In September of 2007, I became one of the then approximately 73,000 citizens of the city of Asheville, North Carolina. That year Asheville was able to claim numerous honors such as "Best Southern Town" (Outside magazine, Aug. '07), one of the "Top 10 Up-and-Coming Travel Destinations" (VirtualTourist.com, March '07), and was one of the "Top 25 Arts Destinations" (American Style magazine, June '07). From these and other accolades, a prospective move to the area might imply that employment should be a promise, relaxation nearly enforced, and that general malice was at least several mountain villas away. Today in 2011, the population has added about 10,000 more residents and keeps accruing national praise from all its variegated visitors. Hello. I am Citizen #78001, a representative of Asheville from 2007 to present, deriving my name from the mean of the population increase of my city over the time I've been here, plus one.
The classic get-to-know-someone-at-a-party question, "So, what is it you do for a living?" is always a loaded hot potato. If you are interested in my existential disposition, then my means of artistic expression, cultural consumption, and spiritual stance are well-poised to lead the conversation into commentary on the locus where I live. Asheville is a profferer of many entertainments and is a wide-embracing recipient of the socially sacred Pluralism and its pantheon of lifestyles. Downtown is full of chic boutiques, restaurants with health conscious trendiness, and music venues ranging from those in the know (the Grey Eagle/the Orange Peel), to local dive bars and larger mainstream appeal (Thomas Wolfe Auditorium). Non-profit healthcare organizations, the newly renovated River Arts District, access to the Blue Ridge Parkway hiking trails, a religious spectrum from Wiccan to solid southern-fried Christianity, a proud LGBTQ community… and so, yeah, it's diverse and progressive, especially given its political positioning as a Democrat stronghold in the midst of overwhelmingly Republican Western North Carolina.
But what this fella at the party wants to know is what my social position is and how I make money.
"Well, Bob; can I call you Bob? I sell batteries in a retail store. Oh, but we do most of our sales to larger industry! It's not all AA-make-your-kid's-toy-Gatling-gun-make-a-racket-again stuff. Nope." He owns a laptop, an iPhone, a car, but he's clearly not interested because I said the dirty word "retail." Retail is reserved for the face the consumer cares to forget, a job that asks not to see the person, but to view one as a disembodied uniform trained to say only the prescribed company rhetoric (which I have always thought quite a curious resemblance to what hardcore capitalists say socialist structure would produce in our country: a loss of the individual and their divine rights). "Welcome, I am Citizen #78001. How may I serve your personalized energy needs today? That's one flashy smart-phone you have there, sir. How well informed you are!"
To know a city may be to experience its means and modes of transportation, traversing its expanses, taking it in quickly, at large. Asheville's heart is a woven fabric of the Western NC Appalachian Mountains' busiest highways and interstates. I-40 and I-26 act as the main nerves for the city's approach to sprawl between island-like sub-sections, and a division occurs the further one spreads out from downtown.
To the north is a muted upper-middle class cell cradling the high-priced resort, the Grove Park Inn (famously a retreat for the Obama family). The University of North Carolina at Asheville is located in this part of the city and nearer the school and downtown sudden shifts in wealth occur, depending on the neighborhood.
To the east, the commercial growth of the 70s through 90s can be found, with an enclosed mall surrounded by parking lots/strip malls and chain restaurants. In the past decade, however, the commercial, non-tourist growth has been spreading to the south part of the city.
The west is a recently gentrified area, reclaimed by the constructive laxness of hipster culture (Izzy's Coffee, Harvest Records, 420 Imaging), changing its tune from the more infamous drug and crime infested economic wilds of the past twenty years. This is where some locals speak of the "ghettos" as if there were such a hungry beast roaming the westside. Right now some of the poorest property can be found in west Asheville, but there is nothing frightening about these lower-income neighborhoods. From what I have seen every playground is in family-friendly condition.
