BY MILTON READY
As you read this, Asheville likely will have had one of its most successful tourist seasons, its downtown growing upward and not outward, its streets more congested with seemingly endlessly patient drivers and visitors, its reputation as the “Paris of the South” or “Beer City” intact or even burnished. All seems well in River City. Yet look more closely, and you might find a different Asheville materializing in the midst of this outwardly endless popularity and attraction of the present. Asheville should take heed, and, no, it’s not about the predictable effects of more hotels, less affordable housing, increased congestion or rampant commercialism. Today, Asheville has to be one of the most rapidly gentrifying cities in the nation.
Asheville has a perceived smugness about it, a patina of self-indulgence and tolerance that makes it vulnerable to reactionary forces that would like nothing more than to turn the city into a larger Blowing Rock or a smaller Charlotte. In so doing, Asheville would no longer be the most interesting small city in America or the granola ghetto of the Carolinas. Its distinctive “otherness” and strangeness would be replaced by an “anotherness” and sameness of other tourist destinations in the mountains — another Waynesville, Hendersonville, Brevard, Highlands or Cashiers.
Asheville’s modern history can be neatly divided into two eras, the first occurring during the city’s long renaissance beginning in the 1980s and culminating in its discovery by Rolling Stone magazine in 2000 as “America’s new freak capital.” The second began in 2010, when Ted Cruz crazies took over North Carolina and immediately set about ending what they considered to be the chaos of the 1990s and returning to an idyllic Mayberry-like past dominated by white males, where everyone knew their place and only deferentially complained, one that never existed.
That pesky feminist movement? Since 2008, the high-water mark for women in North Carolina when Elizabeth Dole and Kay Hagan ran for the Senate, there has been a steady overall decline in their political influence, except in a few locales such as Asheville. Think Leni Sitnick, Terry Bellamy and Esther Manheimer here. Misogyny is alive and well in North Carolina, and surely no one really believed that the state would vote for a woman for president, Hillary Clinton, especially after having eight years of Barack Obama, an African-American, in office.
Yet one civil rights issue has remained, that of gay rights, and it has become a staple of North Carolina politics since the 1990s. Indeed, it should come as no surprise that today, North Carolina has become the center of the fiercest anti-gay, anti-LBGTQ+ movement in the nation, and two cities, Asheville and Charlotte, aka Sodom and Gomorrah to many, its focus.
Since 2010, North Carolina unrelentingly has sought to blunt the gay rights movement by passing Amendment One, the “refer-end-um” of 2012, to change the state constitution to prohibit gay marriage and also the infamous HB2 law, the “bathroom bill.” More legislation and action surely will follow.
While HB2 was aimed directly at Charlotte, the General Assembly also has moved to “diversify” Asheville’s influence by trying to force local district representation for its governing City Council and redrawing the 11th Congressional District, putting most of the city in District 10 in 2011. The result? The new District 11 has as its representative Mark Meadows from Cashiers, the leader of the House Freedom Caucus and perhaps its most conservative member.
Additionally, Raleigh knows that many of the growing suburbs around Asheville are among the most conservative in the state and that, given traditionally weak voter turnout in the city itself, a referendum to change Asheville’s electorate surely would pass. Historically, referendums in North Carolina have been utilized to kill civil rights initiatives and to promote reactionary agendas.
Yet despite all Raleigh’s machinations and growing conservative Biltmore Park-type subdivisions sprouting around Asheville, perhaps the greatest danger of unwanted change comes from within the city itself, from apathetic and cynical millennials, hippies, anarchists, witches, crystal-worshippers and other folks who simply have given up on politics altogether.
Surprisingly, Asheville also has a significant and growing number of well-heeled, well-mannered and well-connected residents who don’t particularly like its tattooed young, dreadlocked wannabe Rastafarians and who feel uncomfortable in its tolerant, diverse nonbinary alphabetic culture of more than just M and F. Moreover, read blogs and comments from letters to the editor of local newspapers such as Mountain Xpress, and you will find a steady drumbeat of critics of Asheville City Council who decry its “crony friends,” “establishment politics,” and undue influence of West Asheville and Montford, supposedly citadels of “progressivism.” Sound familiar?
Last, not surprisingly, Asheville also has its fair share of misogynistic men and women who see in Donald Trump’s election the triumph and validation of their views. One such male, Carl Mumpower, a former City Council member, penned a Feb. 1 letter to Mountain Xpress ridiculing the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., and in other burgs, including Asheville. Why complain, he mused, since American women were “members of the most blessed batch of liberated women in history,” with those blessings mostly given to them by conservative white males like Mumpower. Yet he also dissed the “left’s tired script” that “tracks back to Woodstock, lava lamps and troll dolls.” Like many these days, he correctly perceives that the “tired scripts” and unchallengeable dogmas of the past 30 years that typified Asheville’s early growth, things like universal tolerance, diversity and human rights, have also ossified its City Council and created an illiberal refusal to encourage alternative views and structures.
Asheville needs new forms of radicalism to replenish and promote a more flourishing society, one that encourages greater civic participation and representation, one that does not come from Raleigh. In so doing, it once again will face the paradox of transformation, of plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose — in Asheville’s case, the more it changes, the more it remains unique.
Retired UNC Asheville history professor Milton Ready lives in Tryon.