Asheville’s tunnel vision

As the new tunnel through Beaucatcher Mountain neared completion in 1928, the prospect of expanding eastward toward Black Mountain excited local business leaders — especially the Board of Trade, whose mission was to promote Asheville’s image as a modern, progressive, “New South” city. Yet the growth that followed the tunnel’s opening — and, more than 40 years later, the construction of the Beaucatcher cut — did little to enhance either Asheville’s image or its prosperity.

And if the present City Council and local business leaders refuse to learn from history, we risk losing this city’s distinctive way of life and becoming just another McMetropolis that has little connection to anything singular or even local — and that gives visitors little reason to choose Asheville over a dozen other destinations.

The Board of Trade’s motto, “Transportation and Trade,” reflected its vision of Asheville as a bustling, time-is-money city — a place of infinite opportunities for enterprising, entrepreneurial, civic-minded residents. Backed by City Council, the board (formed in 1889) predated today’s Chamber of Commerce and mercantile associations.

In the 1920s, both Asheville and the Board of Trade had much cause for optimism. A seemingly open-ended 20-year boom had welcomed hosts of Floridians, Yankees and tourists who flocked to the mountains to take in the fresh air and savor the gaiety and glamour of one of the nation’s most sophisticated small cities. A brand-new, colossal City Hall designed by noted architect Douglas Ellington and a less artistically bold but equally impressive new county courthouse dominated an expanding urban landscape.

Streetcars radiated from Pack Square in all directions, disgorging thousands of passengers daily from all parts of the city and county into a bustling downtown. The future seemed both boundlessly assured and endlessly bountiful. And by linking Asheville with its eastern neighborhoods (and routing traffic away from the dingy warehouses and mills along the Swannanoa River), the new tunnel would open up countless opportunities for a growing Southern city — or so the thinking went.

In fact, however, east Asheville languished until the construction of the Asheville Mall and connecting freeways east and north of the city in the 1970s. And today, the area bears little resemblance to any vision that either the Board of Trade or City Council had for it in the 1920s. Instead, it smacks of the kind of cloned franchises found in almost any medium-sized town or city in the nation and is scarcely recognizable as a distinct urban place in the mountains. In other words, the tunnel vision of short-term market values clearly triumphed over the uniqueness of location, scenery and history.

And if Asheville once again embraces that same tunnel vision, the prosperous 1990s may eventually come to be seen as yet another funeral decade for this city. With the coming of the Great Depression, the opulent, self-centered, business-oriented Asheville of the 1920s was inadvertently transformed into a dispirited, skeletal remnant of its former self — a place not only of abandoned buildings and businesses but of forsaken ambitions and visions as well. The ensuing darkness and despair prevailed for nearly 50 years.

It wasn’t till the 1980s that Asheville’s recovery and subsequent renaissance began. The extraordinary affluence, diversity and energy that emerged have once again made Asheville one of the most interesting, eclectic small cities in the nation. Yet that very success also carries with it the seeds of its own destruction.

The current modification of the city’s vision for downtown Asheville seems eerily similar to what happened in the 1920s. The slow, gradual, even incremental growth of the 1980s, which gave Western North Carolina the best little accidental city in America, has achieved a degree of commercial success that’s now attracting the attention of such corporate entities as Subway and Starbucks (and, locally, the Grove Park Inn). In their wake have come the developers and real-estate speculators (whose counterparts Thomas Wolfe derided as “binder boys” almost a century ago).

Before the smaller boutiques, bookstores, coffeehouses and loft apartments succeeded, these franchises had shown little interest in downtown Asheville. Paradoxically, however, the emergence of a distinctive urban culture in the 1990s has spawned an economic environment that’s now endangering homegrown local businesses. And an economy founded on tourism, festivals, cafe culture and the city’s status as a regional governmental hub may unintentionally have impaired the very mercantile, intellectual and artistic vitality that created it.

When a public culture becomes a marketable urban amenity, larger outside enterprises invariably try to capitalize on it. In Charlotte, Atlanta and many other cities, Starbucks has replaced local coffee shops like Beanstreets, Barnes & Noble has supplanted smaller independent bookstores such as Malaprop’s, and Gaps and Banana Republics have displaced local vendors offering distinctive wares. And as Asheville’s present leadership has loosened building codes and shown its willingness to bargain away the precious public spaces adjacent to Pack Square and the Grove Arcade, Asheville has become just another urban battleground for appropriation and expansion.

Typically, the first step in this process is to marginalize local street vendors and artists; impose unnecessary restrictions on panhandlers, the homeless and other elements deemed undesirable; and promote the city center as a protected enclave for tourists and suburban consumers. Like the new Times Square in New York City (which could be reproduced anywhere in the world), Pack Square and its surrounding, unique public places may disappear altogether or be rendered unrecognizable. And the artists, craftspeople, intellectuals and small businesses that have animated this city’s cultural life may soon find that they can no longer afford to live downtown or even in adjacent areas. Without them, Asheville would be a decidedly less interesting and vital place.

Mayor Charles Worley and other city leaders would say they’re simply following an economic imperative that, in real-estate parlance, mandates “the highest and best use” of any property, whether public or private. Thus, warrens of funky loft apartments will be replaced by upscale condominiums; the green space adjacent to Pack Square will give way to concrete parks and corporate high-rises; local craft breweries will be elbowed out by chain pubs; and closet-sized burrito shops and delis will be succeeded by the usual fast-food franchises.

But in fact, no such ultimatum exists until or unless it is sanctioned by local law or practice. And while business-oriented city leaders may see Lexington Avenue as an eyesore inhabited by unwashed New Age hippies whose small-scale enterprises generate little tax revenue, in the end, Lexington Avenue — not the Grove Arcade — may prove to be the more profitable vision for Asheville.

In the long run, nostalgia and uniqueness sell better than commonality and clones. And if more of today’s Asheville manages to survive the current City Council’s tunnel vision, we all may be able to enjoy a less-haunted future.

[Milton Ready, a professor emeritus of history from UNCA, lives in Mars Hill. An updated edition of his book Remembering Asheville (EverReady Publications) was recently published, and another work, The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina (University of South Carolina Press) is due out this month.]

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