“Asheville—Paradise Lost.” So proclaims the newest bumper sticker. But why lost? Could it be the out-of-control development that’s taking place in and around our city, which stands every chance of making this quaint, low-built town into a high-rise spectacle—the antithesis of what inspired most of us to move here? Proliferating downtown high-rises will nullify the natural vistas that are the area’s hallmark; more cars will hasten the deterioration of our air quality. Maybe Asheville is indeed lost.
I realize that having moved here 15 years ago, I can’t fairly close the door behind me. I know, too, that Asheville has always relied heavily on tourism, without which it would be financially insolvent. Obviously, some degree of growth is necessary to maintain a healthy local economy.
But why can’t we have growth that factors in the area’s carrying capacity, the integration of the new with the old, and the available resources? Wouldn’t prudent development consider the wishes of the people who live here, proceeding with caution before erecting high-rises that will cast long shadows over our otherwise sunny downtown? What will happen when long-term construction projects tear up people-friendly streets and place undue financial burdens on small downtown businesses? What are the long-term consequences of government selling off our mountain skylines and public spaces to the highest bidder?
I’ve already lived in a town that was ruined by this same mentality—overtaken by development, wealth and greed. When I first moved to Santa Fe in 1981, it too was quaint, small, inclusive and diverse. With its brown landscape crowned by a turquoise-blue sky and a horizon stretching as far as the eye could see, Santa Fe seemed exotic. Locals would gather on the plaza at day’s end, and old men would smoke and speak Spanish. There was a Woolworth’s that sold fake Indian dolls made in China and enough Frito pies during the summer months to pay the rent all year long. An affordable shoe shop catered to locals, and Sears was right around the corner. The plaza was a part of life, a place to gather, interact and shop—a place that felt like home.
In the ‘80s, Santa Fe—with its arts community, cultural diversity and archaeological artifacts—was the place to be. Many alternative types lived there, practicing acupuncture, eating enchiladas and sipping cappuccinos. We middle-class folks enjoyed what the city had to offer and naively hoped that, once we’d been there long enough, we, too, could be considered legitimate stakeholders. Not long after our arrival, however, Santa Fe began to change, due mostly to an influx of wealthy “far westerners” who found the real estate in this high-desert town irresistible.
Californians who considered a $500,000 house “affordable” began moving in. People used to multimillion-dollar prices were all too happy to buy into our artsy town. And while not all “native” property holders sold out to the Californians for huge profits, enough did so that the property taxes climbed sky-high. Soon, people whose family had owned the same place for generations had to sell it because they couldn’t afford the taxes. So they sold their old adobe homes and moved to the trailer parks outside of town. The land was more affordable there, and so were the trailers.
Downtown began to change, too. Unable to afford the escalated rent, Woolworth’s moved out. So did the shoe shop, the Sears and the old men who spoke Spanish. In their place came stores selling rugs from $5 to $50,000. Downtown began filling up with fancy boutiques and expensive hotels—pulling more outsiders in and pushing more locals out.
Ten years after moving away, I visited Santa Fe. The plaza, once the hub of local life and color, now looked like Disneyland: nothing but tourists and rich folk, and not a local in sight. Even when I’d lived there, Santa Fe had been a tough place for middle-class people to try to get by; now it seemed all but impossible.
And here I am singing the same sad blues about Asheville. I can see it coming: condos galore, but none at a price that anyone I know can afford. Plans for upscale boutiques alongside retail franchises. But if locals aren’t buying all this pricey real estate, who is? And who will shop in these exclusive stores?
Perhaps Asheville is overbuilding, and greed and shortsightedness will lead to an economic collapse, leaving all those condos empty and the retail shops unable to sell enough to pay their rent. Or maybe as more wealthy folks move into the area, the taxes will continue to escalate along with the cost of many other items, making it nearly impossible for those who have to work for a living to make it here. Meanwhile, with ever more high-rises and fewer unique businesses, Asheville will become more like Atlanta, Charlotte or some other city that people moved here in order to get away from.
As yet another high-rise gets thrown up to satisfy some greedy developer, another skyline is ruined, and the mountain views Asheville has always been known for become that much less visible. As more buildings, cars and rampant development clog our streets, pollute our air and obstruct our views, what will become of the Asheville so many of us have known and loved?
And if only the wealthy can afford the new condos, shops and property taxes, what will happen to us working folk? Asheville will have become simply one more destination for those who don’t have to concern themselves with earning money—and excessive wealth and greed will have snuffed out everything that’s made this such a vital and viable place to live. What a sad day that will be for the rest of us!
[Asheville resident Virginia Bower teaches writing and ESL at Mars Hill College.]