Growing up in Asheville

BOARDED UP: In this 1980s view from the Vance Monument, the buildings around Pack Square were boarded up and vacant. (Photo courtesy of Karen Tessier)

Congratulations on 20 years! It seems Green Line and Mountain Xpress have been a big part of the community far longer. I suspect that comes from my political side, though. I appreciate the opportunity to reminisce about the city and 20 years of memories about the place I love —particularly downtown and West Asheville.

A favorite Xpress memory was the story about the last Chimney Rock Hillclimb in April 1995. In all its glory, my bright yellow, much-modified VW Rabbit was included, with the Mountain Xpress logo on its flared rear fenders. It may have had some to do with the amount I was spending on advertising the tire store in the Xpress. For those new to the area, the Chimney Rock Hillclimb was a sports car race up the side of the famous monolith from the meadow to the top at high speed. Held every last weekend in April from 1956 to 1995, it was the right of spring to many of us growing up in Asheville. Drivers from throughout the country competed with a lot of local entrants and became the entry for many local drivers to compete in Sports Car Club of America racing national events.

Another great event the Xpress and I saw was the departure of the Southern Conference Basketball Tournament and its return. SoCon loved the community — even enough to locate its offices here. But SoCon’s head was turned by pretty new arenas and the allure of new money. We could not compete. In 2010, I had the pleasure of being one of the presenters for a bid for the tournament’s return. We got the bid on the presumption Asheville could modernize the Civic Center — a daunting and scary task that we accomplished with lots of community partnerships. SoCon loves us again. I was there to see us awarded the contract for another three years last year but, better still, Asheville has a much-improved arena.

The French Broad River was just beginning to be considered a resource rather than a dumping ground in ’90s. People questioned my sanity for wade fishing and floating for smallmouth bass. Now it is a huge recreational resource, with a hipster stew on inner tubes most summer days. Don’t tell anyone but the fishing is still great.

Sadly, the iconic New Asheville Speedway no longer runs Late Model feature events on Friday night with 5,000 avid fans in attendance every week of the 20-some week season. However, it has become our most-used and well-loved Carrier Park. The Speedway Memorial pays homage to that glorious past, but there is no track to fill the Speedway’s void today. I would love to see the late-model guys go at it one more time. I would even enjoy peeing into the trough type urinal against the wall of the men’s restroom outside the first turn bleachers after several Buds (craft beers weren’t available there).

Having spent my career in the downtown, with the last 30 years in my own small business on Patton Avenue, I have a many fond memories of our downtown, along with a few bad ones.

Homelessness was present way back then but was more representative of the chronic homeless than the transient population today. Yes, like today, we knew their names. Fish Hook and Tree are gone, replaced by Cowboy and Little Tennessee.

I was chairing the Planning and Zoning Commission when the public hearing for Wal-Mart on the old Sayles Bleachery property was heard. P&Z had two hearings, standing-room only, with people bused to the Public Works Building to be heard, with many opposed and very vocal. Two months later, the Target zoning was heard with two people mildly opposed to it at the hearing. Funny how we perceive things.

The Water Authority did a comprehensive cleaning of all the system’s main lines on one weekend, called the “Big Flush,” complete with T-shirts. It didn’t take much to entertain us back then.

Hazel Fobes was one of my sharpest critics and a good friend at the same time. She left a great fingerprint on community activism in our wonderful community.

The ’90s brought the 2010 Comprehensive Plan, the birth of the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) and ushered in the 2025 Plan; in spite of their faults, these documents have made Asheville a better place to live, work and raise a family.

Some of my favorite memories are of those early Downtown After Fives, intended to keep workers downtown on Friday evenings once a month. They were incredible parties, much smaller than today but growing to completely fill Pack Square, which is still my favorite venue. One of the best early day events was on top of the Rankin Street parking garage.

Bele Chere was the high point of summer and one of the biggest reasons people started coming back downtown after the exodus to the mall in the ’70s. I attended every Bele Chere and for many years closed my shop on Saturday and part of Friday because local people felt they couldn’t get downtown to do business. The festival did bring people back to town the rest of the year, though. I still have a lump in my throat having gone through July with no Bele Chere. It was really best when you had to buy beer in Gatsby’s while bands were playing in the adjacent parking lot, when Sonny Sparacino’s outdoor courtyard was the place to spend Sunday afternoon, Reverend Billy was young and really funny at Magnolia’s, when we had wine-waiter races, when we autcrossed on South Charlotte St., when we had hot-air balloon festivals, when the stage was on Page Avenue, watching Bo Diddley and John Mayall, when you could hang out on Rick and Todd’s balcony and headquarter at the Bier Garden. What wasn’t fun was the failed experiment of only buying beer in the “beer garden” and you had to drink it there under umbrellas.

There has always been an excitement for me in being downtown, even in those days just after the mall took the retailers and activity from our center city. There were great restaurants, though — not huge numbers but more than I could afford to eat at regularly. Grosvenor’s later became the City Club atop the Northwestern Bank Building which is now the BB&T. The Market Place on Market Street became Vincenzo’s by the early ’90s. Then Mark [Rosenstein] moved the Market Place to Wall Street, Jared’s on Haywood Street became the Flying Frog and there was another favorite, Café on the Square, to name a few. It was not all fine dining but great food — like Barley’s, Chickadee and Rye, the Paradise, Tom’s Grill, the Med, and Three Brothers (which I miss terribly). Be Here Now was the first great listening room, and 45 Cherry and Cinjades were great late-night spots. We would go to Vincent’s Ear to hear our son’s band, which never started until well after 11; I was never certain if it was being cool or their limited repertoire.

It is remarkable that West Asheville has changed as much since the early ’90s and yet retained a lot of what it was like. The majority of businesses there were small locally owned and family-operated. I miss buying appliances at Ace Appliance where Second Gear is now, Demos Appliances would loan you a replacement should your TV need to be repaired, and the business association paid for crisscrossed multicolored lights the length of Haywood Road during the Christmas season.

Bennett’s Drug Store, famous for hot dogs, where Spagnola’s is today, became Delores and Jose’s Mexican restaurant. They kept the hot dogs, then moved down the street and became, under new ownership, a local favorite, Zia. And, the Tastee Diner keeps on being an icon of West Asheville dining with incredible food and prices. My mother took me there for lunch on our walk back home after pre-registering me for elementary school at Aycock Elementary, now the Learning Center at the corner of Haywood Road and Interstate 240.

It has been a great run for the downtown and the Xpress. I can go on for pages of neat and quirky things about our city.

 

Jan Davis is an Asheville native, a 30-year, downtown family-business owner. He is former vice mayor and current member of the Asheville City Council since 2003.

 

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