Long live Asheville: A city dying to be reborn

I won’t regale you with stories of an idealized past, laud our many golf courses, or tout our “vibrant” local economy. I’d like to tell a different story. I am a North Carolina native. I’ve lived my entire life in this state, in every corner, born to a pastor and public-school teacher in the coastal northeast and educated in our colleges in Wilmington. My sister makes Durham her home, her husband tends our state parks, my brother is a veteran, and for the last eight years, I’ve called Asheville my home.

It is ironic that President Barack Obama chose Asheville, both as a vacation spot and as a place for economic speeches of late, given what I have to say. But I don’t wish to speak to those in power, beg them for an audience, change or hope. I’d like to address Asheville’s working people, its poor and the powerless.

You have a right to this city. We are an invisible class, in our own country at least. We are the class who cook the meals that retirees and tourists consume. We vacuum their offices. We build the mansions, isolated in ghettos of wealth. In short, we make this city possible. Yet, as it grows and develops, does it grow and develop for us? Do our wages and opportunities increase? Do we influence the priorities of how this city modernizes? The answer is no.

It is my experience — gleaned from years in the service industry, renting, gardening, moving jobs and scrapping metal — that more and more, little by little, Asheville is being turned into an amnesiac consumer destination. See our dog bakeries! Come visit our olive-oil-tasting rooms! True, unemployment is low, but so is pay, and many residents work multiple jobs. Rent is high, and buying costs are astronomical to the everyday worker. To get by, we share homes, rides, potlucks and often are one broken ankle away from eviction. We are called “entitled” or derided as leeches —often by baby boomers, the richest generation, from the richest nation, in the history of mankind.

The poor are rendered invisible. The homeless choose between drink, day labor or access to overcrowded, proselytizing shelters. Our media boost small-business capitalism as the cure to all our ills. Our artists reclaim the industrial wasteland of the River Arts District, edgy and sketchy, and slowly morph into a high-rent row of arty knickknack sellers. Our asteroid belt of architectural garbage surrounding the city grows and grows. The police await the next opportunity to loot their evidence room. The diminishing returns of Beer City, USA, are plain to see, unless one sees what they want to see.

Asheville is being built on a foundation of tourism dollars and cheap thrills. When the next shock comes through the economic system — whether it’s spiking gas prices or uncontrolled financial speculation (impossible, I know!) — the leisure economy is the first to get hit. We are the canary in the coal mine. People need food, housing and health care. The first thing to be de-prioritized is vacation money, and that’s the cash that Asheville and its residents rely on. Ours is a castle built on sand.

It’s not as if we don’t know that politicians and their allies in business are fighting to strip public goods away from localities, under the pretense of democratic control. In Asheville, our water system — paid for by the citizens of this city as a common good — is coveted by right-wing politicians in Raleigh. Our political voice is silenced due to corrupt gerrymandering. Democracy is surely an empty shell in our nation and around the world. It is controlled by money, business interests and crass propaganda that peddles wishful thinking, and by the most retrograde characters who grow wealthier jumping between the private sector and public service.

Public service! These hypocrites disgust me. Where are the school teachers, like my mother, bearing witness to the de-funding of education and draconian test regimens? Where are the firemen? Where are the working men and women of our land when it comes to the questions of power and decisions over our common future? Our schools are closed and prisons built. Those in power summon patriotism to support imperial wars that their siblings and children will never fight. They speak much and hear little. Their imaginations are stunted and cruel. They chastise us with moralism, yet the only God they know is Mammon, greed, and destruction.

Activists, citizens and workers in our city and across this country should organize to fight for a minimum-wage increase, one that at the very least reflects inflation, keeping pace with rising costs of food, housing and medical care. It is long past time that working people went on the offensive to cast off the shackles of poverty wages, debt and isolation. We so desperately need a working-class movement to address poverty. We need a movement that transcends cultures and languages, one that reaches out to the most exploited of American workers, those who pick our foods and, disgracefully, fill our immigration jails.

