Letter: Progress was happening 40 years ago

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Graphic by Lori Deaton

A letter in the May 2 edition [“Williams Should Continue his Good Work as DA,” Xpress] credited the present district attorney with hiring the first black assistant DA. This is not accurate.

I was an assistant DA in Buncombe County for five years starting in 1975, under Bob Fisher and Ron Brown. During that time there were two black assistants: Ken McDaniels and Howard McGlohon, and I’m not sure they were the first.

On the public defender side, Robert Harrell served for many years until he became a District Court judge. This correction is not intended as a criticism of the district attorney or his hiring plans, but to show that progressive things were actually being done in Asheville 40 years ago.

— Arthur E. Jacobson,
U.S. administrative law judge, retired
Independence, Ohio

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33 thoughts on “Letter: Progress was happening 40 years ago

  1. Lulz

    LOL if you listen to the current crop of leftist why the area was in the dark ages before they arrived and brought their GENTRIFICATION, not progress. Asheville was nice 40 years ago. Now it’s a joke.

    • SpareChange

      Not seeing what your comment has to do with the subject or substance of the letter, which simply sought to correct the record on the question of some hiring decisions in the DA’s office, and offer some praise to prior officials.

      As for the substance of your comment, I think you know a little about the history of this community and realize that 40 years ago most of the downtown business district was abandoned, boarded up and grossly underutilized. The problem was so profound that 38 years ago the city actually approved a plan to level a very large part of downtown in order to build a mall — a gesture which was stopped at the ballot box via a referendum, and led to a lengthy period of reinvestment and renewal with precious little of the resources coming from government or big business.

      “Gentrification” is unfortunately an almost meaningless word which now seems to get thrown around anytime someone does not like the nature, content, or source of resources aimed at development and redevelopment. Was the “gentrification” that saved a largely abandoned downtown a completely bad thing? Was the gentrification which took a boarded up Grove Arcade and turned it into a restored architectural, residential, and entrepreneurial center piece all bad? Yes, there are functions and dysfunctions that go with any kind of development and redevelopment, and there is plenty to critique and debate regarding the course such things have taken in Asheville, but as much as we are prone to romanticize the past, I do think most can agree that the Asheville of 40 years ago was not the idyllic place you seem to suggest.

    • boatrocker

      OK, Lulz, please enlighten us as to what 1978 Asheville really had to offer to somebody who just wanted a nice quiet life in the mountains.

      Granted, downtown is gross now unless you’re a yuppie GOP tourist from SC who likes jam band music and overpriced food, but what was the 1978 allure besides leisure suits and cocaine?

      • Lulz

        And what does it offer now? The city has had to continuously finance it by TAKING AWAY services. In 1978 they used to collect leaves. In 2018 they tell you to go to hell. But the price of living here is going up. What for?

        I grew up in downtown in the 70’s. In fact my parents had a business there. It was an actual business district and shutting down and 5 reflected that. Now it’s a tourist trap that relies on low wage workers. Again, what has been the benefit to the people that live here? Nothing. Downtown does nothing for the people that pay the taxes. In fact it expects more of their money and in return they get traffic jams.

        • boatrocker

          Question: Did leaves weigh more back then for raking/bagging/disposal?

          As for the price of living skyrocketing here due to locals foolishly selling land to FLA developers, agreed.
          Low wages/not keeping up with inflation, agreed.
          Tourist trap/ driven by profit at any price, agreed.
          Ain’t unregulated free market capitalism grand?
          Asheville is basically at Stage IV cancer, ie uninhibited growth that eventually kills the host.

          Sad, lols we coulda had a Bernie who routinely addressed wage/income disparity and conservative corporatocracy in America, but we chose red baseball hats.

        • boatrocker

          Now that is a cool handle.
          Not much of a fan of polyester and nose candy, but oh well.

          • The Ego Has Landed

            Yeah, not my thing (anymore) either. Just seemed like DT was more authentic during that period. Even the “sketchiness” of DT these days seems fabricated.

