Paying tribute

After a long hiatus, I’ve decided to resume writing “The Gospel According to Jerry.” I’ve been encouraged by many kind friends, not-always-so-kind detractors — and by Mountain Xpress Publisher Jeff Fobes, who says I can offer a historical perspective on many of today’s issues. (I think what he’s telling me is I’m getting old.)

Still, I can’t seem to suppress the driving passion to express myself on current issues. My boundless ego seduces me into believing that some of the opinions I express may make a positive difference in our community. And if nothing else, perhaps I can stimulate dialogue, encouraging all of us to think about matters of great (and not so great) importance.

That said, it seems appropriate for my return column to pay tribute to the late Julian Price.

When I first had peripheral contact with Julian and his organization, Public Interest Projects, he appeared to this conservative businessman and developer as a screaming liberal field-hippie antichrist. But over time, as we began to have dealings and frequent encounters, I came to realize that Julian was a giant, an icon, a hero in this community.

And in fact, we found much more to agree on than to disagree about. He was the very wealthy, unselfish liberal who used his money and his power to bring about dramatic social and economic change that will benefit Asheville and environs for decades to come. In the meantime, he personally lived below the radar in a simple and exemplary manner that fit his convictions about the environment and social justice.

Most importantly, Julian was a visionary who saw the potential for using private investment to redevelop the city’s central business district. Together with the Lantzius family and others, he helped pioneer the economic and social renaissance of downtown Asheville, making it the sparkling (if sometimes tarnished) jewel we see today.

Most of us really smart local developers dismissed those folks’ early activities as a fool’s errand, choosing instead to concentrate our efforts outside the city proper. In this, we were not without success — but we certainly missed out on some golden opportunities. Who would ever have imagined that someone would pay anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million to live in a condominium carved out of an old auto dealership on Coxe Avenue?

Julian’s vision, however, went further still: He wanted to give voice to the social groups that were then growing in number and strength but were not represented in the mainstream media. So he lent his support to a little shoestring “green” paper in the community that was considered blasphemous in some of the more conservative circles.

Today, Mountain Xpress has become a very strong member of the fourth estate and certainly a force to be reckoned with on the local political scene. I find much to both agree and disagree with within its pages — but I’m also challenged to think the other side may have a good argument that’s worthy of consideration.

A case in point is the recent article by Steve Rasmussen describing the history and the career of former City Manager Weldon Weir. It was so right on, and its review of the history has doubtless helped many understand how our city has arrived at the present political moment.

All in all, Julian would be more than proud of Jeff Fobes who, having survived some really difficult economic challenges, has gone on to create one of the best weeklies in the United States.

Besides providing excellent and generally fair local political coverage, Xpress also provides a platform for many groups that would get little attention from the Asheville Citizen-Times: the gay, art, minority (both traditional and emerging), atheist, anarchist, environmental, entertainment and feminist communities, as well as untold fringe religious and political organizations.

I’m an avid reader of our local daily, which I think is a very good small-town paper. In the past it has served a more mainstream readership, with a good mix of editorial comment primarily from nationally syndicated columnists. These days, however, the Citizen-Times regularly publishes local guest editorials of all stripes — perhaps because they’ve seen the success of Xpress.

It’s also interesting that even many conservative businesses in the community have come to recognize that the above-mentioned groups are viable members of our community who are worthy of soliciting for business.

In future columns, I hope to tell some of the wonderful stories and experiences I shared with our friend Julian Price. But for now, let’s just thank him for what he’s done to help weave the many differing political and religious viewpoints in our community into a respectful tapestry. The tensions are still there, but we’ve come to understand that we have to learn to live together.

[Jerry Sternberg is a gadfly who’s been active in the local political scene for many years.]

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