Mountain Xpress: Persistently progressing progressivism

I was scrounging for a master’s in history from Western Carolina and buying beer at Cullowhee’s Speedwell General Store when there it was on the checkout counter: Green Line a newspaper that, a few years later, became Mountain Xpress. Finally, here was a paper based on the environmental principles of the Green Party! It could fight the pro-development principles of the Asheville Citizen, which stood for the “upbuilding” of Asheville, as its motto announced.

A few months later I found and joined the paper and its editor, Jeff Fobes, in a dilapidated, two-story Montford home. In addition to writing, editing and delivering papers, my duties occasionally included walking the family mutt.

Green Line flourished, Jeff moved it downtown to the Miles Building, and it confronted one of its first editorial crises: whether to allow Meredith Hunt, a radical pro-life advocate, to amplify his views in our paper. Jeff consulted all of the paper’s contributors at the time, including Andrea Helm, the late Jack Chaney, Rusty Sivils, Laura Gordon, Wally Bowen, Miles Tager and many others.

Opinion was divided, but we narrowly decided to expand our voice beyond strict adherence to Green Party ethics and allowed the story to run. That caused the loss of some readers. And though every one of those mentioned above was firmly pro-choice, our open stance on this and many other issues helped lead to the much broader readership that Mountain Xpress now enjoys.

Thus when naysayers accuse Xpress of being a food-and-booze rag today, I remember how immersed Jeff and everyone else was in Green Party politics, and I know that’s proof that there’s a bedrock of progressive editorial zeal in the paper.

That ironclad progressive dedication can also be seen in Jeff’s helping subsidize my trip to cover the Green Party Convention in Estes Park, Colorado, in 1990. Further zeal is revealed in some of the magazine titles in the now defunct Alternative Reading Room, which shared staffer Paula Davidson with Xpress: Covert Action Bulletin, Z Magazine, The Raven: An Anarchist Quarterly, The Human Life Review, American Atheist, Death Penalty Exchange, Off Our Backs, Fugitive Pope, Lies of Our Times, and Heterodoxy.

One day I was fizzing in the Reading Room, foraging for ways to finance an advertisement in the Citizen for a teach-in on the first Gulf War, when a tall man suddenly appeared, saying, “I’ve come to Asheville to finance such ideas. How much do you need?”

“Six hundred dollars,” I groused. He immediately wrote a check and, partly as a result, a packed UNC Asheville lecture hall got to listen to a panel of distinguished experts, including Jeff’s father, Jack Fobes. The former deputy director-general of UNESCO, Jack was heavily involved in trying to get the U.S. back into the organization after Ronald Reagan took the country out of it.The plot thickened.

Of course, the tall man was Julian Price, and with his financial backing and political savvy, we covered countercultural protests against the Haliburton-owned Superfund site near Warren Wilson College, which had dangerous chemicals leaching into groundwater, perhaps including the nerve gas BZ, described as a “hallucinogen a hundred times more potent than LSD.” But we also reported on “straight” culture affirmations, such as Asheville’s July 4 hyperpatriotic celebrations after the Gulf War. Eventually Julian took his money out of Xpress and, worse yet, he died at 60 years young.

Somewhere in there we had another editorial crisis due to the arrival of Peter Gregutt. He and Jeff imposed the reverse-pyramid journalism style, much more rigorous fact checking, and an editing style that made it seem a comb had passed through your writing. We were a real newspaper now!

Regardless, it seemed like we were a vanguard of the environmental, labor and peace revolutions, and the excitement was often glorious. During one Bele Chere weekend, for instance, Wally Bowen, some other now-forgotten soul and I played four games as part of the Xpress three-on-three basketball team. In between games, Jeff got excited about our chances but even more so about a ruckus going on at the federal courthouse. He sent me there to interview Rodney Webb and David Wheeler as they were being arrested for protesting clearcutting in Pisgah National Forest, while the WNC Alliance’s Ron Lambe presented a 100-foot-long petition opposing the move. Although some team eventually beat us on the b-ball court, the excitement felt like a James Bond chase scene during carnival in Rio.

Other rousing stories included: protests against Gen. William Westmoreland of Vietnam War fame, who was speaking at UNCA; the late-night decapitation of the Fuddruckers hamburger sign adjacent toInterstate 240 downtown (perp still undiscovered); and a diverse coalition of bear hunters, hippies and yuppies that saved Bluff Mountain in Hot Springs from clearcutting.

In 1997 Asheville elected a Jewish woman, Leni Sitnick, as mayor. A guiding spirit behind Asheville’s progressive politics, she seemed to be the apotheosis of Mountain Xpress’ values. Yet ironically, the very success of Asheville and Xpress had attracted predatory developers from all over the world. Standing up to the growth deluge has become a full-time and probably fruitless activity. Yet somehow the mountains and culture of Asheville have so far been able to absorb all that invading money and retain their bohemian character and natural vitality.

Hopefully Xpress will live on, continue to harness its old Green Party spirit, and fight future environmental disasters for another 20 years — or 200, if necessary.

Bill Branyon is a longtime contributor to Mountain Xpress. The first two chapters of his latest book can be found free at liberatingliberals.com.

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