How did Asheville get its groove?

The Friday drum circle at Pritchard Park (photo by Nick King)

Given that everyone in Asheville seems to be marching to the beat of their own drum, how did we come together to form such a vibrant community? Are our individualistic tendencies a handicap, or have we learned to blend them into communal inspiration?

For the next few weeks, we hope to gain some insights into Asheville’s evolution by listening to the reminiscences of key residents who planned, fomented, induced or otherwise helped bring about the historic changes we live with today.

Asheville’s metamorphosis is a complex story, with many people contributing to it. Letting them tell their stories will take some time. And that’s without any ensuing discussions. Over the coming weeks of coverage, if you’d like to contribute your views, please email or add your comments to our online coverage at — Jeff Fobes, publisher

The View from the County Commission, by David Gantt

Getting from Then to Now, by Barbara Field

It Was Rough, It Was a Ghost Town, by Howard Hanger

Citizens Saved Downtown, by Edward Hay

Growing Up in Asheville, by Jan Davis

Proving the Naysayers Wrong, One Property at a Time, by Pat Whalen

The Rise of the Literary Scene, by Karen Ackerson

Asheville’s Culture Grew Out of Its Public Spaces, by Wally Bowen

Oh Asheville, My Asheville, by Andrea Helm

And in case you missed it, our Aug. 27 issue featured memories about Mountain Xpress’ early years.


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About Jeff Fobes
As a long-time proponent of media for social change, my early activities included coordinating the creation of a small community FM radio station to serve a poor section of St. Louis, Mo. In the 1980s I served as the editor of the "futurist" newsletter of the U.S. Association for the Club of Rome, a professional/academic group with a global focus and a mandate to act locally. During that time, I was impressed by a journalism experiment in Mississippi, in which a newspaper reporter spent a year in a small town covering how global activities impacted local events (e.g., literacy programs in Asia drove up the price of pulpwood; soybean demand in China impacted local soybean prices). Taking a cue from the Mississippi journalism experiment, I offered to help the local Green Party in western North Carolina start its own newspaper, which published under the name Green Line. Eventually the local party turned Green Line over to me, giving Asheville-area readers an independent, locally focused news source that was driven by global concerns. Over the years the monthly grew, until it morphed into the weekly Mountain Xpress in 1994. I've been its publisher since the beginning. Mountain Xpress' mission is to promote grassroots democracy (of any political persuasion) by serving the area's most active, thoughtful readers. Consider Xpress as an experiment to see if such a media operation can promote a healthy, democratic and wise community. In addition to print, today's rapidly evolving Web technosphere offers a grand opportunity to see how an interactive global information network impacts a local community when the network includes a locally focused media outlet whose aim is promote thoughtful citizen activism. Follow me @fobes

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6 thoughts on “How did Asheville get its groove?

  1. John

    Basically the Blue Ridge Mountains and tourists who come to see them gave it its groove. Talent and entertainers come here to cater to tourists. They in turn attract people more like them. Also, Asheville’s national advertising campaigns about its culture is its own self-fulfilling prophecy.

    • Jeff Fobes

      John: You’ve named two key drivers. But don’t you think there’s more? Maybe the word “groove” is coloring your perspective. What we were trying to get at is why is the town so full of vibrancy, alternatives, DIY-ness, individuality, creativity, etc. The hard work and passionate devotion of the ’80s and ’90s wasn’t about tourism.

      • John

        Actually by the 70’s, most downtowns around the country were in decline. Since city leaders work downtown and dilapidated buildings are an embarrassment, they will most likely revitalize downtown. I know a lot of downtowns around the country which were revitalized.

        How did Asheville get its groove? They capitalized on the potential tourism could bring. Tourism helped fund revitalization and helped create an image of Asheville which attracted people with the “groove”. A good percentage of the people downtown are tourists. I, like most locals, rarely venture downtown. New hotels support downtown businesses and revitalize whole neighborhoods.

        A congratulate all the hard work that started and sustain the process of revitalization. There is still a lot more to do. There are still more dilapidated buildings. The Biltmore corporate offices building (1 Pack Sq.) and other gross buildings need to come down. I like more granite curbing (like in Charleston, SC, parts of historic Raleigh, and New England) and real brick or stone for the sidewalks. A combination of real stone and brick like in E Main St in Norfolk, VA. is a good example. Also, Asheville needs to deal with its aggressive panhandlers. A friend of mine who visiting from out of state swears she will never visit downtown again. On our way from the parking garage to Mela India Restaurant, she was harassed by several aggressive panhandlers begging for money. City leaders need to get

  2. Margaret Williams

    Thank you, John, for sharing your thoughts on downtown. Do you think the tourist industry also creates some challenges for Asheville and the surrounding area, such as low wages? Also, looks like you had a little more to say there at the end? (“City leaders need to get….”).

    • John

      Asheville city leaders need to consider removing a lane on US 25/Biltmore Ave going south from downtown to at least Hilliard Ave. The whole road from Wendy’s to downtown is too narrow.

      Asheville is not the only area with low wages. At least low paid workers in Asheville have mountains and an awesome city to live in. I do support a higher minimum wage and a basic income guarantee on the federal level. Asheville itself shouldn’t hand out too many benefits or more transients will flock here. In the past, San Francisco’s direct cash payments for example to homeless people only increased their number. San Francisco, of course, is struggling with high rents and gentrification like Asheville is beginning to. If Asheville was to act alone, the solutions to these problems will always prove elusive. Asheville only has a finite amount of land to build on and resources to spend. I do think, however, abundance is achievable. All the food (vertical farming- lab grown meat) and energy (designer algae biofuels, PV windows/paint, energy efficiencies) we use can be produced right here in downtown Asheville. That sounds far out, yet a lot of books and science articles I’ve read have convinced me that it is indeed possible.

      • Jeff Fobes

        Many thanks for contributing your views. I’ll add a few of my personal ones.

        I like your call to think creatively and boldly about alternate food and energy sources. And your call to believe that abundance is possible. I, too, applaud the hard work of Asheville’s urban pioneers.

        The story of Asheville’s revitalization, or of its finding itself, however, goes beyond downtown. I would argue that Asheville started finding its groove well before tourism had a significant economic impact. As you noted, the region’s beauty (and arguably its isolation) has drawn rugged individualists here for generations. And, then, more settled here in the ‘70s and ‘80s, for the same reasons.

        Today’s influx of tourists is, in my view, one of the area’s big challenges and, even, threats. Our new national, even international, reputation, which has spawned an influx of out-of-region investors seeking opportunities for financial return, puts WNC in a position similar to an ecosystem under siege from invasive species. WNC has always had its influx of “foreigners,” but the flow has surged recently.

        I don’t share people’s desire to confront panhandlers and graffiti artists directly. These two groups do seem to be signs of social problems, but I see them more as pools of creativity and passion, individuals who can’t find a way to fit into mainstream society. For those of us who DO fit in, we should be asking ourselves what it is about our society that has created the outsider elements – and trying to figure out ways to engage them.

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