Letter: Be aware of tourism’s links to gentrification

Graphic by Lori Deaton

Dear Adrienne from Vermont,

We appreciate your letter to the Xpress [“Will I Be Welcome in Asheville?” July 11] because it provides an opportunity to explain what is going on in Asheville and why you are sensing hostility to tourism. What you perhaps don’t know is that because of the relentless advertising of Asheville’s charms in places like New England and Florida and the “Best Place to Live/Retire” rankings, many people come here as tourists and then move here or buy second homes.

The reality is that Asheville is facing an economic tsunami. We are a small city of 90,000 residents. Yet, we are the second-fastest gentrifying city in the entire U.S., according to Realtor.com. There is enormous economic pressure on our town. People like us, looking for a progressive, vibrant, diverse community with good weather come here with cash in hand from selling our own homes in high-priced markets. We are able to buy and build homes that are far more expensive than most Asheville residents can afford.

Most urgently, gentrification is creating a demand for buildable lots and houses within the city limits that is invading our historic African-American neighborhoods and displacing lifelong residents who have been here for generations. The economic pressure has skyrocketed Asheville housing prices and rents. Despite attempts at affordable housing, we are losing our artists and musicians, our service workers, our health care workers, our graduating students, our young families, our kids, who can no longer afford to live here.

But do come visit us and support our African-American businesses like the Hood Tours, which may give you a deeper understanding of our history. And come soon before gentrification eats our economic, racial and cultural diversity for lunch.

— Pamela Brown and
Michael Dowling


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8 thoughts on “Letter: Be aware of tourism’s links to gentrification

  1. Stan Hawkins

    Well said! Investment will always chase a shrinking pie until there is no pie left. At that point, well history provides many examples of what can happen then, including your warning.


  2. Jay Reese

    My intent is not to discount the centuries of systematic abuse of the poor and people of color at the hands of a minority white male power structure. I am only pointing out the logical steps forward needed to improve this relationship.

    First of all, Gentrification is merely a community’s evolution towards a middle class lifestyle which seems to be an inherent and necessary part of our economic system given the strength of a nation lies within its middle class. As with the ocean tide you can stand on the shoreline bemoaning the neverending crashing of the waves pushing you back to shore or you can learn to build a boat and ride the tide out and sail the world.

    The trail map to the proverbial middle class gateway can be find at the local school or library. By learning the way and keeping your pack light (no kids, criminal records, addictions or bad beliefs and ideas) it becomes a simple matter of putting one foot in front of another and paying attention to what’s going on around you and adapting to the changing landscape.


  3. SpareChange

    It is at best a serious misreading of Asheville history, and at worst a purposeful ignoring and reframing of the past in order to suit some broader political point, to suggest that the disruption of predominantly African-American neighborhoods, and the dislocation of its residents, is in any large part due to the more recent tourism boom. While the tourism economy of post 2000 Asheville is not providing much in the way of direct benefits to predominantly African-American neighborhoods and residents, we need to look elsewhere, and several decades back in time, if we are to understand the causes of the problems the letter writers identify.

    It has become popular in contemporary Asheville politics to just throw the word “gentrification” around as some kind of catch-all trope, that is supposed to explain most of Asheville’s problems, and especially those relating to economic and racial disparities. It has become even more popular to blame all these faceless tourists, outsiders, and newcomers for producing this plague. However, doing so is nothing but lazy thinking and scapegoating, and Asheville residents would do better to examine their own town’s and local governments’ actions and inactions over the years.

    Even a cursory review of development and redevelopment activity in Asheville over the past 60 years will show that it was mainly urban renewal policies in the 60s and 70s (and ongoing through the 90s) that did the earliest and most significant damage to historically black neighborhoods and businesses. It was these policies that directly resulted in the road and other construction that cut through long established neighborhoods. It was these policies which resulted in the destruction of housing, the loss of connection and community, the end of close associations between home and work and other neighborhood institutions, resulting in the loss of communal, family and individual identity. It was these policies that prompted those being displaced to move to public housing projects purposefully located in more remote locations around town. It was not tourists or outside speculators buying up property and forcing people out that were the most significant catalysts for these conditions.

    Significantly, these policies occurred at a time when Asheville had very little tourism, and was struggling economically. Most of downtown was boarded up and underutilized. Most of the hotels which did exist were gradually converted to subsidized low income housing, or residential hotels for people with low incomes. Surely the letter writers do not view the gentrification process that saved and revitalized downtown as a singularly negative process.

    Asheville certainly faces challenges that are more directly due to its revived popularity as a tourist destination. There is a growing bimodal divide separating those who are primary beneficiaries of all this new economic activity, and those who are being largely left out of the tourism boom. While supportive of the letter writers’ suggestion that visitors do some deeper digging, and learn something about the community they are visiting, laying blame at the feet of those who are coming here ignores a much more important history of policies that were perpetuated by locals, and that are largely removed from these more contemporary events and challenges.

    Just one good source, containing articles written by several local Asheville historians, activists and residents, which in turn cite numerous other sources, is found here:

    • Stan Hawkins

      Thank you for a stark reminder of the root causes of our current mixed bag of achievements and failures in the Asheville area. I was a resident of Asheville in the 1960’s before my family moved away for economic reasons. The memory of the boarded-up buildings and the segregated undertones of Asheville culture is firmly fixed in the memory of my childhood.

      Today, most of us struggle to understand how so much, at least outwardly or perceived economic progress, can result in such a disparity of living standards, wages, and opportunities in a city that proudly flies the flag of progressivism. Surely these trends, as you point out, are not just a consequence of the last election as so many would like for us to believe. Surely these trends are not just a consequence of the big bad legislature in Raleigh as many would also have us believe. Who then do we see about these disparities and the alarming crime statistics, if one cares to look closely? A policy of double down on what has been done while expecting different results is typically known as an affliction.

      If local governments would compete in the arena of good ideas, with integrity, checking egos at the door, and with a strict fiduciary focus, Asheville – Buncombe will have an opportunity to change the trajectory of this growing disparity affecting all ethnicities. One can imagine the repercussions on our least prosperous should the hospitality industry go bust “again.”


    • North Asheville

      The link to the Crossroads document is very helpful and illuminating.

  4. Brian

    Gentrification can’t happen quick enough in Asheville. I’ve been here for over 40 years and seen the good and the bad. Asheville has improved so much in every aspect of life over the course of my life. The past ten years have really seen the majority of the changes, but they are ones the city has desperately needed. People who complain about tourists, transplants or any person not perceived as “local” are the problems with this city. We live in a world where people are mobile. Sedentary people who live their entire life in one place often times contribute less to the community than those who move in with new ideas, energy and innovation. Change is hard for some folks, but it’s going to happen. Get on board and enjoy the ride. Be a part of the change. Sitting on the sidelines complaining about how it’s not how it was 30 years ago is ridiculous. Every city is like that.

  5. Enlightened Enigma

    Thank you Brian for your astute comments and yes, gentrification can’t happen quick enough, but with decades of slothlike non leadership, the city’s streets and infrastructure is pitiful. The streets chief tried to explain to me the ‘formula’ they ‘go by’ to determine street rehabbing in the city, but it just didn’t make any sense … such is what the high paying city taxpayers must endure to ‘delight’ in living here …

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