Can Asheville draw on the past to build its future?

Milton Ready Courtesy photo


In reality, Asheville’s had a housing crisis since 2008. So has much of the nation. Thought of as a continuum, that crisis often produces more homelessness, less affordable housing for the middle class and service workers, exploitive rents and exorbitant, unaffordable prices for most singles, young marrieds and beginning families. Although Asheville’s lingering housing crisis was on the ballot in November, don’t look for a quick solution in that eternally problematic political relationship among elected officials, local neighborhood associations and aggressive, hubristic developers.

Today, Asheville’s a tourist destination fueled by wealth-take-all capitalism beset with growing urban issues such as parking, pollution, land use, development, affordable housing, crime and allocation of tax revenues. Yet are all these intractable problems with only temporary solutions? Not really. Here are some considerations.

1. First, don’t look for any help from the N.C. General Assembly in terms of restructuring tax allocations, in water billing or annexation possibilities. In fact, dominated by rural populists, the General Assembly loathes Asheville as it does other large cities like Charlotte and only seeks to limit and balkanize its political influence through gerrymandering and redistricting, while utilizing its authority to starve the city of revenues and resources. Think of the decadeslong planning and building of Interstate 26 as Raleigh’s revenge on Asheville.

2. Whatever happened to visionaries who, in the past, had different approaches to what Asheville should be all about? Although it’s easy, even fashionable, to be critical of “top down” planners like James Madison Chiles, (Kenilworth) John Nolen (1920s Asheville and Myers Park in Charlotte), and Richard Sharp Smith, (Biltmore House, Biltmore Village and the Biltmore “style”), all left permanent imprints upon Asheville, its neighborhoods and, indeed, on much of Western North Carolina. We need more Nolens today, along with more contemporary big thinkers like the late philanthropist Julian Price, attorney and former Asheville Vice Mayor Gene Ellison and the late Karen Cragnolin, whose vision and hard work at RiverLink helped transform the River Arts District.

While the tidy minds, miniature models and magic chalkboards of developers are seductive, they also propagate architectural monocultures that would make areas of Asheville a world apart from its quaint, diverse, mixed-housing, street-based neighborhoods that dot its landscape. Really now, would you rather have a tower block of apartments or a Norwood Park in your future? Or both? Then, too, has any planning committee ever asked a tenant’s perspective on the flaws and benefits of construction, layout or constraints of living in a tower block of apartments? Or in West Asheville?

3. Asheville’s urban problems are not new, unique or intractable. Go back and read Nolen’s 1925 Asheville City Plan for perspective. It aimed for “relief of Asheville’s traffic problems, rapidly assuming serious proportions” via widening main avenues, adding more trolley car and bus routes, and, not surprisingly, for recreation areas such as a city park and municipal golf course. Moreover, it also promoted tourism, in making Asheville and Western North Carolina “one of the playgrounds of the nation.”

4. Don’t be overly distracted by prickly class-based problems coded in terms like “affordable housing,” “service workers,” “elite lanes for bicyclists,” “Nimbys vs. Newbies,” or “environmentally sustainable and ecologically friendly.”  Biltmore Village initially was thought a “A Millionaire’s Village,” while West Asheville was the city’s “redheaded stepchild,” and Lexington Avenue was the heart of America’s “freak capital.” Remember when Asheville was thought to be a “granola ghetto” in the mountains? And who could have imagined the River Arts District just a few years ago? Yet just look at them today. Neighborhoods and streetscapes change, as do demographics and economies.

5. To argue that neighborhoods like Charlotte Street or a small city or town like Asheville or Blowing Rock need more rapid “development” is to disregard their current prosperity, slow growth, re-formations and continuing appeal. Frankly, a small dose of exclusivity — not in wealth, but in preserving and promoting distinct, diverse neighborhoods and streetscapes — would only make Asheville more alluring and, yes, as a building form, even tower blocks of apartments have their place.

6. When building Asheville’s future, only a single standard should determine what kind of city it will be: Does the change enhance or contribute to the special qualities of a place and of those who live there or doesn’t it? As you look around and consider the future, what do you want to keep, even safeguard? What matters to you the most? Small neighborhoods and communities? A unique sense of place and its environment? More affordable housing? What makes you love Asheville so much that you would be moved to action? What do you really want for a future Asheville you probably will never see or live in?

7. Finally, why not examine Asheville through two perspectives? One from a bustling downtown, where former hippies have become small-business owners, condos and apartments sprout above Haywood Street, and throngs of tourists crowd shops and restaurants. Then view it from steamy windows around Asheville Middle School on South French Broad Avenue, where historic African American churches still hold services, whites usually play tennis at Aston Park and the homeless sleep under nearby trees not far from where the tattooed young walk on downtown sidewalks, and, as the 1971 Coca-Cola song lyrically longed for, everyone lives in almost perfect harmony. Yet that, too, is changing.

Retired UNC Asheville history professor Milton Ready lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina.




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5 thoughts on “Can Asheville draw on the past to build its future?

  1. Robert

    “Then, too, has any planning committee ever asked a tenant’s perspective on the flaws and benefits of construction, layout or constraints of living in a tower block of apartments? ”

    I would add that many of the hubristic developers proposing large developments that greatly harm neighborhoods of essential workers (Bluffs, Pinners Cove, Aiken Road, and on and on) not only rarely live here; they flaunt their disdain for existing communities and again and again attempt to game the system by trying to squirm out of conditional zoning, community meetings, and other such safeguards that are meant to shape and protect our homes, children, natural environment and quality of lives. Shame on all local officials and land-use attorneys who continue to enable such vile behavior.

  2. indy499

    Your entire premise is off base when you write; When building Asheville’s future, only a single standard should determine what kind of city it will be: Does the change enhance or contribute to the special qualities of a place and of those who live there or doesn’t it?

    40 million people are on their way to the US in the next 30 years (some walking/some born). Some of them are going to live in our region. That’s going to change things for the people who live here. Get over it.

    • Brittney Schuit

      Well put. Thank you for making me smile. It was nice to remember what this place was and the amazing people who use to cherish its beauty.

      • indy499

        You don’t know what to population will be in 2050 and either do I. The official census estimate is +50 million from the current 335 to 385. That’s 10 million more than in my comment. Try not to be a nit.

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