BY JERRY STERNBERG
Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of articles offering a virtual tour of the Asheville riverfront as it has evolved over time. The previous installments were “The Birth of Asheville’s Industrial Riverfront,” “The Ballad of Old King Coal,” “Insurrection in the Kingdom,” “Ragtime and Ruin,” “Hard Times and Cheap Thrills,” “Cataclysmic Change” and “Kingdom at War.”
And the trains came again, only this time the bells were ringing and the whistles were singing, “It’s over!!!” The long, terrible nightmare of war had finally ended in victory for our nation and our allies.
Heroic young men and women who’d stepped up to defeat our dreadful enemies returned to us, many arriving at the same train station on Depot Street from which they’d departed. They were anointed the “Greatest Generation” in recognition of their bravery and sacrifice. And now, returning from assorted foreign lands, they were restless, ambitious and ready to achieve great things here at home.
Fueled by the GI Bill, which enabled many to pursue higher education while also providing low-cost home loans that helped them transition to civilian life and start families, these former warriors were the engine that would create a massive economic, cultural and political sea change, not just in the River Kingdom but in the entire country.
Sadly, however, not everyone shared in these benefits. Despite their sacrifices and valor during the war, the “coloreds” who returned to the Jim Crow South were again relegated to the back of the bus, forced to drink black water and barred from using their GI Bill assistance in most of our segregated, whites-only colleges. Lenders redlined those GI loans, thus denying these people a chance to buy their own home. Instead, they were consigned to the ghetto and to the same menial jobs they’d left behind when they went to war, always the last ones hired and the first ones fired.
Meanwhile, the next two decades saw a boom driven by the conversion to a civilian economy. Textile manufacturers moved to the South to escape the unions, and their arrival, together with the invention of many synthetic textiles, created great economic opportunities. Although the new technologies threatened the reign of King Cotton, the River Kingdom as a whole benefited from this revolution.
Many old properties were repurposed into recycling facilities for the ever-increasing volume of textile waste, scrap metal and waste paper, providing hundreds of jobs.
Auto salvage yards also thrived, since no new civilian power chariots had been produced for five years, and converting the war chariot facilities to civilian production would take quite a while. Steel fabricators, concrete plants and lumberyards proliferated, helping spur the newly energized community’s growth.
As time passed, improvements in transportation and energy sources made many riverfront structures obsolete, and they were abandoned. Proximity to the river and to rail service became less important as the new highways enabled industrial development to move out into the county, away from the flood plain.
Passenger rail service was discontinued, and the once-thriving Depot Street area was deserted. The Glen Rock Hotel closed, and the handsome, cathedral-like train station was demolished, leaving only poignant memories, both sad and glad, floating over a lot that remains vacant to this day.
Some remnants of the old days persisted, however: Blood Alley continued to flourish for years, still peddling its illegal alcohol and gambling scams. But the greatest success seemed to come from the temples of Prince Tobacco and Queen Nicotine. The cigarette factories had reopened, eager to supply the millions of new converts both at home and abroad. These temples could scarcely meet the demand, and the high priests sang the auction chant with renewed vigor.
Glamorized on stage, screen and radio, smoking had become a rite of passage for young people. We were even sold on the idea that it contributed to a healthy lifestyle, providing relaxation and comfort. In the early years, it had been considered unladylike for women to smoke in public. Now, women who had proved themselves equal partners in industry during the war years demanded the right to what they considered a social amenity.
The black knight Adikshun became a driving force, wielding his magical power over the powerless to ensure that the worshippers remained in the cult. Meanwhile, Sir Can and his handmaiden Emma Seema watched patiently, as did their failed offspring Heart and Lung, plus another ne’er-do-well named Stroke, a serial killer who’d been the subject of many attempted arrests.
During this period, the nation fought another war, in a far-off place called Korea, that was hardly noticed by anyone apart from those families whose members took part in it. And back home, the river itself — now considered polluted and unhealthy — was hardly noticed by anyone except when it flooded.
The landfill still blanketed the riverbank with garbage, and while those necessary but unglamorous and unattractive businesses that still operated in the area no longer had need of the river, they located there because of the low cost of land and their ability to function in the now obsolete buildings. Providing the kingdom with many key services, they were able to survive and cope with the effects of the periodic flooding, thanks to the nature of what they did and the kinds of materials they handled.
In my next article, I will tell you about a serious new threat to those businesses that proved to be more dangerous than the river itself.
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at email@example.com.