BY JERRY STERNBERG
Editor’s note: This is the final installment in Jerry Sternberg’s long-running series of essays on the history of Asheville’s riverfront. The previous pieces 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,” “Kingdom at War,” “Thank God It’s Over!” and “The Great Threat.”
The trains came, but even the whine of the big diesel engines pulling a hundred coal cars to the powerhouse couldn’t drown out the din of the battle between RiverLink and the River Rats as they tilted in the political arena. In fairness, the issues dividing the warring parties mostly involved differing perceptions and views of the Swannanoa and French Broad rivers.
The River Rats, led by the handsome knight pictured above, were hardworking, entrepreneurial property and business owners, many of whom provided critical services to the community. They did not spend time admiring the view of the river: They actually saw it as a polluted sewer and a serious nuisance, whose periodic flooding could be costly and very inconvenient. Many businesses located there because they weren’t allowed to operate elsewhere in the kingdom.
Often, these entrepreneurs viewed RiverLink’s supporters as outsiders with no skin in the game who were determined to put them out of business and take their property with little compensation, merely to fulfill their own single-minded vision.
RiverLink, meanwhile, had assembled a group of wildly enthusiastic dreamers who wanted to return the river to its former splendor, to be enjoyed by locals and tourists alike.
The upstart Queen Jean had already cast her Webb over the kingdom, enlisting her band of dedicated zealots (aka Quality Forward) in efforts to remove the unsightly litter that plagued the realm. They were soon joined by the beautiful Sorceress Karen, and together, they were a daunting, dynamic duo who gave no quarter.
By the last decade of the 20th century, the river was substantially cleaner, thanks to many environmental groups as well as governments spurred on by the mandates of the federal Clean Water Act. Accordingly, people began to migrate to the river for pleasure once again.
Artists were encouraged to open studios there, and the River Rats were not displeased to see many of the older dilapidated buildings repurposed and property values going up. RiverLink bought several properties, including the decrepit feed mill and the cotton mill, but unfortunately, they were destroyed or severely damaged by a massive fire that also killed many proposals for imaginative reconstruction.
In time, the two sides developed a less adversarial relationship. They still had their differences, but they found a frightening common enemy in two great seers, “Madam No” and the “Green Man,” whose stifling proposal for zoning the River District would have undermined the momentum of the river development and put many of the river companies out of business.
Under the time-honored principle that “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the warring parties joined hands to defeat a threat that would have destroyed both parties’ goals.
Unfortunately, the alliance hit a serious setback when the chariot racetrack was closed. It had been a source of inexpensive entertainment for nearly 40 years, and its multitude of fans (including many of the river people) derived great joy each week from participating in this spectacle.
The closing also appeared rather shady: Noblemen who owned an enormous estate directly across the river were involved, as well as certain less-than-transparent officials of the kingdom.
Although RiverLink was not the sole perpetrator of this plot, the group did eventually receive the property and develop it into a park, which made it the target of much vitriol. That, in turn, led to the defeat of a bond issue for the Parks and Recreation Department — a real setback for RiverLink’s work building parks and greenways. Bitterness over the racetrack closing persists to this day.
As we moved into the new millennium, however, much of the conflict diminished. A new day was dawning in the River District as the artists were followed by pioneering restaurant owners who dared to venture into this rundown quarter.
During this period, a new and dynamic group of royalty found its way to our small dominion. Drawn by the quality of the water and a receptive community, the Barons of Beer had a profound impact on the River Kingdom that resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in investments. There is great irony in the fact that these Biermeisters — who, less than a century ago, would have been considered outlaws — now enjoy a status akin to that of crowned dignitaries.
And though the once mighty Prince Tobacco, Queen Nicotine and their court still retain some die-hard followers, they now find themselves retreating in great disarray. Many of their temples have been destroyed, and some have actually been taken over by the Beer Barons, who have also been busy building new temples. One such magnificent edifice has been constructed on the west side the river, complete with tall round spires and silver obelisks, huge glass windows and many fountains spraying precious golden liquid, to the delight of the supplicants flocking to the shrine.
The renaissance, spurred by a renewed appreciation of this liquid gold and by huge outlays from the kingdom’s coffers, has propelled the River District into a new era. Natives and tourists are flocking to this artistic, hedonistic playground, and housing and hostelries are springing up as property values skyrocket. Bike paths, parks and river access points are also proliferating. It’s a credit to both RiverLink and the River Rats who, between them, made much of this happen.
Both the beautiful Sorceress Karen and the handsome prince pictured above have now retired from the battlefield, become devoted friends and been elevated to the esteemed position of elder statesmen to whom almost no one listens.
Nonetheless, I conclude this series with a prophecy: There is still time for bureaucratic bungling to derail these developments. I urge the leaders of our little kingdom not to stifle this impetus and dam the amazing flow of the River District by imposing needless barriers in the name of enforcing the mantra of St. Wilma Dykeman.
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at email@example.com.