I’ve lived in cities for more than half my life, but I grew up in a cove in west Buncombe, at the top of a horseshoe-shaped dirt road. We had a couple of acres, mostly wooded, with a small fruit orchard, a large garden and a million-dollar view of Mount Pisgah. When the wind blew in a particular direction, we were blessed with the smell of both Champion Paper and the American Enka plant: cat pee and rotten eggs. We spent every Saturday morning at the feed store, filling the back of the old, pink station wagon with horse and chicken feed, hay and all the other accouterments of country life.
I still consider myself a country person. In my large urban back yard, my husband and I garden with the moon signs and gather rainwater so we don’t have to use city water on our vegetables. I don’t mind carrying buckets of water because I did that sometimes as a child, when the water line froze or we couldn’t get water at the top of our hill because the water pressure wasn’t strong enough. We had some city services long before we were annexed into the city, but they weren’t reliable and we didn’t count on them.
I know my parents didn’t want their property to be annexed, but the issue wasn’t higher taxes: It was always about a sense of place. We didn’t want to be part of Asheville because we were part of Enka—a distinction that has particular meaning today. There was a distinct feeling that Asheville wouldn’t do much “for” us and that we were doing fine as we were.
Asheville seemed a very different place from where we were. We knew this because we kids sometimes rode the bus into Asheville on the weekend and wandered around downtown, circa 1970, picking up some seeds at Mrs. Morehead’s and visiting my grandfather at his barber shop in the Flat Iron Building.
My parents also feared that someone, somewhere would take their little piece of land or somehow talk them out of it. My father’s aunt had a farm on some very rich land, or so the family story goes. She grew enough corn and hay to feed her own herd of dairy cows and still have some to sell.
Oh, the corn! My parents sang rhapsodies about the long, heavy-kerneled ears, which grew so high on the stalk that it took a grown man to reach them. And the milk from those cows made the best butter—sweet and soft and golden.
But American Enka came around, offered my great aunt a small fortune for her land, and she relocated. The crowning blow was when the company drowned the land to make a lake for its white-collar workers. All that rich land ruined and the farm buildings not even torn down! When our dirty country selves were occasionally dropped off at Enka Lake to splash around in the edges of the water or to fish for bream and carp, I was always a little afraid of that farm at the bottom of the lake.
What my family lamented was the loss of place, the loss of richness and the loss of self-worth associated with the particular piece of land that was home. There was a deep and abiding resentment that something precious had been lost and that they were somehow cheated.
Now I see it happening again, as the people who once loved Enka Lake and their picture-postcard village mourn the changeover to Biltmore Lake (which no one from around there will ever call it). A number of local people feel that someone not only stole their place but apparently finds its history distasteful enough to change the name it’s had for several generations.
Meanwhile, the residents of this new subdivision are now looking down the long barrel of annexation. Some say they were told about it at the time they bought into the property at the lake. Still, these newcomers are fighting the annexation, just as local people have fought or grumbled about it for generations now.
And for some of the old Enka folks—many of whom have already been absorbed into Asheville—there’s a bitter satisfaction in knowing that these usurpers are now facing the bite of annexation themselves. Serves them right, we think. They won’t even let the local kids trick-or-treat in their neighborhood—a time-honored tradition in my bit of redneck America, where kids are taken to a better part of town so they can score more loot.
The larger problem, though, is how to integrate a subdivision (or a trailer park or a new group of condos) into a community. It doesn’t happen just because a developer drowns a farm or bulldozes a hilltop. It happens when the new arrivals want to be part of something, not apart from it. It happens when the original residents can find it in their hearts to remember our long-standing mountain tradition of hospitality. But it can happen only when all parties come to the table for open and honest discussion.
Do Americans even do that anymore?
[Bookseller, urban farmer and village witch H. Byron Ballard lives in the wilds of urban Asheville.]