Let’s build on our assets

On a recent Sunday, the north end of Lexington Avenue (from Walnut Street to Interstate 240) was blocked off and transformed into a street fair. It was a magnificent happening. Artists showed their wares, street performers strutted their stuff, two bandstands kept the music going, and assorted refreshments provided fuel for the troops. Everyone had a wonderful time, nothing got out of hand, and a segment of the Asheville community that’s often seen as a problem had its day in the sun. This was a freak fair, a counter-culture gathering and party.

Some months ago, I wrote a commentary exploring the idea of making Asheville live up to its self-proclaimed image as a “Paris of the South” (Jan. 16 Xpress). In that piece, I recommended doing exactly what recently occurred on North Lexington, only on a permanent basis. And after experiencing the actual event, I am even more convinced that it should be converted into an ongoing attraction.

Asheville exists in tension between the aspirations of wildly different communities. We’re a center for independent, creative thought and lifestyles — and we’re also just another American city driven by middle-class values and commerce. Although these two communities often interact antagonistically, they’re completely interdependent and need each other if Asheville is to maintain its unique and very special flavor.

Many local middle-class folks don’t want Asheville to lose its creative, bohemian flavor and become another Hendersonville or Winston-Salem — in other words, homogeneous and franchised, just like a thousand other small cities across the nation. And the creative community needs the middle class to provide an economically viable and socially stable community in which they can exist.

My own vision for this community draws on San Francisco and Berkeley, where I lived before emigrating here. And though we’ll never have San Francisco’s vast diversity of cultures, we do have a smaller-scale version of it. At least four groups coexist in downtown Asheville: a very mainstream business-and-government culture; a creative, independent small-business culture; a counter-cultural bohemian community that’s home to the city’s artists and core creative energy (as well as some of its problematic, anarchistic tendencies); and the African-American community.

My vision for Asheville asks that the local bohemian and African-American cultures be recognized as legitimate and integral components of our community’s unique persona and that we validate their existence by allotting them vibrant community hubs.

The weekend before the Lexington fair was Goombay, the long-running annual street festival that celebrates African-American culture’s unique contribution to this city. It, too, was a wonderful event that enabled the community at large to experience and interact with a subculture that, for the most part, is only distantly experienced, often with suspicion.

How wonderful it would be — and how inspiring for this city — if Asheville could take these two celebrations and institutionalize them into something akin to Chinatown in San Francisco and Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, where an ethnic community and the hippie/alternative cultures, respectively, have recognized, identifiable places within the larger community. In both cases, what began as despised ghettos have become noteworthy contributing elements.

I would like to see South Market Street and North Lexington turned into ongoing street fairs featuring open-air markets and cultural celebrations. In this way, the infectious vibrancy of the street festivals could be converted into permanent community assets. And instead of being places for city residents and tourists to avoid, these two sections of the city could become attractions in their own right.

What would it take? I challenge city leaders to stop treating these two neighborhoods as pariahs and instead make the structural and zoning alterations that would establish them as genuine cultural centers interfacing with the mainstream community in creative and profitable ways.

Downtown Asheville continues to struggle with the “street people” who hang out, causing problems for mainstream businesses whose middle-class customers are repelled by the prospect of having to wade through a sea of assorted loiterers to get in the door. Why not let North Lexington Avenue be their home by design, instead of by default? The traffic doesn’t need to be blocked or permanent music pavilions set up, but the parking could be closed off and the street lined with artisans’ booths. Turn the parking lot by the highway into a park with a plaza and a fountain where jugglers and clowns can entertain and street vendors sell food. Then, several times a year, close off traffic, put up the music pavilions, and have a festival.

In both areas, we can install public restrooms, plenty of benches for people to sit on, and create natural gathering places. We can configure additional parking nearby, create decent and well-managed shelters for the homeless, and institute community-based counseling and drug-rehab programs for those who are now lost in their private hells, pissing in the alleys and panhandling. Police these areas with an eye not to harassing people but to keeping the place safe — and then make the greater community off limits to loitering. I am certain that the businesses around both North Lexington and South Market will prosper in such an environment, and the rest of downtown will benefit as well.

If we have the vision and generosity to really include everyone, all will benefit. This is an investment that will mark Asheville as a truly unique island of humanity, a welcome respite from the vast dead sea of franchised sameness that America has become. The vibrant past of American cities — the open-air markets set in small, diverse cultural enclaves within the larger community — can point the way to an equally vibrant future. Let’s do it!

[Therapist, meditation teacher and mediator Bill Walz lives in Asheville. He can be reached at (828) 258-3241.]

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