Asheville’s culture grew out of its public spaces

RENAISSANCE: Occupied by the federal government for decades, with interior space dedicated to such agencies as the National Climatic Data Center but exterior spaces vacant and boarded up, the Grove Arcade has become a commercial and residential gem. Photo courtesy of Karen Tessier

It’s no surprise that downtown Asheville was the birthplace of Mountain Xpress. In the 1990s, downtown was an incubator for alternative media and independent voices.

I moved to an office on Battery Park Avenue in the spring of 1991 to launch a nonprofit called Citizens for Media Literacy, thanks to a grant from Julian Price, who was also a benefactor to Mountain Xpress. CML aimed to help people, young and old, think critically about mass media and to act on that critical awareness to create new avenues for citizen speech controlled by Main Street instead of Wall Street.

This idea was inspired by the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas and his theory of the “public sphere” as the essence of participatory democracy. According to Habermas, the public sphere has three critical ingredients: public spaces — such as coffee shops, pubs and town squares — where people from all walks of life can gather and informally share information; access to diverse ideas and views via a variety of media (books, newspapers, radio/TV and lectures/debates); and good journalism to help focus public attention on the issues that matter most.

By 1991, the U.S. public sphere had become, in Habermas’ words, an “empty facade.” Public spaces were being abandoned for the privatized, apolitical world of the shopping mall, while corporate media served up tepid journalism based on official sources and “he said/she said” reporting. CML’s goal, therefore, was to reclaim the public sphere at the local level by creating new spaces for grassroots journalism via public-access TV, low-power FM radio and the Internet.

Downtown Asheville was a great place to begin this work in 1991. Green Line, which would become Mountain Xpress, had moved into the Miles Building down the street from my office. As an early Green Line volunteer, I was pleased to have alternative media colleagues nearby.

Downtown had all the ingredients for a robust public sphere. Foremost was a critical mass of “third places,” a term popularized by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his 1991 book, The Great Good Place. For Oldenburg, home and work are the first and second places of our lives, but they are more or less private, where access is controlled and, in the case of work, time is tightly scheduled.

Third places, by contrast, are the informal gathering spots of Habermas’ public sphere — the coffee shops, diners, pubs and other public spaces that form the crucible of a democratic culture. They tend to have a regular clientele and an informal, even playful, mood, says Oldenburg. Though radically different, “the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends. [Third places] are the heart of a community’s social vitality, the grassroots of democracy, but sadly, they constitute a diminishing aspect of the American social landscape.”

Social capital is an invaluable resource created with the help of third places, where information sharing, trust and reciprocity are common, as in the sitcom Cheers, “where everybody knows your name.” Critical to this social-capital formation in downtown Asheville was a growing cadre of local business owners. These familiar faces made downtown a true neighborhood, imparting a sense of community and authenticity so glaringly absent in the anonymity and sterility of a shopping mall.

In downtown Asheville in the early 1990s, third places were alive and well — and growing, thanks to the cheap rents and available spaces as the city awakened from decades of slumber. My favorites included the downstairs café of Malaprop’s Bookstore, where a young poet named Laura Hope-Gill served cappuccinos and organized weekly open-mic sessions for aspiring writers and musicians.

Stone Soup at the corner of Broadway and Walnut, and later on Wall Street, was a lunch and breakfast spot popular with local progressives. Laughing Seed and Jack of the Wood soon followed, as did popular coffee shops, such as Beanstreets, Gold Hill and Old Europe. Some of the most democratic spaces were the basketball court and locker room at the YMCA, where activists routinely rubbed shoulders with establishment types such as judges, lawyers and elected officials.

Other important third places for me were Jubilee! Community, Be Here Now’s weekly contra dances and poetry slam nights at the green door.

One of the most important public spaces was Pack Library’s Lord Auditorium, named for Anthony “Tony” Lord, the Asheville architect and advocate for making downtown a “people place.” Lord Auditorium became the heart of CML’s community organizing. It hosted the first community meeting in 1993 to brainstorm how the Internet could be harnessed for citizens’ speech, grassroots democracy and community problem-solving. These meetings gave birth in 1995 to the Mountain Area Information Network, one of the nation’s first online community networks.

Similar meetings were held in 1996 to raise awareness about the arcane issue of cable-TV franchise renewals, which the city and county would negotiate with the powerful cable companies. This seven-year organizing effort led to the creation of local government TV channels, enabling local residents to view live City Council and county commission meetings. It also led to the 2003 launch of URTV, the first public-access TV channel west of Charlotte.

A turning point in this struggle was a chance encounter I had with Nathan Ramsey, then chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, in the men’s locker room of the YMCA; he agreed to review evidence that the cable contract negotiated by the county’s consultant was flawed. That review led commissioners to reject the proposed contract and to create a citizens task force to give input to staff for a new contract that ensured adequate funding for a public-access channel, plus expanded broadband access for county schools.

Other important downtown venues were Jubilee! Community and Pack Place, which enriched the local public sphere by hosting notable CML speakers such as Bill McKibben, Howard Zinn, Andre Codrescu and Leslie Savan, author of The Sponsored Life: Ads, TV and American Culture. Several of these events were broadcast live by WCQS, including a memorable talk by the Rev. W.W. Finlator, pastor of Raleigh’s Pullen Memorial Baptist Church and a legendary First Amendment advocate.

Perhaps the greatest third places were downtown’s sidewalks, where meaningful chance encounters were so common that I constantly felt blessed by the Goddess of Serendipity. If I had a project that needed a certain talent or skill set, it wasn’t long before the person or persons I needed appeared. Social scientists would no doubt attribute this phenomenon to a strong social network, but it still seemed magical to me.

In the early 1990s, these chance encounters invariably ended with, “I will call you,” or a similar pledge for continued conversation and collaboration. By the end of the decade, these encounters were more likely to end with “I will email you.”

Jurgen Habermas turned 85 this past June, an occasion he marked by giving an interview on the “The Public Sphere and What the Web Can’t Do.” “After the inventions of writing and printing,” said Habermas, “digital communications represents the third great innovation on the media plane.” For the first time in history, he said, “we see a sort of ‘activation’ in which readers themselves become authors.”

But this has produced “billions of digital archipelagos” and a chaos of “digital noises.” As a result, said Habermas, “the Web actually dispels and distracts” the public sphere’s essential purpose: to concentrate public attention on “politically important questions.”

What’s missing is the “inclusive force of a public sphere highlighting what things are actually important.”

What is this inclusive force? “The skills of good old journalism — as necessary today as they were yesterday,” said Habermas. That’s why we all should wish Mountain Xpress all the best for the next 20 years.

 

Wally Bowen is the founder of the Mountain Area Information Network and MAIN-FM 103.7.

 

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