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.