As Asheville continues to attract newcomers, clean up, refurbish old buildings, and (let’s face it) change, we increasingly read and hear that gentrification has struck. The creative citizens who’ve been downtown’s lifeblood for the past 10 or 20 years are being driven out to make way for rich folks — often moving in from the dreaded North!
And though there’s some truth to all that, gentrification also brings a lot of positives that need to be recognized as well. A recent Mountain Xpress article, for example, outlined the wonderful changes wrought in Asheville by George Vanderbilt, Julian Price and other local philanthropists who moved here from elsewhere.
But who are these modern-day gentry? Do my wife and I qualify? In the years before I retired, we visited Asheville several times and were smitten with the idea of living downtown. On one of those trips, we learned about the restoration of the building where we now live. Years passed while they worked on the building, and even after we relocated here, we had to rent for a year before we could move in. But we love where we live — and if that makes us gentry, we consider ourselves fortunate.
Besides, since America is now a classless society (compared to Britain a century ago, for example), the word “gentry” no longer implies upper-class folks. Both my wife and I come from very humble origins; we certainly would not have fit into the upper classes of a highly stratified society. So, for the purposes of this column, let’s define “gentry” as those folks who move here with enough buying power to be able to live where they want to — be it on the side of a mountain, in a residential neighborhood, or in the heart of downtown.
The improvements to our beautiful city effected by the modern gentry merit a careful look. Let me count the ways the gentry, past and present, have contributed to the quality of life in Asheville and Buncombe County.
Many of the gentry who move here have grown children or are childless, yet we pay our full share of taxes: county property tax, city property tax and school tax. In fact, having already scrimped and saved and paid off one house in our lifetimes, we tend to buy a more expensive one this time around — thus ensuring that we’ll pay higher taxes. (The tendency to buy “up” is a reflexive response conditioned by our federal tax structure on capital gains — but that’s a topic for another day!)
Having worked somewhere else for many years and having advanced in our vocations, we gentry typically have a total family income that’s above the local median. And of course, the median income here is lower than in other metropolitan areas in North Carolina — and considerably lower than in many metropolitan areas in other states. Four years ago, we participated in the VISION Community Dialogues on how to improve jobs and wages in our community. In fact, my wife and I facilitated one discussion group (that’s right, we gentry sometimes also provide leadership).
And because we have some disposable income, we and others like us buy art, attend performances at local theaters, subscribe to the symphony and, in general, do much to support Asheville’s thriving arts community. (All told, the arts contribute an estimated $61 million per year to the local economy.)
In addition, we gentry tend to be educated and reasonably “successful” in life; as a result, we often maintain an aggressively positive attitude. If you doubt this, visit UNCA’s Reuter Center one fine day and meet some of the folks who hang around the Center for Creative Retirement. We may be retired, but we aren’t ready to quit — not by a long shot!
Church friends urged us to get into Leadership Asheville Seniors, and we did. At least half the members of our class proved to be new to the area, and almost all of those fit our definition of gentry. Since then, we’ve watched these friends spread out across the city and county and assume leadership roles. The fact is, we have the time and we make the most of it — both for ourselves and for our communities.
Gentrification seems to get blamed for any significant change downtown that disturbs more than a few people. But guess what, folks: The most unchanging thing in the whole wide world is change itself! Every year, some businesses, stores and restaurants close. That’s the downside of our capitalistic society. And every year, some new businesses, stores and restaurants open. What’s more, some of the new ones are better than the ones they replaced. That’s the upside.
King Whitney Jr. (president of Personnel Laboratory, a psychological-testing company) said: “Change has a considerable psychological impact on the human mind. To the fearful it is threatening, because it means that things may get worse. To the hopeful it is encouraging, because things may get better. To the confident it is inspiring, because the challenge exists to make things better.”
I choose to practice, practice, practice looking for the upside of change in downtown Asheville’s continuing evolution. Won’t you join me and my fellow gentry?
[George Keller is an adjunct professor of physics at UNCA. He was recently appointed to the Asheville Civic Center Commission.]