While Rome burns

The city of Asheville — besides being what the Italians might call “Bizzarro!” — is probably home to more bookstores than any other city its size in America. Asheville also boasts two chamber-music societies, a community theater, its own symphony, marvelous restaurants and great Art Deco buildings. Its citizenry enjoys ready access to three or four public-radio stations, a great theater devoted to art films, a wondrous library system, a homey food co-op (even if it’s somewhat in the doldrums, just now), a tremendous amount of home-grown music, a never-ending proliferation of antique stores, a colorful array of home gardens, a small but charming botanical garden specializing in native plants from our mountains, an important community college and a branch of the state university system — all within a short drive of some of the most incredible and unique mountain trails to be found in the entire North American continent.

Apparently, however, this same population also delights in buying Chinese sneakers, cheap plastic doodads, monster bags of fat-free potato chips, and generally purporting to save money at so-called discount houses like Wal-Mart. After all, the city supports two such stores now.

No, you say, it’s all the folks from the surrounding counties coming here to shop.

Nonsense. All the surrounding counties have their own Wal-Marts.

Considering our incredibly successful downtown, common sense would suggest that the Chamber of Commerce, the daily newspaper and all the city’s politicians would be lining up to stop the development of a Super Wal-Mart on the site of the old Sayles Biltmore Bleacheries. (In fact, one wonders why there’s no movement afoot to float a bond issue for turning that site into a sports complex, converting the old Civic Center into a convention center, and then telling ourselves — once and for all — that if somebody wants to drive to Greenville to see Elton John, let them.)

No such luck. Everyone in power seems to welcome the new Mega-Wal-Mart. And to placate us, we citizens are fed the gibberish that such big developments are the natural order of things: It’s commercial evolution! (This seems to be the one case where even devout, fundamentalist Christians are willing to support a theory of evolution — much as the Victorians did).

The Wal-Mart developers say they’ll put in some hiking trails along the river. But without pedestrian access, neighborhood residents (who will bear the brunt of the vastly increased traffic) will have to drive there to use them, because once Swannanoa River Road is widened, you’ll be taking your life in your hands if you try to cross it — except, perhaps, at dawn.

And then there’s the talk about all the chemicals that seeped into the ground around the bleachery, which a well-intentioned commerce can help to clean up. Well, gang, some years ago, when a textile plant upstream would dye materials pink, the (downstream) Sayles people would call and complain about their bleach turning color — and then pump the damaged bleach into the river.

Remember: Until recent years, most chemical factories from Niagara Falls to New Orleans to Chicago would simply pump any liquid debris into the nearest river (or lake) — as long as it didn’t spoil the view (or the smell) from the beach homes belonging to members of the board of directors. After all, it was a lot cheaper than draining it onto the land.

Speaking of the river, does anybody in power remember when the Swannanoa flooded, just a few short years ago? The water rose to the level of Biltmore Village, stopping just below the floor of the tobacco warehouse on River Road — and that was before more acreage just upriver was covered by impermeable surface.

On to traffic pollution: Has anybody in power tried to drive South Tunnel Road on a weekday afternoon (not to mention on a Saturday)? And this is before the Mall expands and the Barnes & Noble, Target, etc. etc. open. Do the powers that be realize how much exhaust (from cars waiting for lights to change on Tunnel Road and other clogged city streets) is merging with the haze that already envelops our city?

Is Anybody Out There Thinking?

Does anybody out there really believe that, 10 or 15 years from today, people will be shopping at Wal-Marts? Not with the Internet developing as it seems to be. So, instead of an abandoned bleach factory, we’ll be surrounded by abandoned discount stores.

Is anybody trying to bring development back under control? Not really, other than a few citizens who can see what the future holds for our glorious town. After all, Asheville is not only killing the goose that laid the golden eggs, but refusing even to stuff it — so that future generations could at least get a glimpse what was here, before corporate and personal greed overran us all.

As for the eggs, forget ’em: They’re already on their way to a developer in Atlanta. He plans to make them the featured attraction in his Golden Egg Museum, a marvelous salute to Pella windows that will stand in what once was a neighborhood.

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