“They called it paradise,
Oh, I don’t know why;
You call someplace paradise,
kiss it goodbye.”
— Eagles singer/songwriter Don Henley
I lived in West Asheville 10 years ago, back when it was still called “Worst Asheville” and nobody wanted to live there. I’ve recently returned to the neighborhood after being run out of Seattle by traffic, rich bozos, and the soaring cost of living brought on by rampant development (by rich bozos). Many Ashevilleans can no longer afford to live in the downtown/Montford/Charlotte Street area, so now my once-maligned West Asheville neighborhood is booming. All over the city, rents are rising, and the stunning mountain vistas most of us moved here to enjoy are now scarred by clear-cuts and big, ugly houses. Ugh.
When I lived here years ago, half of downtown was boarded up and empty. Few if any businesses were open on the weekends; it was like a ghost town. Now the city is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, and for the most part, it is a welcome one. But if we’re not careful, we may soon become the victims of our own success.
The city has been invaded by the people I call “fauxhemians.” You know the type: They’re the ones who drive to Earth Fare in the BMW SUV with the “Love Your Mother” bumper sticker on the back, yakking nonstop on their cell phones as they cut you off in traffic at 70 mph on Patton Avenue. People with more money than imagination. People who believe their money buys them the right to do whatever they want whenever they want, with no regard for their impact on others. People who would turn this city into one big gated community if they had the chance, and guess who would be left standing on the wrong side of the fence? You and me, that’s who. Rampant development ruined Seattle, and the same thing is going to happen to Asheville if we don’t intervene.
Not all growth is bad. A city’s growth can mean more housing construction, a broader tax base, and more jobs and economic opportunities for its citizens. And when growth is managed properly, a city grows and prospers.
It’s the same with human beings. When a baby is born, it grows and develops (hopefully) into a mature adult. That’s the natural progression of things. But uncontrolled growth is a very poisonous force, to be treated aggressively in hopes of stopping the spread of destruction. What is cancer, after all, but out-of-control cell growth that eats up the healthy tissue, compromising the life of the host?
The Asheville City Council, meanwhile, is bending over backward to pander to the desires of developers who are bending over backward to pander to the desires of the property-rights contingent — whose heads are filled with lofty ideas like, “You have the right to do what you want with your own property.”
Well, guess what: It’s a land-grabbing lie. The truth is, the powers that be have a whole laundry list of things you can’t do on your own land. You can’t put a likker still in the cee-ment pond, you can’t grow a plot of pot in the back yard, and you can’t go nekkid unless the grass is real tall. Besides, the wants and needs of the few are supposed to be subordinated to the greater good, right? It’s one of the most basic tenets of democracy. But when money’s involved, all those well-meaning utopian ideals go right out the French-louvered window.
When I first moved to Seattle in 1992, rents were affordable, artists’ co-ops abounded, Nirvana and Pearl Jam ruled the world, and all was right in the universe. Then Microsoft money flooded the area, and these Internet nouveaux riches decided it would be cool to live downtown. Using HUD money and CDBGs [federally funded community-development block grants], the city kicked the indigent out of Belltown, did an eminent domain on the artists’ workspaces (which the artists had reclaimed from the brink of ruin through years of sweat equity), and closed the best dive clubs in the city. Almost overnight, most of us went from shopping at Goodwill and driving beat-up, hand-painted art cars to suffering a proliferation of overpriced, chichi martini bars, Wolfgang Puck restaurants and tourist boutiques. Before our very eyes — and with little or no input from the public — our spectacular waterfront mountain views were walled off by condos, ensuring that only those who could afford $2,500 a month could enjoy the bay. The whole city became a superficial, congested, stressful, pretentious mess; I’m glad to be out of it.
And I’m sad to say that unless we band together to stop it here, Asheville is in very great danger of becoming another Seattle. Consider the plight of the poor deer population in Biltmore Forest. They’re learning the hard way that what rich people want, rich people get. (I love the development tradition of bulldozing a forest, turning it into a yuppie housing project, and then naming the subdivision after the forest that was destroyed. Biltmore Forest. Oak Plaza. White Pines Subdivison. Sound familiar?)
It’s the American way: Build a house on what was formerly grazing land and then complain to the authorities when the natives won’t take the hint that their presence is not wanted (which is pretty much the same thing we did to the Native American population). Pesky deer grazing in your azaleas? Gas ’em. Pesky ethnic people ruining your property values? Zone ’em out of existence. If we complacently let these soulless bloodsuckers decide the fate of the town, however, we’ll have only ourselves to blame when Asheville becomes one big strip mall/parking lot/condo association. But we can’t just sit around and bitch about it while our city becomes a cash cow for developers whose sole motivation is to make as much money as possible — and damn the impacts on the community and the environment. No, there’s tedious and boring work to be done: Planning and Zoning hearings, public-input forums, etc., all of which takes a level of time and commitment that, quite honestly, most of us don’t have.
At this point, you’re probably saying, “Well, hell, Andrea, you sure do talk big — what have you done lately? And what can I do to help?” So here are a few ideas that won’t hurt at all for creating a more livable city. Buy your friend’s ridiculous Rice Krispies-treat sculptures. Shop for clothes at a store in your own neighborhood instead of driving to the mall. Walk to the convenience store once in awhile. Do more with less. Shop at thrift stores because you want to, not because you have to. Buy your spices at the little ethnic store down the street instead of at Wal-Mart. Smile at somebody; it’s not that hard. The more we enable one another to earn a decent living locally, the less we’ll have to rely on tourism and overdevelopment for our economic survival.
Miss Joni Mitchell said it best: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got ’till it’s gone?” I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to simply roll over and let the greedy bastards turn this place into another SoHo, another Atlanta, another Greenwich Village, another Charlotte. The city we want lies within our grasp, but it’s going to take more than just slapping a bumper sticker on the ol’ gas-guzzler and calling it activism.
Instead, I call on everyone who reads this to go out and do one thing, however small, to make a positive difference in your city today. The alternative will be driving down the Blue Ridge Parkway past an endless succession of unnecessarily opulent, single-family residences; watching helplessly as our air becomes ever smoggier, our water gets ever more polluted, our traffic grows worse and worse, our citizens become ruder, and our green space turns the same homogeneous shade of poop from sea to shining sea.
So join me, you Citizens for a Sweller Asheville, as we lift our voices high: “Oh beautiful, for spacious skies …”
[Andrea Helm, a former staff writer for Green Line (Mountain Xpress‘ predecessor), lives in Asheville.]