Quo vadis, Asheville? City at crossroads must find its way

Milton Ready Courtesy photo


Not to go all Revelations on everyone, but perhaps Asheville should ask itself the apocryphal question Peter did on the Appian Way as he fled a burning Rome, namely, “Quo vadis?” Where are you going, Asheville? Back to a version of a resurrected past or toward a future of pandemic capitalism?

Evolving Asheville

Asheville’s had many incarnations in its history: a bustling frontier town on the Buncombe Turnpike of the early 1800s, a bastion of secession in the mountains during the Civil War, Tom Wolfe’s city of boardinghouses, brothels and grand hotels from 1890 into the 1920s, and the long, dark depression that lasted from the 1930s until the 1980s. And now the predictable effects of one of the most rapidly gentrifying cities in the nation: more, ever-larger hotels, greater congestion, soaring housing costs, more homeless people, increasing income inequality and rising crime. Perhaps the next incarnation might be as a larger Blowing Rock or smaller Charlotte.

In one of Asheville’s many instances of being “discovered,” in 2000, Rolling Stone magazine branded the city as “America’s new freak capital,” a mark that still survives in the slogan, “Keep Asheville Weird,” albeit largely as nostalgia. Indeed, the monikers of Beer City, San Francisco of the East and the Paris of the South now largely have replaced the idea of Asheville as a hippie haven, as a granola ghetto in the mountains.

Alternative bastion

Asheville’s uniqueness also incorporates the idea that it’s one of North Carolina’s most progressive cities, a bastion of alternative everythings governed by women in one of the South’s most reactionary states, one rife with misogyny. In the last 20 years, for example, Asheville steadily has elected and selected women to power positions like that of mayor, City Council and police chief. As mayor, Leni Sitnick led the way (1997-2001), followed by Terry Bellamy (2005-13) and, since 2013, Esther Manheimer. Only Charles Worley broke the cycle in 2001.

Tellingly, the two North Carolina cities that regularly elect women as mayors and to power boards, Charlotte and Asheville, all too frequently are the subject of state legislation designed to lessen their influence, typically by redrawing districts, altering voting requirements, delaying elections, pushing referendums and even going to the bathroom. When redrawing congressional and local voting districts, North Carolina takes great pains to carve up too-progressive Asheville and Charlotte.

Beyond prosperity?

Yet perhaps slash-and-burn capitalism has succeeded in changing Asheville where Raleigh hasn’t. Popularity, rapid growth and an influx of retirees mean that the growing suburbs around South Asheville now are among the most conservative in the state. Moreover, in the downtown area, expensive and increasingly restricted housing has similarly attracted a wealthier demographic. West Asheville, for decades the city’s new Lexington Avenue streetscape, now seems to be gentrifying rapidly as well. North of Asheville, Weaverville has similarly been “discovered,” and Mars Hill and Marshall are becoming exurbs, commuting towns ringing Asheville.

So where is Asheville headed? Has Asheville’s prosperity already evolved into greed? Has its “Goldilocks” mixture, in which everything is “just right,” become toxic? Or is it simply reincarnating itself once again? When Asheville’s elected officials charged with making critical decisions about its future listen to the almost irresistible siren calls from developers of more jobs, jobs and jobs, along with increased tax revenues and needed housing regardless of affordability — all “market imperatives” — in the end, they perhaps they should consider only one precautionary principle.

Back to basics

When a new development proposed for a neighborhood like Charlotte Street or Richmond Hill carries with it the threat of seriously affecting the local distinctiveness and lifestyles of a district or community, and if it is uncertain how likely and when that will occur, then all reasonable steps should be taken to regulate or even ban the change in question. Only a single standard should determine the initial fate of new developments. Do they enhance the special qualities of a place and of those who already live there or don’t they? It’s a simple standard easily applied. Afterward, other questions and problems more easily can be resolved.

Yet any elected official who applies that standard should beware. Why? Like Peter, they perhaps will be crucified for returning to basic principles and beliefs in an upside-down world and not listening to the madding crowd. Esse quam videri, Asheville.

Retired UNC Asheville history professor Milton Ready lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina.



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11 thoughts on “Quo vadis, Asheville? City at crossroads must find its way

  1. Enlightened Enigma

    Yes Milton, but remember, AVL is short on leadership, like none.

    • luther blissett

      Remember that it costs $75 to run for City Council, and that if you have $75 and choose not to file, you’re saying that you couldn’t do any better than the current leadership.

  2. Lou

    This town is so done it’s smoldering. I cannot wait to go far away. Y’all rich white folk win.

  3. Local Grandad

    How disappointing to hear yet another retired voice of privilege and education proclaim that change should only “enhance the special qualities of a place and of those who already live there.” Asheville is not your personal HOA. Yes growth brings challenges but the answer is NOT protectionism that continues to disadvantage your neighbors. The writer needs to weigh the needs of the next generation above his own. The world would be a better place.

