Lost and found

After many years of visiting from New Orleans, we arrived in Asheville in September of 1981, finally ready to make it our home. Once again we were struck by the skeletal remains of a once-vibrant city now barely connected to its illustrious past, except for a mishmash of glorious but unkempt early-20th-century architecture. But even then, there were stirrings of what would become great surges of revitalization and reconstruction in the ‘90s.

Asheville’s downtown had two defining issues in the early ‘80s. The first, according to the Chamber of Commerce, was that 65 percent of downtown retail space was unused if not literally boarded up; the second was voters’ refusal to approve a bond referendum pushed by the city that would have allowed an out-of-state developer to bulldoze a large swath of downtown into oblivion and develop a mall in its place. Instead, much that would have been lost has survived to become the Downtown Asheville Historic District, an art-deco mecca.

Just down the street—but now cut off from downtown by the construction of the Great Wall of Interstate 240 in 1976—was the newly designated Montford Historic District (1980), a treasure trove of late 19th- and early 20th-century homes. Some were grander than others, but none had ever sold for more than $50,000. The city’s intrepid real-estate agents shuddered at the thought of having to show property in an area of town that had such a bad reputation—admittedly somewhat deserved—and many tried their best to avoid doing so. But this is where we were to spend the next year or so renovating a turn-of-the-century home and trying to persuade the powers that be to allow Asheville’s first bed-and-breakfast, the Flint Street Inn, to open its doors to the visiting public.

Many of the initial issues confronting us were due to the fact that the city had no idea what a B&B was, much less how to go about licensing one to do business. After much prodding and a major decision by the city’s fire chief, who’d grown up in Montford, it was decided to allow the inn to be licensed as a “tourist home”—the closest thing to a B&B that the city could identify. Over the next decade, this led to an explosion of new lodgings: dozens of additional bed-and- breakfasts throughout Montford and other areas of the city. The Flint Street Inn (January 1982) was followed closely by the Old Reynolds Mansion on Reynolds Mountain, Cedar Crest on Biltmore Avenue and then many, many more.

Once those first hurdles had been cleared, however, there were further challenges. In the inn’s early years, guests would ask us—sometimes diplomatically, sometimes not—“Is this area on its way up or down?”

In the 1980s, what passed for the downtown “scene” along Haywood Street consisted of a multitude of shoe stores, Jared’s French restaurant, O. Henry’s—a popular gay bar and Asheville institution that’s still going strong down the street from its original location—and Emoke B’Racz’s great bookstore and downtown gem, Malaprop’s. Pickings were pretty lean.

Another curious fact about Asheville in those years was the lack of street signs. Forget the easy-to-read, green reflective signs we have now. Instead, at each intersection stood a small, four-sided concrete pylon painted white (think 3-foot-tall versions of the Vance Monument) with the street names—most of which had weathered into illegibility—stenciled in black on each of its four flat surfaces.

But since most of the few folks who ever ventured downtown were locals, it didn’t matter much except to B&B owners like us, who were forced to give directions based on counting the number of streets till the next turn. That wasn’t too difficult, since there was so little traffic. In the early ‘80s, a really bad traffic jam meant finding yourself stuck behind six or eight cars waiting for the light to change. No such thing as morning or evening rush hour yet.

Life was good—except when a water main under some downtown street burst, flooding the immediate area and, in winter, turning city streets into a skating rink. This was a regular occurrence back then, because the city was making do with pre-Depression infrastructure. Well into the 1970s, Asheville was still doggedly paying off its Depression-era debt (which was considerable, due to the rampant real-estate speculation of the ‘20s). Thanks to the hair-shirt mentality that still lingered in the psyches of city leaders and voters alike, funding for new infrastructure such as water and sewer lines, roads and bridges, was very hard to come by.

In the early ‘80s, the city’s population was still virtually the same as it had been at the beginning of the Depression. The city leaders were of the mind that if Asheville residents could survive on what the city had to offer in 1929, they could do the same in 1980, thankyou very much.

Obviously this was not a good mindset to take into the period that was soon to witness Asheville’s resurgence. But by fits and starts, resurge it did, and after the 1980s it was rare for any guest at the inn to inquire whether Asheville was on the way up or down.

[Rick and Lynne Vogel opened Asheville’s first bed-and-breakfast in Montford in 1982. In 2005, they closed down the business and retired to Wolf Laurel. They remain active in local issues via their Web site (www.wncsos.com) and blogs (TheMountainBlog.blogspot.com and WNCSOS.blogspot.com).]


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