BY MILTON READY
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?
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.
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.
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.