Letters to the editor

Celebrating Asheville’s astounding diversity

Since moving back to Asheville a few weeks ago after an absence of 12 years, I have listened to many old acquaintances expound on how the character of the city has evolved in recent times. Longtime locals and new transplants alike will say how Asheville is the Paris of the South, the Sedona of the South, even the Castro or West Village of the South. Yet in spite of this massive influx of well-meaning liberalism, Western North Carolina remains a major depot along the Bible belt, a place where the vengeful, Old Testament God still reigns, people still vote overwhelmingly for Helms, and vestiges of discrimination are still apparent. Which is to say, a stroll down South Lexington may give you the impression that a new world order of compassion, tolerance and respect for diversity has taken root, but drive half an hour in any direction and try parading this vision of liberated humanity on the nearest street corner: You may find a vastly different reception. …

While I know for a fact that other-ness continues to be a well-entrenched basis for discrimination, it is also a fact that Asheville has in the past 10 or 15 years begun to attract well-educated, well-balanced, reasonably enlightened professionals on an unprecedented scale. With so much astounding diversity now in the mix, the collisions of so-called high and low culture here are more vividly apparent than ever.

For an example, look no further than the marquee in front of the Asheville Civic Center. From grassroots events with genuine populist appeal like pro wrestling and gun shows to hockey games to fine-arts performances, this place truly sums up varying tastes of the native tongues. But only last Saturday, when my girlfriend and I showed up to attend a performance of the Asheville Symphony, was the true scope of Asheville’s cultural continuum made visible. While trawling for parking spaces near the Civic Center, I was astounded at the sheer number of vehicles crammed into every available space. Late-model pickups rubbed shoulders with high-end Audis and Saabs, and “We Still Pray” bumper stickers were legible alongside vehicles whose bumpers read “We Still Chant” and “We’re Still Gay.”

I was still puzzling over the tremendous popularity of the symphony when I finally saw a car preparing to back out of a spot. While I was waiting for the car to back out, another vehicle approached and put on their turn signal. Angered at this display of street-parking territoriality, I blocked the spot with my own car as soon as the departing vehicle pulled out, so that the intruder could not slip in. However, the driver attempted to pull in anyway, wedging his Honda half-in and half-out of the spot, effectively blocking traffic in both directions. Thus we achieved a perfect stalemate. Windows were rolled down, territorial rights argued, cases levied. Both the other driver and I claimed to have seen it first. Then we eyed each other a bit more closely. He was with another young, tough-looking guy. I was with my tough-looking girlfriend. Pride was at stake. Horns were honking, traffic was blocked. For a long, excruciating, adolescent moment, both he and I sat, silent, in our cars, refusing to move. Nothing happened.

Then we sat for another long moment. Horns honked louder. It was obvious someone had to give in. The other driver just sat there, arms folded, ignoring everything. So finally I pulled away, angry at how petty the whole situation had been and how willing I was to buy into it. Moments later, we found another spot. As we walked to the show, I glanced up at the marquee and noticed something that brought the whole evening into a clearer focus. The Asheville Symphony, I saw, was sharing the night’s billing with the Tough Man Contest. Although one had started a half-hour earlier than the other, the demographic contrast of the two crowds was both striking and confusing. Without condescending to anyone there to see an entertaining show, it is fair to say that the mix of folks would have been incongruous if it hadn’t been so real — by which I mean that no one coming to see one show would have mistakenly gone through the entrance reserved for the other. Hilariously, the Civic Center staff had taped colored-paper signs to two sets of entrances, signifying that one was for Tough Man, the other for the Symphony. Naturally, both sets of doors opened onto the same space. …

During the occasional brief silences between orchestral pieces, the blare of the loudspeaker announcing the current purveyors of carnage down the hall was audible, and I found this accidental combination of sounds to be pleasing to no end. As I gazed down over the sea of silver-lined, liver-spotted heads from the balcony, the thought of visceral, bawdy violence co-existing with the sublime strains of Dvorak in the same building seemed to be a decent rendering of the changing face of Asheville itself. Even our parking mishap seemed to take on a greater meaning. While Asheville refuses to measure up to the Shangri-La destination that some realtors sell it as, neither has it failed to modernize itself in tune with the vastly different kinds of people attracted to this unique place. Diversity? Absolutely. Compassion and tolerance? Well, I may have lost the tough-man contest, but at least I wasn’t late for the symphony.

— Caleb Whitaker

Stop glorifying Asheville’s sweatshops!

After reading the Citizen-Times‘ extensive coverage of the Biltmore Hotel and Grove Park Spa, I felt compelled to set the story straight. But first, let’s review a basic lesson in economics. In 1971, when I was a high-school senior, the minimum wage was $1.60 an hour. It is a well-known fact that in the past 30 years the inflation rate has increased over 600 percent. Therefore, even a simple minimum “living wage” in 2001 would have to be at least $10 an hour to equal the purchasing power of the minimum wage a 1971 high-school student made while employed as a bagger in a grocery store.

Both the Biltmore and the Grove Park Inn charge outrageous fees for their accommodations, tours, entrance tickets, spa privileges and restaurants. Yet [many of] their workers receive a mere [fraction] of the wage necessary to equal the federal minimum wage of 1971. Is this something for the Citizen-Times to glorify and boast about? Let’s face it: The Biltmore and the Grove Park Inn are running low-wage sweatshops and getting rich while doing it. Instead of touting these companies as something to be proud of, the residents of Asheville should be pressuring them to raise their workers’ wages to an acceptable level. An excellent way to get a low-wage sweatshop to wake up to the new millennium is to call for an international boycott of these resorts until they agree to pay a fair wage of at least $10 an hour.

It would also behoove the Citizen-Times to refrain in the future from appearing to be a free advertising tabloid for a couple of stingy and greedy local businesses.

— Robert Davidson

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