BY JERRY STERNBERG
As some of you already know, my speedometer rolled over to 90 on Dec. 7. It was the most exciting birthday I ever had — except for the first one, of course, but I was too young to have any memory of that. This time around, people showered me with cards, letters and well-wishes; I’m particularly grateful to those who honored me by making a charitable donation in my name.
Many people have said to me, “I’ll bet Asheville has changed a lot since you were born.” After thinking about it, though, I would have to answer “Yes — but really, not so much.”
Sure, our population has doubled, and the transportation corridors have been modified and expanded to accommodate the automobile. Like me, however, the city’s bones remain much the same, even if they’ve been fleshed out considerably.
Continuity and change
I was born in Biltmore Hospital, which is no longer a hospital, though the structure still stands. Biltmore Village has been well preserved, and while it’s now home to a large hotel and a McDonald’s and has survived numerous floods, the area retains the same character envisioned by George Vanderbilt’s architects.
Yet I remember when the old passenger rail depot, now a restaurant, had a segregated waiting room: The only Blacks allowed in the white section were porters and the nannies who tended to children.
To the north, Biltmore Avenue is still home to McCormick Field and assorted shops. The majestic Asheville High School still stands on McDowell Street, accessed through the narrow tunnel. And despite Mission Health’s massive expansion, from the street, the St. Joseph’s campus looks much the same.
Downtown, meanwhile, is a mix of old and new, with a high-rise hotel now towering over our first great skyscraper, the Jackson Building. In 1977, a whole block of deteriorating buildings on the north side of Pack Square was purchased and demolished, replaced by an I.M. Pei-designed office building housing the world headquarters of Akzona Inc. It is now the Biltmore Building.
The beautiful City Hall and the county courthouse still dominate the east end of Pack Square Park. The old Pack Library, the former Plaza Theatre and the shops on the west side still look the same; indeed, the square itself seems little different than when we kids joined the joyful crowd celebrating V-J Day, the end of World War II, in 1945, cheering and dancing around the soon-to-be-removed Vance Monument.
Of course, the separate Black and white drinking fountains and segregated bathrooms are long gone.
Patton Avenue hasn’t changed much except for a couple of big new banks. The facade of the S&W Cafeteria building seems about the same as it did when we high school kids used to change buses and socialize across the street in Pritchard Park. Most of the stores on Haywood Street remain, though with different tenants. The former George Vanderbilt Hotel building looms over the now modernized and expanded Civic Center, where the community gathered for patriotic rallies during World War II.
The old Battery Park Hotel and the adjacent Grove Arcade both testify to E.W. Grove’s considerable impact on downtown. But those structures, as well as the nearby federal courthouse, appear no different to me than they did when my mother used to take me to the arcade for ice cream and to see the floats, bands and baby parade during the weeklong Rhododendron Festival.
War and peace
Heading west toward Haywood County back then, one would follow Haywood Road down to Clingman Avenue, passing a large bakery and various residences till you came to the massive Dave Steel Co. on your left. Near the bridge a string of buildings housed the Farmers’ Federation co-op operated by Jamie Clarke’s family. To the northwest, one could see the Main Auto Parts junkyard, several tobacco warehouses, the Asheville Stockyards and the J.A. Baker Packing Co. in the valley. Thanks to the New Belgium Brewing complex, this area still has an industrial look. As you proceed up the hill to Beacham’s Curve and on down Haywood Road, there’s little obvious change in the structures.
In those days, most folks living in East Asheville had little reason to visit West Asheville, which consisted of a mill town and farmland. Today, those former mill worker dwellings have been restored and it’s considered a very chic neighborhood.
My most vivid memory of West Asheville is going to the ISIS Theater with my friends for my 11th birthday party on Dec. 7, 1941. We watched the black-and-white movie Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring Spencer Tracy. As we rode home in the car, we heard that the Japanese had attacked the American base at Pearl Harbor.
Because the French Broad River has been flowing through the valley forever, what’s now the River District has not so much changed as it has evolved. The coming of the railroad created huge coal-burning industries and thousands of jobs. Many of those old buildings, including part of the burned-out cotton mill, have been restored and are now entertainment and tourist venues. The picturesque old passenger depot has been demolished, but the more pedestrian Glen Rock Hotel, once the center of a thriving commercial area, still stands, as do many other now repurposed structures.
Renovation, recreation and commerce
The sizable part of town bounded by Depot Street, Southside Avenue, South Charlotte Street and The Block, which was mostly an African American area, contained many substandard houses that lacked central heating and indoor plumbing. Many of the residents were subsequently moved into public housing, but a large portion of Stephens-Lee High School still stands, a poignant reminder of what this outstanding institution meant to the community.
One of my great memories is our periodic Sunday visits to the timeless, superexciting Recreation Park. For us kids, holding your breath while passing through the tunnel en route to the park was obligatory.
Merrimon Avenue has seen considerable commercialization, but there are residential neighborhoods on both sides that have been there as long as I can remember. Claxton School, which I began attending in 1936, still serves the community’s children. Small trading areas like Woolsey Dip and Grace still retain recognizable features.
Beaver Lake remains the crown jewel of Lakeview Park, and the Beaver Lake Golf Club, now the Country Club of Asheville, still contributes to the ambience created by the many stately homes that dominate the landscape.
E.W. Grove and Fred Seely would have no problem recognizing the Grove Park neighborhood that they helped develop. The golf course there and the surrounding houses are largely unchanged. I recently saw kids sledding down the sixth hole, just as I did 80 years ago. The iconic Grove Park Inn still overlooks the neighborhood. It has grown wings, but I have never seen it fly.
So has Asheville changed? Well, it has modernized, infilled and expanded transportation corridors, but it’s basically the same wonderful little mountain town I’ve known all my life.
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at email@example.com.