    • Phillip Williams

      Well, like everything else, it was a trade-off. Downtown was pretty well on the skids by the late 70’s, but there were a few hangers-on who had some very interesting establishments – the old TS Morrison Hardware Store, Robert Bunn’s Antiques (Mr. Bunn had been a personal pal of Thomas Wolfe), the Star Bootery, Finkelstein’s was actually a fascinating and well-stocked place when it was up on the square (and a chat with Mr. Leo Finkelstein or Mssrs. June and Charlie Bassett was worth a trip downtown any day), the Pack Square Cigar Store was still run by Mr. Zack Netherton, the “Patton Avenue Cigar Store” (not really a cigar store – but a beer joint), Tom’s Grill and Johnnie-O’s sandwich shop, the Towne House Bakery, Mr. Charlie Baumann’s “Olde Curiosity Shoppe”, Winn and Stafford Anders’ little antique store “Yesterday’s Child” on Wall Street, J. Pressley ltd in the Public Service building where you could still buy sock garters, collar buttons, and tie-your-own bow ties, Fain’s Dept Store, Penney’s was still downtown, the old bus depot, etc etc……

      On the downside, a lot of places had gone under, the Akzona Building on the Square and the demolition of the block between Church and S. Lexington to make a durn parking lot were criminal, downtown after dark was a mighty good place to go and get your throat cut if you didn’t have a companion or two – and/or a “secret handshake”. Industry was dying slowly and much of what they left was dilapidated and polluted – the River was awful.

      There was still a lot to do and see – there were good things and not so good things – and it was still very much a “working town” with real jobs and real stores and eateries and dives that catered to real people. And the living history that still survived was fascinating – to me, anyhow. The trick was to not be downtown alone or unarmed after 5pm….I am at least glad that the developers didn’t get to tear down everything they wanted to and that it is now relatively safe downtown most any time of day or night….

      • boatrocker

        Heck yeah, it looks like someone (else) knew their 1978 A- ville.
        My early 90’s experience with A-ville was knowing where to get a watch fixed, haggling over a piece of furniture/instrument for a bachelor pad.
        I loved Finklestein’s.

        That and I actually had kayaking/backpacking buddies before they got soft (guilty here), married and started managing restaurants (aka a guaranteed D I V O R C E ) job.

        Up-front and sassy “ladies of the evening” wandering downtown and accosting me scared me so much more than anyone with a gun.

        • Phillip Williams

          Yes – the trick with the working girls was never to pick the prettiest one….she was the police lady. Those “June John Stings” they started having in the 90’s used to turn up some “interesting” Johns! I used to find tons of vintage clothing – hats, ties, suits, etc in the many thrift stores and semi-permanent rummage sales – had a guy up in Ohio that I’d send them to and he’d pay what I thought was big money for them – he outfitted movies, stage plays, etc.

      • Lulz

        The trade off is what? In the 70’s I could buy a car downtown, get it fixed, painted, tires put on and repaired. I could go to the A&P on Biltmore, which was bought up by Ingles and became Save-More. Imagine that, people from Lee Walker could ACTUALLY SHOP AT A REAL GROCERY STORE., Movies at the Plaza and the X-rated ones at Fine Arts, Rogers for plumbing supplies, and here’s a doozy, Flamingo which had working class food. Fains, Penny’s, Woolworth, and I still remember the smell in there, Smokey’s Tavern used to open in the morning for people that got off 3rd shift lulz. Northwestern Bank, the Med was there, I ate at Tom’s, and remember the Army Navy surplus at the corner?

        I also remember waiting on the bus at the old Pack Library across the street from the Biltmore building when that row was being demolished. By an actual crane with a wrecking ball. And watched it constructed.

        Yeah it had its bad parts but it still does. Prostitutes and drug dealers still roam. And the drunks are still there.

        • Phillip Williams

          I remember Dad bringing me downtown as a small boy – this was probably in ’69 or ’70 – my Mom and Sister were dropped off at the Plaza Theatre to watch some Disney movie and Dad took me to the S&W for lunch and then we went thru Finkelstein’s and he bought me a genuine Barlow pocketknife – and to the Army/Navy store (for years I thought Mr. Jack Feingold’s name was “Jack Fingo” because of how Dad pronounced it!).

          I used to love those little submarine sandwiches you could get at the Woolworth’s luncheonette – just soggy bread and cold cuts and lettuce/tomato but there was nothing like them!! And Tom’s – what can I say!! Mr. Tom Naomi became one of my good friends – this should bring back a memory or two!! https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10156237737939720&set=a.156070389719.111721.501594719&type=3&theater

        • The Ego Has Landed

          Can’t believe you guys didn’t mention the Hot Dog King! I use to skip out of the High and have 2 dogs, tots, and a drink for a $1.50. That would be about a $35.00 meal nowadays in DT.

