How Asheville became (and continues to be) the most exciting small city

Does anyone remember the early 1990s in Asheville, a time when Bill Clinton was president, Jim Hunt the governor of North Carolina, and there wasn’t a parking or traffic problem at all?

Mountain Xpress wouldn’t come into being until 1994, the year before Gannett Co. bought out the Asheville Citizen-Times. Fine cuisine? Mark Rosenstein had just begun that tradition in Asheville with The Market Place. You could enjoy coffee and a live mic at Beanstreets, savor some of the best vegetarian dishes at the Laughing Seed (an ingenious name for a restaurant), buy beads and bangles on Wall Street, hang out at the eclectic Malaprop’s Bookstore, come to a burgeoning outdoor festival oddly called Bele Chere, and enjoy gourmet sweets at the Chocolate Fetish. It was all just the beginning.

Within a few short years, Asheville had gained its “new age” identity, while North Carolina had lost its image as a progressive Southern state. When conservatives swept most state and national offices, the Mountain Xpress had grown to 80-or-so-page issues, the city actually had a club scene, and Asheville had become a granola ghetto in one of the South’s most reactionary states. It still is.

Perhaps no one chronicled Asheville’s evolution better than Rolling Stone magazine. In the spring of 2000, one of its young writers, Erik Hedegaard, came visiting “the rustic town of Asheville.” There he found not a miniature Charlotte or Atlanta but instead, “America’s new freak capital.” It wasn’t, of course, but it did qualify as one of the most interesting places Rolling Stone had come across, remarkable in itself.

Hedegaard fairly gushed at the number of “hippies, neo-hippies … witches, pagans, the homeless and the lost, … braggarts, … crystal worshippers, … anarchists, performance artists,” Rastafarians, Native American wannabees and dreadlockers in strange conical hats and beards — all of whom had flocked to Asheville in the closing decades of the 20th century.

So had a great many well-dressed, well-connected, well-mannered and well-heeled visitors, many of whom stayed. They, too, fairly gushed at Asheville’s uniqueness. At the Fresh Market in North Asheville, one older, retired Floridian supposedly turned to her husband and said, “Harry, when one of us dies, I’m moving to Asheville.” Many did.

But why? Hedegaard typically found that the new hippies and retirees came not only for “the majestic, electrifying charge of the Blue Ridge Mountains,” but because Asheville promised the best natural high in the nation, an unspoiled, un-urban uncongested, unpolluted, yet still manageable small city.

When combined with lots of empty buildings from the 1970s, reasonable housing, small-town amenities and a tolerant majority culture, Asheville seemed to have hit upon a mystic formula that would make it the most interesting small city in America, at least for a Camelot moment.

Perhaps no one was more astonished at Asheville’s new millennium incarnation than the city fathers themselves. They had envisioned and planned a revitalized city built around streetscapes, a downtown health adventure, a state-of-the-art performance theater, museum, urban trail, upscale restaurants, downtown condos, some indoor/outdoor sidewalk cafés, a restored Grove Arcade and a protected historic district. For them, Asheville once again would be the cultural, artistic, literary, commercial, political and crafts center of Western North Carolina, just as it had been in the 1920s — a tourist haven, but assuredly not the nation’s new freak capital. Asheville’s visionaries did not foresee a born-again hippie culture that resembled that of the 1960s, only with more pierced body parts and less political angst.

Asheville’s subsequent history became that of two cultures.

The new Asheville that emerged in the last two decades at first successfully avoided the chains, franchises and corporate clones that clogged faceless cities like Charlotte. In saving the city’s downtown from the mall and franchise frenzy of the 1980s and 1990s, Asheville’s leaders instead inadvertently had encouraged smaller, unique, locally owned businesses to locate in scores of half-empty buildings. Locate they did. Meanwhile, the ubiquitous bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble, the trendy “McBurgers” eateries like Applebee’s and Chili’s, and the typical cineplexes offering the same six movies chose instead to line Tunnel and Hendersonville roads just outside downtown —whether due to codes, coincidences or corporate indifference.

Downtown, a new ambience emerged that reflected the feel of Beanstreets, the Mystic Café, Malaprops, Wings, the Captain’s Bookshelf and Laurey’s — the quintessential Asheville café and caterer. Soon distinctive specialty shops like Indo, Ad Lib, Constance’s Boutique, and more massage, natural health, healing and yoga clinics than any normal stress would suppose sprouted up throughout downtown Asheville.

Yet the hole-in-the wall boutiques and shops weren’t just gaps in Asheville’s new cultural and economic renaissance, but rather their mainstay. Soon small condos and converted loft apartments followed. But would it last?

The greatest threat to Asheville’s culture of eclectic, dynamic young neo-hippies and new middle-class urbanists came not from its city fathers, but rather from the good life these people enjoyed. A commercial as well as a cultural phenomenon, Asheville quickly made the nation’s top-10 list of just about everything. It became a target for corporations, commercial franchises, expensive condominiums, upscale restaurants and tourist hotels. Chain operations, like Subway, Aloft and Starbucks, sprouted around Barley’s and Tupelo Honey Café, with more to come. Rents skyrocketed and suddenly Asheville became unaffordable to many. Julian Price, who tirelessly advocated for affordable housing in the downtown area, would have been dismayed. Lexington Avenue, “the oasis of otherness,” became just another downtown street. Was Asheville’s Camelot moment ending?

Not really. Perhaps the best barometer of what has happened to Asheville since 1995 can be found in the pages of Mountain Xpress and along Haywood Road in West Asheville. The new urban streetscape in West Asheville looks astonishingly like Eric Hedegaard’s Lexington Avenue of 2000, while the best weathervane of contemporary Asheville still can be found in the Xpress’ letters to the editor, club scene, advertisements, articles and coverage of local politics. Mountain Xpress’ first cover featured a crack-smoking rabbit and a more recent one depicts the best brews in the mountains, both challenging us appreciate what makes Asheville one the best natural highs in the nation.

Retired UNC Asheville history professor Milton Ready lives in Mars Hill.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

3 thoughts on “How Asheville became (and continues to be) the most exciting small city

  1. M Hooper

    You mean the asheville of before it became the number one city to retire to? Before the traffic. Before it took 7 minutes or less to get from Biltmore to Beaver Lake? Before the AVL Mall area traffic backed up onto the Interstate? Before all that? Before downtown parking became a nightmare? Ah, those were the days. Even with the stinky buses around Pritchard Park back then, those were the days.

  2. John Watkins

    I ran the old cut rate shoe shop on collaege st where the bb t bldg. is in the early 50s

  3. Bob Moran

    A ‘villa area is as beautiful as the Pacific N W, Vermont
    & the N Italian Bologna area mts. The people are so
    Friendly & the music at ISIS pure heaven & so is the food & drink wherever one goes. Nothing quite like it
    In N America including BC CANADA. Coming east from Knoxville or S from Shenandoah Valley on 81 are part of the scenic joy of heading to A Ville.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.