Reflections of an Asheville counter-culture explorer

I moved from metro D.C. to Buncombe County in 1976 as a “back-to-the-land flower child,” aspiring to off-the-grid homesteading along with my neighbors in Sandy Mush and Spring Creek. At first, my partner and I lived with the Gallimores at the eco-pioneering Long Branch Land Trust. But due to economic necessities, not to mention impending child-rearing and divorces, some of us gradually migrated to Asheville. During this transition, my partner and I taught at the alternative high school, the Newfound School at 13 Grove St., in the building that is currently Scandals. The office of our hard-drinking principal became our after-hours bar. One of our fellow faculty members and great friends was John Ager, who taught history and government and is currently running for the N.C. House of Representatives.

In ’79, I moved to Montford, which consisted mostly of fixer-uppers. For instance, the now elegant Wright House B&B plus carriage house was on sale for $75,000. Montford Park was a prime place to score drugs, yet also the home of Montford Park Players — the first Shakespearean theater festival in North Carolina, thanks to Hazel Robinson, from whom I rented a room for $1/day.

I witnessed and reveled in downtown’s early renaissance, when outposts like Nancy Orban’s High Tea and Betsy Reiser’s Supernatural Café were on Wall Street, soon to be added to by other iconic pioneers like John Cram, Emöke B’Racz, and so many others already chronicled in Mountain Xpress’ “20+ years” retrospective series. Danny Reiser and I renovated an old building on Market Street (where Vincenzo’s is now located) to house what would be the Supernatural Restaurant, the first vegetarian eatery in Asheville.

Like the old Strand movie theater on Patton (now a parking lot), the Plaza movie theater with its grand balcony succumbed and was replaced by the Diana Wortham complex. Back then in downtown, it seemed like everybody knew each other, and created and celebrated together in our budding community.

I came out of my shell in the early ’80s and acted with the Montford Park Players. When it was time to change costumes behind the set, we were fully exposed to passersby. Not long after joining the Players, nine of us took a cue from San Francisco and formed the Blue Plate Special street theater troupe with Molly Lay, which confounded most downtowners. Thus began a series of rent performances in our rehearsal space on the top floor loft above Lark Books, which is now Table restaurant. We performed short, edgy bits of mostly comedy, which earned us a loyal following. A core group of us then formed Asheville Repertory Theatre as a 501(c)(3) educational non-profit and committed ourselves to performing full-length, equally edgy off-Broadway and original plays.

Early on, Asheville Rep created “Asheville Live,” a multimedia topical parody of Asheville patterned on Saturday Night Live, complete with live bands and onstage/onscreen interaction, staged at the Manor House on Charlotte Street. One imaginative sketch had us dreading the implications of Rand McNally listing Asheville as the country’s number one place to live — and that was 1983! During the 1980 “Save Downtown Asheville” campaign, chaired by Cataloochee author Wayne Caldwell, we produced a film depicting four street urchins despairing their fate if their downtown habitat was demolished to make way for a shopping mall. As an aside, even way back then, Asheville’s grassroots activists were able to sustain a successful two-year campaign and reverse City Council’s misguided ambition to demolish the northeastern quadrant of downtown for that shopping mall.

Soon after, the New Arts Theatre from Greenville, S.C., underwrote the Asheville Rep’s move to the YWCA gymnasium, then owned by entrepreneur Art Fryar (of Scandals), which we promptly renamed “Art’s New Theater.” After one season, we regrouped back at the loft over Lark Books — where we flourished until 1992, when we then moved to the “green door” in downtown (ironically, just off Broadway), performing there until 1995. Audience members visiting from NYC always told us we were on par with their off-Broadway productions.

It was in the early ’80s, after four years as a proofreader and layout artist at Biltmore Press, that I joined the half-dozen people who created Lark Books — an outgrowth of Handmade magazine — under the inspired tutelage of publisher and entrepreneur Rob Pulleyn. We created arts and crafts books, some of which went on to be published worldwide in many languages. After collaborating for 12 years with a growing staff as a writer, editor and project manager, I moved on. And just a few years ago, Lark was swallowed by bigger corporate owners. After that, Rob (my son’s godfather) went on to found the burgeoning Marshall High Studios.

Concurrently in the ’80s, coming further out of my shell, I spearheaded the transgender movement in Asheville. Having spent a few years frequenting the former Cockatoo Club (a very “mixed” bar) as a single, late-blooming, inquisitive pleasure-seeker, I learned there were as many genders as there are people, given humanity’s rich matrix of psychosocial traits. At that time, I also became acquainted with the regionally-based and culturally significant Radical Faeries movement, which consisted of rural, rather than urban, gay men and their allies. At UNC Asheville, I resumed my academic studies, which I had started earlier at Oberlin College on androgyny and the anthropology of gender variance.

I encountered many individuals locally and, by networking, beyond, who struggled on deep levels with gender stereotyping. And so in ’86, I co-founded a support group in Asheville, which at that time was one of the first all-inclusive gender-questioning groups on the planet — a sad surprise in retrospect.

I wrote nationally published essays regarding these groundbreaking issues, which helped establish the early LGBT networking and activism that evolved over the years and is now subject of coverage in our public media. Local activist Yvonne Cook-Riley and I, early on, were responsible for introducing the word “transgender,” as we have come to know it. And the now commonly recognized transgender logo also originated here.

Since then, my message has evolved to one of gender transcendence — not simply opting between two gender identities, but rather exploring free gender expression for all people, which arguably may further our human evolution. Animals and plants have been manifesting this since life began on Earth. So thank you, Asheville, for honoring the greater diversity of all beings in nature.

While I now live closer to Black Mountain, I will always consider myself an Ashevillean. And having become a student of our mountain culture over the last 38 years, I lament seeing that we may be fulfilling the old Cherokee curse, dating from when they were forced to move west almost 200 years ago: “May your people come here in droves, until you choke on your own excess.” So I, like some others, am gravely concerned about the advent of what I call “plastic” culture, the displacement of our intimate, eccentric community and the devastating effects upon our glorious yet fragile mountain ecosystem. Given all that is possible with affordable property, natural beauty and health, a rich and unique culture with freedom of expression … aren’t these the reasons we’re here?

Holly Boswell is a baby-boomer, nature-loving free spirit, who has thankfully managed to more or less thrive in Asheville, thanks to “artistic license” and good people.

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3 thoughts on “Reflections of an Asheville counter-culture explorer

  1. Great look back at what life as like for queer folks back in he early 1980’s. A wealth of history as we lead into Blue Ridge Pride weekend!!

  2. Nancy Orban

    Good piece, Holly. Yes, the renaissance of Asheville does go back further than the founding of Mountain Xpress, as celebrated in its last issue. (Oh, and I had no idea you were still in Black Mountain.)

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