Ugly Asheville

Here in Western North Carolina, the four seasons unfold with a welcome regularity. Although summer sometimes lingers into early October and an unexpected snowfall could usher in winter that same month, each season generally lasts an almost perfect three months. And each brings its particular beauty: the crispness of winter; the tender, early greening of spring; the lush warmth of summer; or the flaming colors of fall. But winter — even the present uncharacteristically warm one — also reveals the unsightly, disfigured face of Asheville and the surrounding mountains.

Romantics describe the bleak, scarred mountains and valleys of winter as lying dormant, waiting for warmer weather to clothe the bare ridges and slopes with festive new growth. Those same romantics tend to invest too much sentiment in picturesque farms, dairies and homesteads (which are perhaps worse polluters than malls or other developments). Still, the very nakedness of winter in the mountains also reveals much about the people who live here and their relationship with nature. And in Asheville, as in many mountain towns, it’s an ugly picture: The Garden of Eden is littered with beer cans.

Stripped of nature’s screening foliage, Asheville looks shabby and dirty. Trash stacks up along medians, sidewalks and gutters, and downed and broken tree limbs and branches abound. Loath to enforce littering ordinances, the city instead seems to encourage this activity by sponsoring large outdoor festivals such as Bele Chere and Shindig on the Green.

And unlike a great many New South cities, Asheville lacks such amenities as underground utilities; instead, power lines dangling from creosote poles clutter the cityscape. Sidewalks, gutters and storm sewers seem to appear and disappear willy-nilly in Asheville’s neighborhoods, as if part of some Mad Hatter’s urban-design scheme.

Cities such as Raleigh and Wilmington provide large, family-oriented parks and playgrounds as well as smaller neighborhood parks and green spaces. Asheville’s Riverside Park closed nearly a century ago; today, only a few smaller recreational spaces are spread about the city, now mostly overwhelmed by population growth and increasing demand from user groups. For a city with a national reputation as an outdoor-recreation destination, this lack of facilities borders on the embarrassing.

Want to go for a long hike or bike ride? Then pack your car and head to Bent Creek or the Blue Ridge Parkway. Anyone who tries to walk or bike on the city’s congested streets must compete with growing numbers of increasingly impatient drivers. Even where sidewalks or walking paths do exist, they generally extend only a short distance to a Charlotte Street or a Merrimon Avenue, seldom connecting to other pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares. Apart from downtown and a few big streets, there are scarcely any sidewalks. Anyone who’s tried to pedal or walk across town to work, school, a grocery store or a laundromat knows that to do so is often to risk life and limb.

But the ugliest aspect of Asheville and environs parallels its most scenic feature, the French Broad River. It is the Bangladesh of Western North Carolina. While other cities in the region — such as Wilmington and Rome, Ga. — have built parks, walkways, benches, jogging/biking paths and even restaurants and shops along their rivers, Asheville’s riverfront is littered with decaying structures, junk-car lots and overgrown, weed-choked parcels. Worst of all, scores of trees removed from the recently denuded Reynolds Mountain in north Asheville have been piled high atop one another along Riverside Drive, an eyesore to all who happen by. Even the 19th-century cotton and mica mills along the French Broad used plantings and landscaping in an attempt to make their buildings and grounds more agreeable, surpassing the efforts of many present-day riverside businesses.

And though RiverLink has succeeded in creating several public parks and calling attention to the conditions along the river, the group has had precious little help. For more than 50 years, writers such as Wilma Dykeman have chronicled the problems along the French Broad. Yet except for a general cleanup each year, progress has been halting and sporadic. Like all rivers, the French Broad will flood every few years (albeit less frequently now than before the great deluge of 1916) — but those disruptions, too, can be kept within limits and even made part of the beautification equation.

And then there’s the Swannanoa, which runs through east Asheville to its junction with the French Broad in Biltmore. A mere sliver of its former self, this much-abused stream sometimes seems more like a large, congested drainage ditch than a free-flowing waterway. Accordingly, a series of carefully planned freeways and overpasses has rendered these eyesores virtually invisible to the scores of thousands of tourists who frequent Asheville and the region each year. A great many of them don’t even know these waterways exist, and only locals or more knowledgeable visitors can actually make their way to the banks of the French Broad.

But even if we must continue to wait for such amenities as parks, gutters, sidewalks and walking/biking paths, much can still be done simply by changing our attitude toward our present living conditions. We don’t necessarily need restaurants, shops and boutiques along the French Broad to start making the area more attractive. With a little care and attention, the present warehouses, buildings and vacant lots can be made more appealing.

Certainly, the city of Asheville could help by patching potholes, repairing roadways and addressing drainage problems. But there’s also a lot that we, as individuals, can do that requires little outside aid. Why not pick up litter not only in our own yards but also in our neighborhoods? Plant some flowers, shrubs or trees without waiting for some organization to take the initiative. Pick an unsightly spot that galls you and make it your personal project to clean or beautify it. Paint something — a door, window or wall — anything that can be made more appealing to the eye.

Perhaps the most revolutionary act of all would be to knock on a neighbor’s door, introduce yourself and get to know those around you. As a member of a smaller community, you just might be surprised to find how much you can do to beautify your immediate surroundings.

And anyone who spends some time walking around Lake Louise, Beaver Lake or Enka Lake or sitting on benches in Pritchard Park or along Patton Avenue will come away with a different view of themselves and of their fellow humans — one that is more tolerant and caring.

Parks, sidewalks, walking/biking paths and even strolls through the neighborhood all tend to break down the suspicion and isolation we sometimes feel as individuals. Even some of the resentment and frustration we feel toward impersonal government and corporate entities might be lessened by more interaction within our own communities. “Quality forward” doesn’t have to be a concept aimed primarily at tourists and visitors or focused solely on beautifying downtown. For those of us who live in these mountains every day, it ought to be a personal motto. After all, in the winter, even nature needs a helping hand.

[Milton Ready is a professor of history at UNCA.]

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