two years later by Bean Werks Coffee & Tea.
A tipping point arrived with the millennium, as a new generation of business owners began to set up shop. Many of these upstarts also focused on food and beverages — a clear sign of increased retail traffic. In the past couple of years, Bennie’s Little Dog House, Burgermeister’s Kitchen and Tap, The Ideal Market Cafe, the Lucky Otter, Mama’s Fast Foods, The Relaxed Reader, the Sunny Point Cafe and Bakery, Tomato, the West Asheville Tailgate Market, the West End Bakery and the Westville Pub have set up shop, while Ms. Kasey’s and Tia Chefy have come and gone.
A growing Hispanic community supports a host of new bilingual shops, including food stores (La Empanada and Tienda Hispana La Piedrita), the Mercado Mexicano and the Dolores Jose Mina Mexican Restaurant.
Meanwhile, the California Emporium of Tattoos and the North Carolina School of Natural Healing bring postmodernist Asheville to the mix and national chains (Family Dollar, O’Reilly Auto Parts) are represented as well.
Signs of the times: For Sale
West Asheville real-estate agent Kathy Beveridge told Xpress: “The changes in the last five years have been incredible, with the Biltmore Lake development and the Enka Plant going to A-B Tech. We have a wealth of 1910-1930s-era houses here, coupled with the revitalization of Haywood Road.”
The boom, says Beveridge, has been good for her. “My business has tripled this last year, and I get calls because of my zip code — people looking for properties in 28806.”
Althea Mathews, information-technology coordinator for the Asheville Board of Realtors, told Xpress, “The average single-family home in 28806 sold for $123,046 in the year ending in August 2003, and that went up to $132,084 for this year to date.” That represents a 7 percent increase, compared to 8 percent for Asheville as a whole (the corresponding citywide figures are $195,031 and $211,040). Below-average prices may explain why <#213>Stashville homes generally sell quicker: averaging 63 days on the market (versus 72 days citywide).
Stories of astoundingly quick home sales abound. Marc McCloud, proprietor and chief raconteur of Orbit DVD, told Xpress: “Our neighbor sold his house five hours after he put up a sign. Another acquaintance was attending an anniversary party at the Westville Pub and mentioned putting his house up for sale. Someone overheard him and bought it.” Others talk of bidding wars in which sellers garner thousands more than the original asking price for their homes within a very short time frame.
Cathy Cleary and Krista Stearns opened the doors of their West End Bakery in March 2001. Cleary is happy to report that the business is doing well: “A lot of new businesses have opened up on Haywood in the last two years. That’s done a lot to help our business, and it’s brought in some competition — which is a good thing, though it adds some extra challenges.”
From the outset, the bakery has served as a gathering place for community activists. A meeting room is available for free to nonprofit groups if they sign up in advance. “There’s a meeting there at least once a day,” says Cleary. “Sometimes it’s full all day. It’s a nice place to gather for a lunch meeting or any time we are open. After hours, it is available to any group that one of the four of us wants to be involved in — to take responsibility for.”
“Sense of community” is a phrase that crops up repeatedly in discussions about West Asheville, and Cleary is enthusiastic about it. “It’s amazing how businesses here have begun to collaborate on things. Corky Kurzman at Diggin’ Art has taken the lead in planning events. She got people together for craft and lingerie shows at Westville Pub; she’s collaborated with Orbit DVD for the outdoor movies.”
And if the Bakery is the neighborhood’s unofficial hub of daytime activity, the Pub rules the night. In addition to its holiday craft shows and Vintage Lingerie shows, the tavern/eatery hosts weekly Stitch <#213>n’ Bitch sessions (bring your own knitting), a biweekly book club, Monday-night open mics, an African-food festival every third Sunday, and live-music-free Fridays. The latter, explains co-owner Lu Young, was decided by popular demand. “We did a survey of potential customers before we opened, and one thing they wanted was some place to go on Friday night that didn’t have live music.” The policy has proved popular enough that the Pub has departed from it only twice in more than two years, and then only under “very special circumstances.”
The neighborhood’s youth movement has sparked a shift toward sports and entertainment, so it’s no surprise that Second Gear (a consignment store for sports equipment) recently set up shop, joining Pro Bikes (which relocated from Merrimon Avenue almost two years ago).
“I moved here because I needed to pay less rent,” reveals Pro Bikes owner Fred Schuldt. “Rent was bleeding my bottom line, and rents here were really competitive.”
Asked if the move had cost him customers, Schuldt laughed, saying, “We found out who our customers were — ironically, a lot of our customers have moved here [from north Asheville] since we moved here.”
