BY MILTON READY
Asheville justifiably enjoys a reputation as a great place to resettle or retire, as Beer City USA, as one of the nation’s most charming big towns/small cities and one of the funkiest fun places to live. After all, when did Modern Maturity and Rolling Stone ever agree about anything other than Asheville’s appeal? It’s time to strike up the Friday evening drum circle in Pritchard Park in celebration.
Still, all is not well in River City. Many, it seems, don’t like this new Asheville, this heady mix of New and Old Agers, this place of bliss and beauty.
Overall, the critics can be divided into three groups: the transplants who didn’t, some surrounding mountain neighbors and the conservative sanctorum in Raleigh. For them, it’s definitely “anywhere but Asheville” — socially, culturally and politically.
To many dreamers, schemers and transplants, Asheville has become a paradise lost — a place that, with great expectations and personal baggage, you came to, lived in and left but never loved. Many who came from cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta or even Denver — all “more sophisticated places with various types of industry and people of all types,” according to an anonymous contributor to one online forum — have found this Appalachian Shangri-La to be Shangri-Less. These people often seem astonished that, for all its touted diversity, Asheville didn’t have many black, Asian or Hispanic gays, that “vibrant single people of various ages” couldn’t be found, that overqualified professionals couldn’t find jobs that paid what their egos expected — and oh, yes, the sun shone only 58 percent of the time and the skies weren’t always Carolina blue. One critic noted that, although she loved Asheville, she “couldn’t stand the local people.” Bummers.
Another disillusioned blogger said the locals speak poorly while the hippies “smell bad, don’t comb their hair, dress in dirty clothing” and have “badly kept dreadlocks, nose piercings and ear plugs.” For an un-city, Asheville has too much traffic congestion and accidents, because folks here can’t drive the way they do in New York. Lastly, the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains more resemble “small hills,” and all the hikes look similar: too leafy and overgrown, too many bubbling streams to cross, trees and flowering native plants everywhere. Not at all like Central Park.
If you’ve traveled around the mountains of Western North Carolina, Hendersonville and Waynesville excepted, you’ve probably come across other condemnations of the “Little Paris of the South.” But these reasons smack more of cultural and historical differences, or maybe just plain dislike.
It all began with the coming of the railroad in the 1880s, which brought thousands of tourists, visitors, immigrants and “others” here. Asheville suddenly became snobby, clubby, pricy and exclusive: no room for locals at the Battery Park Hotel or the Grove Park Inn. Class, rank and status had come to an egalitarian mountain society.
Yet Asheville’s current success as a diverse, middle-class, year-round resort town — a charming, cosmopolitan small city where anyone can go to Biltmore House — has only deepened mountaineers’ resentment. Visit towns like Marshall, Robbinsville or Newland, and you’ll soon understand why.
For many mountain people, Asheville is a cesspool of vice, iniquity and godlessness, a haven for nomadic freaks and hippies, a place where you can’t even get any real American food. Music? Go to The Depot in Marshall on Friday nights and hear real mountain music, not the stuff The Orange Peel serves up. The plain truth is that Asheville’s vaunted diversity makes it too uncomfortably “peculiar” for most mountaineers, who prefer their neighbors white, straight and kin. Heck, Sodom and Gomorrah had better reputations. Moreover, Asheville has too few Baptist churches and too many Episcopal, Presbyterian, Catholic, New Age and Jewish houses of worship.
The conservative General Assembly in Raleigh seems to share those views, supposedly referring to Asheville as “that granola ghetto,” the freakiest place in North Carolina, a liberal outpost that needs to be isolated so it doesn’t contaminate other righteous-voting mountain counties. Better to turn over Asheville’s fortunes to Buncombe County, a conservative bastion, and marginalize it politically. After all, if the counties around Asheville hadn’t voted overwhelmingly for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Thom Tillis in 2014, North Carolina would have selected Obama and Kay Hagan, a prospect that still haunts Republicans and Raleigh. Both Romney and Tillis won by paper-thin majorities, thanks largely to rock-ribbed mountain counties and restrictive voting laws.
What to make of all this? Not much. A great deal of the censure seems rooted in envy, pedestrian resentment, traditional rural/suburban/urban antagonisms and grudging admiration. Indeed, much of it stems from Asheville’s success on a larger regional and national stage, which necessarily brings with it more attention, judgment and evaluation.
Lastly, when considering Asheville’s detractors, the literary figure Mrs. Grundy comes to mind. The very personification of the tyranny of convention and respectability, the prudish, narrow-minded Mrs. Grundy was a tireless dispenser of dire disapproval. What would she say about Asheville? See all of the above.
And meanwhile, most of us might wish that the Grundys of the world lived anywhere but Asheville. Drum on, brave city!
Milton Ready is a retired UNCA history professor and Mars Hill resident.