          • Phillip Williams

            Yep – HDK was about the same price as Tom’s and had the foot longs – that was the going rate for years at Tom’s – I think it was about $2 for the chili cheeseburgers instead of slaw dogs. Tom’s was a shorter walk for me at lunchtime, plus I liked to chat with Tom. And if you wanted a plate lunch, the Mediterranean was on the College Street side of the same block! Wonder if it is still there??

          • Able Allen

            The Mediterranean is still there. It’s still inexpensive and delicious.

          • Phillip Williams

            Able Allen – thanks! That is good to know – I hope to come back to Asheville on leave later this summer – will make it a point to go by the Med for breakfast or lunch!

        • Phillip Williams

          I reckon the “Urban Renewal” push in the 70’s did as much damage racially, culturally and architecturally as anything….basically erased two established, thriving black neighborhoods (Valley Street and Southside) – they were rundown but stable and like you say, had grocery stores, coal yards, gas stations, garages, etc that served the neighborhood proper – all within walking distance. And the residents had a true sense of community and policed themselves. The establishment of the “projects” around that time resulted in a more segregated situation than ever existed in the old neighborhoods. A lot of the older folks just sickened and died after being removed from their homes.

          • luther blissett

            Urban renewal (and its partner in crime, urban elevated freeways) was to cities what lead was to gasoline.

            The trip down memory lane is fun, but few cities of any size made it through the 80s with downtown business districts intact: malls and big boxes did to downtown stores what online shopping is now doing to them. Suburbs gonna suburb. People want to park 50 feet from their destination. Lots of circles to be squared.

            (In passing, take a look at the wage graph between 1978 and now. Work out how long you had to work to afford a cheap lunch.)

        • Phillip Williams

          Lulz, I used to park in the little city parking lot beside Coker’s Heating and Cooling down on Biltmore…there were only about 12 or 15 spaces in that lot and for $5 a month you got a space with your name on a little tin sign! To this day, I still remember the names on either side of my space – Freeman and Mungo…. The Northwestern Bank parking garage was $25 a month but as I was newly married and poor – and in fairly good shape – I paid 20 bucks less and walked the 2 blocks to work! A meter maid used to sit in the lot on the 1st of the month to collect your $5….

  2. boatrocker

    Between Phillip’s advice on soliciting a 1978 prostitute and Lulz’s reminiscence of X- rated movie theaters…
    Suddenly I want to go backpacking far far away from all that, preferably in Pisgah Nat’l Forest to avoid the glory days of yore in Asheville. Mountain values, eh?

    • Virginia Daffron

      You had me going with the first sentence and then: backpacking.

      • boatrocker

        What’s wrong with taking some stuff on your back far away from humans and taking in that Nature thing? You get to pee in the woods and cook over a campfire.
        Not in that order obviously unless a stream is nearby to wash up.

        Luther B’s comment about urban renewal is spot on as I really don’t care about memories of what businesses used to be here as they just sell ‘stuff’. Quality of life matters more.

        • Virginia Daffron

          Nothing wrong at all–just thought you were winding up to go in an edgier direction!

    • Phillip Williams

      Well – I didn’t get married ’til 1987….the Fine Arts was the darkest place I ever went in and the floors were disturbingly sticky and there really were a lot of old guys in trench coats in there every time I ever went. The Park Drive-In had an adult late show after the regular pictures – they would announce over the speakers that the XXX late show was starting, and for all patrons under 18 to please leave….and of course, there was G’s Adult Books next to Finkelstein’s – I think it was the only smut den in Skunkum County for several years – the 2 out in Arden didn’t come along until the late 80’s.

      And of course the “hot-rack” operations that were ongoing at a couple of the run-down hotels downtown – the Langren and the Glen Rock in their last days were famous “by the hour” hotels, but they closed down when I was still small – but I remember Dad taking one of our elderly neighbors to Asheville every month when the old feller got his pension check…always by the ABC store to get 12 pints of the cheapest whiskey they carried, and dropped him off for an hour at the Glen Rock to, as Dad said, “get his hat blocked” while we’d loafer up to Finkelstein’s or the Army/Navy Store or go by the stockyards or the Farmer’s Market…..