Second Gear co-owner Buffalo McMurry told Xpress: “Business has been good. This building was just renovated, and they did a really good job. People come in here all the time and seem blown away by what they see. We may be selling used gear, but we work hard to have everything looking good.”
And Marc McCloud of Orbit DVD is very clear about his decision to plunge into self-employment. “I owe it all to Corky [Kurzmann], who actually talked me into doing this store — and then she convinced my wife.” McCloud and Kurzmann now co-sponsor the monthly walk-in movie on the second Friday of each month in the Bledsoe Building parking lot. (Upcoming features include The Princess Bride, Harold and Maude and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.)
Next week, Harvest Records will hang out a shingle six blocks east (next to Second Gear), offering new and used CDs, LPs, EPs, box sets and, “possibly” eight track tapes.
Pippi’s Exchange, one of the newest of the new breed of <#213>Stashville boutiques, sells hip secondhand clothing and eclectica. Owner Monroe Harvell-Lackemacher arrived here from California (by way of Charleston) last October and set up shop two months ago. The store is named for the red-haired storybook heroine whose father was a cannibal king and whose trunk was full of scads of wonderful things; the skull-and-crossbones logo features heart-shaped eye sockets and a coonskin cap. Monroe’s red hair and vivid tattoos, meanwhile, put her in the running for most exotic-looking local proprietor.
“Everyone has been really welcoming to me. Corky [Kurzmann] has been sending customers down here from her place; Deluxe [Retro-Modern] has helped out too.” Harvell-Lackemacher also has good things to say about the Mountain Microenterprise Fund, which helped her get started: “They were amazing! I had a whole business plan put together with their help — and that’s why I got this space over someone else who was trying to lease it.”
Joining the westward march and looking to feed the remodeling and restoration frenzy that accompanies the local renaissance, Christi and Simon Whiteley are moving their 6-year-old architectural salvage company from Hendersonville to 504 Haywood Road. El Dorado, which specializes in mid-century modern antiques and period building materials will open in the old Dixie Music storefront in early August. “Most of our customers came to us from Asheville,” Christi told Xpress, “so we decided to bite the bullet and move toward our customer base.”
Trouble in paradise?
Talk to folks who live in downtown Asheville and you’re likely to hear anecdotes about hookers and crack dealers in <#213>Stashville, but folks who live and work across the river are more likely to frame such stories in the past tense.
The problems, says Kurzmann, are diminishing. And Young noted: “I feel safer walking home here after the Pub closes than I ever felt walking at night when I lived in North Asheville. As for the Pub, we seldom have anything going on that’s uncomfortable. We cut people off if we need to, and we’re pretty strict about that. Once we had to ask three young men to leave.”
McMurry of Second Gear, who has “been here 10 hours a day since we opened two months ago,” says the only illegal behavior he’s witnessed involves “a couple of fellows who drink wine beside the Dumpster at the convenience store across the street. There may be other things going on, but I don’t see them.”
And Schuldt said his initial concerns have eased. “Admittedly, I was worried about security when I moved here, but the police force here is very attuned to the neighborhood.” He added: “I think there is a consciousness shift going on. This is becoming the kind of neighborhood I wanted to be in.”
But on June 22, the Asheville Police Department made what it called “major drug arrests” in West Asheville. Officers of the APD West District, assisted by members of the department’s Emergency Response Team and K-9 unit, served a search warrant at 520 Haywood Road. Fifty grams of crack cocaine and a smaller quantity of marijuana were seized in the building. Items classified as drug paraphernalia were also seized, and five individuals were charged with trafficking, possession, selling, manufacturing and delivering controlled substances.
A department spokesperson said West District officers believe the lengthy investigation leading up to these arrests will have a significant impact on drug trafficking in West Asheville.
Drug use is hardly a function of geography, of course, and only two of the five arrestees were West Asheville residents.
Meanwhile, the Asheville City Council recently approved spending $7,500 to study Haywood Road with an eye toward zoning and development. City Development Director Sasha Vrtunski told Xpress that the City Development Department “will be looking at what Haywood Road should look like in the future. Most people like the way the old buildings come right up to the street, but there are about four different zoning designations along Haywood.” An important part of the study, said Vrtunski, will be finding out what the community wants. The next meeting of the Haywood Road Corridor Committee is scheduled for Thursday Aug. 26 in the West Asheville Library, starting at 5:30 p.m.
But whatever the future may hold for this evolving community, optimism and excitement seem to be the order of the day in Best Asheville.