How did Xpress readers process all the local news and changes this year? Many of you started (or joined in) community conversations on these pages and online. Here’s a look at the topics that generated the most commentaries, letters to the editor and online comments in Xpress in 2019.
1. Tourism and development: As visitors and new residents continue to arrive in Asheville and Western North Carolina, tourism and development topped the list. One flashpoint was the proposed conversion of one of downtown Asheville’s iconic historic buildings to a boutique hotel, prompting local resident Jerry Hinz to write: “Please do not keep destroying the core of the city by converting the Flatiron Building to a hotel,” citing the loss of “wonderful” small businesses housed inside, as well as parking concerns.
Countered “jcherese” on the mountainx.com website: “I grew up here and understand the frustrations but also think restoring and preserving a historic building as a hotel is much better than all the new construction, ugly, generic hotels we’ve been plagued with thus far.” In the end, City Council voted 4-3 in June to allow a rezoning of the building for hotel use.
Meanwhile, in “Elitism and Scapegoating Won’t Solve Asheville’s Congestion, Affordable Housing and Sprawl,” Karen Ramshaw of Public Interest Projects called out NIMBYism and Asheville’s codes and zoning practices as throwing up barriers to needed affordable housing. “Development costs in the area are high and even higher within the city limits, where additional regulations and the overall process are more burdensome,” she wrote. “Yet it makes sense — socially, environmentally and financially — to encourage development in the city center, where we already have infrastructure, rather than subsidizing sprawl and clearing acres of our mountain forests.”
A raft of online comments followed, plus two letters from Montford residents who pushed back on the characterization of resistance to a proposed apartment complex. “As a renter who has lived in Montford for 11 years, I’m well aware of the need for more affordable housing here and throughout the city, but this particular development simply isn’t an acceptable answer,” responded Meggen Lyon.
Others expressed frustration about living in a city that seems at times to be bursting at the seams. “Low wages, corporate landlords, lack of rent control, high prices, brutal traffic, the fake homeless, street crime and white collar crime have all combined to make Asheville an increasingly undesirable place in which to call home,” wrote Chris Brady in the letter, “Greed, Corruption and the Decline of Asheville.”
Countered “Angel Gonzales” in an online reply: “So how do WE make it better?”
2. Politics: The topic of politics, including a March commentary by Jerry Sternberg, engaged many readers. In “Parsing the R-word: The Gospel According to Jerry,” he wrote, “I was shocked and dismayed by the optics when, while watching the Michael Cohen congressional hearing, Mark Meadows, our own 11th District representative, paraded an African-American lady before the assemblage like a life-size cardboard cutout.”
Sternberg challenged Meadows to become “an articulate spokesman for racial acceptance and diversity.”
Online reactions included a defense of Meadows and President Trump, along with this observation from “James Cassara”: “None of us want to think of ourselves as racist but we exist and benefit from a white privilege that is deeply rooted in our society. Pretending we are immune to institutionalized racism would be like claiming to walk through a rainstorm and not get wet.”
3. The environment: A letter by Asheville resident Luke Taylor in January, “Do Our Part to Avoid Single-use Plastics,” kicked off the first of about two dozen letters and commentaries (and multiple comments) throughout the year about the environment.
As part of Xpress’ April sustainability issues, Steve Rasmussen laid out the case for the city to hire a full-time urban forester and institute strategic planning for urban forest protection in “Stopping Asheville’s Tree-loss Crisis Makes Climate Sense for City.”
Though the city did not include funding for the initiatives in its 2019-20 budget, tree advocates including Rasmussen are again requesting city action, rallying around the results of the Urban Tree Canopy Study, released in October — which found the city lost 6.4% of its tree cover, or 891 acres, between 2008 and 2018.
And a cluster of letters this fall urged readers to mobilize on the issue of climate change, including September’s “Walk Out, Die In and Rally for Climate Action” by Arjuna da Silva of Black Mountain. “There are answers, however temporary at this time, to many of the climate dilemmas we face, but they have to be acted on right away,” da Silva wrote.
4. Health care: The issue of health care sparked a number of letters, many discussing elements of the nonprofit Mission Health’s sale to for-profit HCA Healthcare. In January, retired Asheville attorney Timothy Legare predicted: “When an areawide-owned asset like the nonprofit Mission Health perishes, it will be gone forever. Instead of being utilized for the health of our citizens, then you will see these funds evaporate into the air and resulting health care costs will rise.”
Later in the year, worries about HCA’s closure of its CarePartners wheelchair and seating clinic prompted two letters and a response from HCA. Wrote Jane Sutton of Old Fort: “Many wheelchair-dependent people live 14 hours a day in their wheelchair. … A perfect fit is necessary — not just for comfort — but to prevent potentially life-threatening pressure sores.”
When contacted by Xpress, HCA’s Nancy Lindell sounded a hopeful note: “For some time, we have been actively engaged with community partners to determine how we can work together to identify alternative ways to sustain these vital services. We will have more information to share once those plans are finalized.”
5. Education: Views about education, and particularly the Asheville City Schools’ racial achievement gap, included “Generations of Failure: A Plea to Reform Asheville City Schools,” by longtime schools volunteer Kate Fisher. “Oversight in this kind of system — where the board is appointed by a body with no regulatory authority, in a process closed to school employees, families and the community as a whole — is more than a little messed up,” she wrote.
Following a May 22 Xpress cover story on the achievement gap, Asheville resident Olive Wilbur wrote that the system must work to make specific changes in how it treats black students, adding: “We must take this failure, acknowledge and own it, and then make sure such disparities are eliminated. This is our call to action. The future of our children depends on our decisions, and I want to see Asheville lead.”
And what’s more: Of course, not all of the best-read opinion pieces this year fit into five neat categories. Popular reads included a commentary about perceptions of our local music terrain, “More Than Americana: What Rolling Stone Missed About Asheville’s Music Scene,” by Xpress Arts & Entertainment editor Alli Marshall, plus letters on a road-rage incident (“A Disturbing Encounter in East Asheville”), fluoridation (“City Shouldn’t Force Residents to Drink Fluoridated Water”), eschewing shoes (“‘Heel Thyself’ by Going Barefoot,” the first of three), changes in how Xpress reviews films (“Requiem for the Former Movies Section,” the first of eight) and a Molton cartoon about indicted former Buncombe County Commissioner Ellen Frost (“Not Amused by Frost Cartoon”).
Can we expect more of the same in 2020? Readers, we can only hope.