      • Virginia Daffron

        With a group of friends, I once tried to walk up to the Fine Arts Theatre and buy a ticket, but I couldn’t even make it to the ticket booth. I still chide my high school self for that failure of nerve.

        “Get his hat blocked” has got to be one of the best euphemisms I ever heard.

        • Phillip Williams

          The old timers also used to refer to that particular activity as “Gettin’ your ashes hauled” – this was particularly appropriate as the Glen Rock was right across from the old Depot and the rail yards – the “new” Glen Rock building is still there – you can still make out the ghosts of the bronze lettering over the front door! Last time I was inside the building, the front was being used as a Post Office and the rear was used by Pet Dairy.

        • Phillip Williams

          Virginia – I was only about 7 or 8 years old and I really did think Mr. H. was going to get his hat cleaned and blocked! He always wore a beautiful old Stetson “Stratoliner” felt hat in a kind of olive green color – and he always put on a coat and tie when we’d take him to town…he lived in a one-room cabin by the Pigeon River and had been widowed for 30+ years. He had been gassed in World War One and got a disability check from the VA as well as his Social Security.

          I just always wondered why he wanted to go all the way to Asheville to get his hat done, because the laundry guy used to come by every so often and pick up my Papaw’s felt hats for cleaning & blocking (we lived in Canton) – when I asked Dad, he’d just smile and say Mr. H. was “kindly partic’lar about things like that.”

          • Virginia Daffron

            Was that the Roberts’ family dry cleaning business in Canton? I knew some of the “kids” of that family (the surviving ones are in their 80s and 90s now). Lucille Nielson, the former owner of the House of Fabrics on Merrimon, used to talk about how wonderful it was growing up in Canton when her daddy had a dry cleaning plant there.

            My now-departed relatives also used to say “kindly” for “kind of.”

  3. Phillip Williams

    Virginia, I can clearly recall at least 4 cleaners operating in Canton – a couple of them until I was a grown man. There was the American Cleaners owned by the Lanning family and Carolina Cleaners owned by a Mr. Nix and Charlie’s Cleaners run by Mr. Charlie Dayton – those were all on Main Street, and the Canton Laundry was on Park Street – I can’t remember who owned it…I think some of them merged or got bought out over the years.

    I don’t remember which one did Paw’s hats , but the man drove a panel truck and wore a white uniform and they also ran a diaper service – he had a very large nose – I remember asking him why his nose was so big and him telling me it was because he kept it out of other people’s business (I got a good spanking after he left).

    Oh yes – that generation had some mighty colorful metaphors and good ways of putting things!

  4. Curious

    Can MountainX give Phillip Williams a column of reminiscences about local life, similar to Jerry Steinberg’s? He’s got the memories, and he’s got a gift for storytelling. Those old days and old ways need to be recorded!

    • Phillip Williams

      Thank you kindly for the recommendation….unfortunately, as my Papaw would say “I ain’t a patch” on the likes of Mr. Jerry Sternberg or Mr. Bill Hagan when it comes to the tales of Olde Asheville – my memories are only insofar as I personally knew it, which was limited to occasional trips to Asheville – until I started hanging out a lot there in the late 70’s and working downtown in the mid-80’s.

      I had purchased a double-breasted gray suit from the old Salvation Army on Lexington Avenue to wear to the Morning Star Church “Old Folks Day” in about 1980 – got it for $5 – and it was in mint condition and fit like it was made for me. I also found a straw boater and learned how to tie a bow tie – and got so many compliments on the outfit that I was hooked, and scoured Asheville and West Asheville – and all of WNC for vintage clothing for many years – and that was how I met a lot of the old timers and the old shop owners – and got to hear their memories and tales.

      • B.E.Vickroy

        To ALL — I have so enjoyed reading all of your reminisces – and the “getting his hat blocked” bit is worth repeating. Which brings me to the point of this comment ….. I hope that you folks are writing down or otherwise memorializing these kinds of memories. We ARE the history of those who follow us. Maybe our children might not be all that interested – but as the generations progress, the things you did in your life will be of interest. Or that’s how it has worked in our family anyway. BTW just as you guys had fun remembering this or that about your town ….. same thing applies once you start remembering the way things were ‘back in the day’.

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