    • Milton L Ready

      Well, local ol’ grumpy-pa, let me argue that, like many right-wing bot trolls, some on this thread, you care little about issues discussed here or elsewhere but instead your comments simply are a litany of grievances, dog whistling prejudices, and misogyny, all part of a faux-populist appeal in a cultural war you fear you’re losing. Note the use of cultural codes like “voice of privilege and education,” a euphemism for cultural elites, “short of leadership, like none,” and “women selling us out,” both misogynistic since Asheville has women in positions of power. Do you really love to hate teachers, education, women, and Asheville so much?
      Yet I know your mudslinging and sarcasm, never much of an argument , isn’t personal and that you care little about me or my background except I taught at UNCA, perhaps the defining “liberal professor” trope for you. There’s that “hating” thing again about education and teachers. Instead, you’re just trying to appeal to conservative collegians and a younger generation you think somehow has been “indoctrinated” and corrupted by education and fled to Asheville, that cesspool of sin, iniquity, vice, and corruption. Funny, isn’t it ol’ grumpy pa, how you had nothing to do with what happened to your children and their generation gone wrong.
      Finally, let me congratulate you for overcoming the burdens of a good education and privileges you enjoyed, principally those of being a white, non-Hispanic male and succeeding in spite of those hardships . . .

  4. It was better yesterday

    Its so refreshing to have women selling us out instead of men! How progressive!

  5. luther blissett

    “Only a single standard should determine the initial fate of new developments. Do they enhance the special qualities of a place and of those who already live there or don’t they? ”

    Is that true, though? Or is it actually a dumb standard that reinforces the stratification of the broader community?

    If “people who already live there” want to decide on how a property is developed, the simple solution is to buy that property. Most residents of Charlotte Street and Richmond Hill have plenty of equity in their properties. There is no inherent neighbor veto. City governments govern cities, not museums. Part of their job is to anticipate the needs of the city as a whole in the years to come and to plan accordingly.

    • Robert

      Right, but allowing short-sighted slipshod housing plans to proceed while not protecting our Homes (which includes the natural environment, unreasonable traffic such as that proposed by the vile Bluffs proposal that isn’t even aligned with the Town of Woodfin’s comprehensive plan or the desires of that municipality’s voters) doesn’t sound wise or even human-centered at all. Have the local mayors and council members push for housing on top of Ingle’s and all future big box stores and then we will allow them to voice their opinions again. Have them provide incentives to return more than 1,000 short-term rentals to long-term housing options. So many things we can do before wiping out forests next to rivers and parks.

  6. MV

    Professor Ready: Thank you for this wise and thoughtful commentary. I agree with so much of it. While I don’t oppose all development, I certainly oppose the ones that impose an unreasonably destructive impact on long-standing neighborhoods and close-knit communities like Richmond Hill. The one being proposed there (8 years of construction, a bridge across our beloved river, a ten-fold increase of traffic, an urban forest next a city park wiped out) seems incredibly high for any sort of housing. Not all parcels of land in our region are created alike, and not all are easily buildable. I believe we must protect some established forests and be smarter about incorporating housing atop future supermarkets such as the Ingles being proposed for Patton where there is proper infrastructure and a thru-road in place.

    • Milton L Ready

      A very thoughtful reply and, yes, like you I do not oppose all development and, yes, I am cautious when it comes to projects like Richmond Hill.

      • kw

        It should be noted that the project didn’t mention Richmond Hill in the beginning. It was called The Bluffs at River Bend. The developer and town of Woodfin (Mayor and staff) had 18 months to work in secret and get a great head start on publicity in the Tribune papers about their bridge across the river with high-rise high-end condos, hotel and mysterious church. It was only when the developer (who got caught on a hot mic calling Woodfin folks a ‘bunch of scumbags’) dragged his heels and did not even bother to apply for a bridge permit that even the Town staff and lawyer and others began to call it The Bluffs at Richmond Hill and smugly told the public, ‘We’ll see about the bridge.’ Everyone with an IQ over 40 knows the project must have a bridge first before construction. The land is not connected to Woodfin, though they annexed it. The land adjoins an Asheville park and, without the bridge, must be accessed by Asheville streets–where there’s an ordinance against large trucks that would be used during 8 years of construction. There would an estimated/highly unreasonable *1200* percent increase in traffic on Richmond Hill Drive without the bridge that the Town of Woodfin and the developer promised in their early publicity and since then have suggested they might not require after all. Hopefully, the newly elected commissioners will require it since Asheville’s Mayor and City Council have not stood up to protect taxpayers thus far. Is it any surprise that no one has any respect or trust for local politicians these days? Yes, it’s very simple. Protect citizens and quality of life before green lighting ill-conceived projects. People gonna revolt at some point, so don’t say you weren’t warned.

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