Unions should feel empowered to not only defend their workers on the job and advocate for higher wages but to be part of the movement for a fundamentally different economy, one based on community responsibility, autonomy and solidarity. It’s high time for unions to organize the right-to-work states, to give up on bending the ear of the rich and powerful who so rarely listen, to give up their stodgy bureaucracies, and to help articulate a world of work that embodies democracy in daily life, cooperative production, sustainability and abundance.

It’s time to organize and build a city that stands in opposition to this constantly growing, rapacious capitalism, and creates a humane world in its wake.

Martin Ramsey is an Asheville resident.

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11 thoughts on “Long live Asheville: A city dying to be reborn

  1. Meiling Dai

    I get it – that Asheville, despite its amazing
    history, has turned into a town catering to tourism and the wealthy. And that should the economy go further south, this city will be adversely impacted. There is one small detail, however, that I would like to address. It’s true that Asheville built and paid for its water system. However, Buncombe County residents built and paid for their own water system before transferring it over to Asheville during the Depression. That is why Sullivan Acts II, III were approved by the N.C. General Assembly based on Asheville’s water history. Apparently, other N.C. cities do not share this history.

  2. Meiling Dai

    Hopefully, with the infusion of beer-making
    businesses in Asheville, the city’s economy
    will improve.

  3. Scott

    Quite an indictment, but what do you propose? You say its time to organize, but in what way and with what goals? More money for the underpaid? Cheaper housing? How do you organize to make the rich less greedy and pay their employees a living wage and landlords that offer fair rental prices? I agree people are underpaid across America, and I feel that the rich should make less and the poor should make more. But how do you convice the rich to do this voluntarily? This is an anti-union state. How can we make this difference? I would like to see change too but this to me seems to be a problem of human nature rather than something we as a city will address. Prove me wrong.

  4. Meiling Dai

    Based on Asheville’s water history with Buncombe County, Sullivan Acts II, III prevent the city of Asheville from charging differential water rates: a lower rate to city water users and a higher rate
    to county water users. If Asheville were allowed to charge differential water rates, it would be able to use water as a “tool for voluntary annexation.”

  5. Dionysis

    The challenges and issues identified in this piece ring true; however, as Scott noted, calling for a “working-class movement” and for increasingly debilited unions to feel “empowered” is unlikely to have the desired effect.

    It seems more productive to have those who continue to slide down the economic tubes to work cohesively in electing people who will represent these increasingly marginalized citizens, and that means from the ground up…from County dog catcher to state representatives.

    Democrats throughout the country should make their primary goal the registering of as many citizens as possible, regardless of the hurdles state Republicans try and throw in the way. Then support candidates sympathetic to these issues.

  6. disruptina

    It’s time to find each other and fight back. I am amazed at how people make excuses for the exploitation (‘just human nature’) and can’t get it together to even muster the will to stand up for themselves.

    Hell no!

    Thank you, Martin.

  7. Ascend (of Asheville)

    Thanks to the X for printing this. You do have your moments.

  8. Big Al

    This sounds like “Workers of the world, unite!” Can we do without the purges, mass murder and gulags this time, comrade?

  9. luther blissett

    “Asheville, despite its amazing history, has turned into a town catering to tourism and the wealthy.”

    Except that Asheville, throughout its amazing history, has always been a town catering to tourism and the wealthy, and providing the rest of the population a living from the scraps off the table. Vanderbilt money, Grove money, etc. Except the scraps are now pretty scrappy.

    There’s the bind: the city’s long been endothermic, pulling in money (and talent) from elsewhere. When that’s not around, it goes into total decline.

  10. Jess, new to Asheville

    Thank you Martin for this well-written article. Being new to this town, coming from Oregon with high hopes for a similar progressive open-minded town, such as Portland, I have to say I am disappointed. I agree with you on many levels & hope others here do as well. Reading your article has given me hope & encouragement to stick around here a little longer before heading back to a much easier way of life, for us low-income struggling working class activists. I hope to work along side with you & others to help create a community, more based on equality & workers rights, where we stand up for all the injustice that seems to be in this town. In solidarity, Jess

  11. jano

    The flaws as usual with political rhetoric from either the left or right, all hollow words from both the liberal and conservative. It would be better to make a photo essay of what you are talking about with only minimal linguistic effort.

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