South Asheville consists of several large retirement communities as well as expensive vacation houses (the running joke in Asheville being that these are wealthy Floridians' homes away from home in the summer). Larger industry and the area power plant are also here, along with a newer wave of strip malls from the past decade and "villages", all trying to act as small, self-sustaining towns. Biltmore Park Town Square is a conglomeration that condenses office spaces, condos, townhouses around and on top of restaurants and retail chains like Barnes & Noble. Wake in the morning, walk downstairs to Starbucks and read the latest download on Kindle without ever leaving home. (Look to Professor Cummings's article Learning From Tiny Tower on how to practice integration into this sort of lifestyle.)
Perhaps the distance between each distinction lies in the landscape, the stretch between one place and the other and the effect it has on the mobility of the people familiar with each. Many spaces in the city are either unused or in an undeveloped stasis (though zoned for a glorious commercial predestine). South Asheville, for instance, may have many structures built up around a suburban developer's dream of communal, easy consumer living, but the reality is that many of the available spaces remain untouched. At least half of the storefronts in the large Gerber Village complex have had no business touch their space in the five years it has been there. High on a hill above the G. Village is a stripped wasteland peering down at strip malls. The land depression at the top of the hill marks the tomb of an old Gerber baby food factory that once acted as a staple in the local job market. Manufacturing of course is not a focus for Asheville and the unfilled retail spaces are a mere specter of potential jobs; if only the economy at large were vigorous enough for more specialty service sales!
Each segmented part of the city is somewhat self-sustaining, given you have a job in the neighborhood you live in. But if you have work, say, in south Asheville in a certain battery store and are living in east Asheville without a car your workday has just gotten a lot longer. This is the case with one of my co-workers who grew up in the area and is well-acquainted with the transit system. My fellow Battery Pusher must plan for two hours travel to the job and then two hours of tedious stop-go motion thereafter. If you own a car or can afford to use a cab, the basic rule of thumb applies to most any travel route from one end of Asheville to the next: avoid going through downtown and it should never take more than fifteen minutes to arrive anywhere. Unfortunately, some individuals whose work supports the area's services (many which are only available to the tourists and the privileged, batteries aside) must make great sacrifices for little compensation. But this is an old story.
A newer take on a bad situation does appear to be underway, being that the city council and local news sources are aware of the poor condition of public transit. Local events magazine Mountain Xpress recently published an article by Jake Frankel, "The Art of the Wheel," on the city's ART (Asheville Redefines Transit) campaign. The overhaul of the current system will include a tightening of route scheduling, 5 new electric-diesel hybrid buses, and amazingly "more than $2.8 million for sidewalk construction and maintenance — a 94-percent increase," making it easier and safer to find a bus stop.
Main roads tend to stretch quite far and change names many times as they slink around mountain contours, meandering away from the valley sheltering downtown. The main strip from North to South Asheville takes the incarnations, in order, Merrimon-Broadway-Biltmore-Hendersonville roads. MeBroBiltHe Rd. represents commercial sprawl to the suburbs better than any other measure, with all its unused spaces for medians, highway ramps, vacant lots, zoning and the ilk in-between. It seems that the further one goes from downtown's prime real estate density, commercial spaces become ghost towns of lost intention. Downtown tourism is the strength of Asheville, but what do these suburban empty store fronts mean for the local and national economy's small businesses? Is it just bad management on the part of realty agencies or are there empty commercial parks making a pattern across the country?
I can reply to partyman Bob that "for a living" I am a single socioeconomic unit acting discreetly within the growth of Asheville. As Citizen #78001, I perform a civic duty by using these spaces for sanctuary. The homeless, the deviant, or the lost are pegged as the likeliest candidates to spend time in undeveloped or dilapidated areas that they do not own. I may not professionally move money with gusto, but like the artists who stratified the tag walls with graffiti on the ruins of the early twentieth century French Broad River railroad, I live a part of my day in skeletal lost spaces to create a momentary autonomy. We are the unnoticed, living bio-masses of the city. I take my lunch breaks sitting like lichen on the broken foundation of the old Gerber factory. I can sit in the sun and be unbothered by traffic or curious eyes staring at the guy sitting still, doing nothing. Until my lunch break is over and...
Thanks for coming by, we much appreciate it! Oh, and by the way, will you visit the Biltmore Estate during your stay? There's an interesting story behind that family's great contribution and industry…