Editor’s note: Josh Newton is a former Asheville busker who was active in the Asheville Busker’s Alliance until he recently relocated to New Orleans.
Letter to Asheville
It’s been about three months since I left you, and it’s been just long enough that I’m really starting to miss you. Not the way I’ve missed you before, when I’ve gone back to Atlanta or on tour or otherwise submerged myself back in the stagnant waters of mainstream American culture. Then, coming back to Asheville felt like a return to sanity and sensibility. Perhaps that was naiveté on my part, but it still strikes me as significant.
The way I miss you now is more sober and infinitely more sad. The desperation of being personally invested in your future has been stripped away, and in many ways I feel like I more clearly understand what you were to me, and what you can no longer be. Now, my relationship to you is more akin to my relationships with friends who were addicted to hard drugs; I love you, but for the moment, at least, you’ve given up and are allowing toxicity to consume you. There is little I can do for you, and it all comes at great cost to myself.
So, I moved on. I didn’t know I was moving to New Orleans when I came down here. All I knew was that I was not going to starve for a sixth winter in a row. I figured I’d come down here, busk in the French Quarter, and come back with my spoils and get right on back to work fighting for the ideal that was my relationship to you. It only took about a month down here to determine that I wasn’t leaving.
There are a lot of different reasons, but one bigger than all the rest: culture. We actually have it here. There are black people and Latino people, Indian people, Cajuns and transplants and freaks, and they don’t cloister themselves off. They aren’t solely confined to project housing or Section 8 neighborhoods. Everyone says hello on the streets (or, more appropriately, ALLLright), lives on the same block, goes through the same struggles.
Don’t get me wrong. Those struggles are enormous, and in many ways dwarf yours. Buncombe County may be corrupt, but it’s got nothing on Orleans Parish. I mean, this is where the Mafia originally landed in the United States, and they haven’t left. The violence and poverty in this town is unbelievable, and there’s nothing abstract about it. It’s on any given block of this city, and no one is immune. No one is separate from it.
To put it plainly, criminals are killing so many people over here that the police don’t even aspire to keep up with it. This is not a bragging point, but it brings about an interesting notion. New Orleans, as a culture, does not ‘other’ parts of itself. It does not attempt to sanitize its shadow side, or even hide it. New Orleans has always been dangerous and corrupt, and it embraces that history even when seeking to improve its conditions. This creates a peculiar kind of solidarity among its residents that extends past dogmatic and cliqueish boundaries.
Asheville, this is something you could learn from if you decide to do something about your fate. In the six years I was with you, I felt that I was bouncing from clique to clique. The hipsters don’t dig on the hippies who don’t care for the punks who can’t stand the mountain folk who aren’t concerned about black folk, and on and on. Yes, there are inevitable intersections, but by and large, your culture’s subsets do not realize just how much they have in common with each other.
When you can’t relate to your neighbors, there is a pressure so constant that over years it becomes invisible, just another condition of reality. A chronic pain whose sensations have to be dulled to make life even appear comprehensible. And how do we dull that kind of pain? We retreat into dogmatic certainty and exclusivity, become bitter, cynical, rigid. These are the tools of apathy, and we take them up when we feel powerless to change our condition. Why? Because passion and hope make us vulnerable, and we’ve convinced ourselves that they aren’t a smart bet in the long run.
Asheville, you are completely justified in feeling powerless. You are. You had a brief Golden Age where the arts flourished, where the tourists were respectful and appreciative of the “progressive culture,” and where a lot of people made a lot of money. Now, that opportunity is being systematically co-opted by corporate machines, and you’re too divided and distracted to do anything about it. Power comes from a sense of solidarity and internal support, and you have not stepped up to the plate. You have allowed powers that be to carve you up into disparate perspectives instead of holding them accountable when you could have. It may well be too late for a comeback.
Or maybe not. Who can say until all the cards are on the table? Perhaps the artistic culture can pull a last minute upset. But I gotta say, Asheville, you’re bleeding chips. The Phil Mechanic building is a BIG symbolic loss, and it’s not the first of its kind. Letting the form-based code on Haywood Road change was a massive blow, and most of you won’t even know it until the hotels start going up. You’re about to lose the buskers to the same retrogressive policies that we’ve shot down twice in two years, and you can kiss your shot at culture goodbye if they succeed at busting up the project housing and running 26 through the Burton Street Community. All things that are on the table right now, and what are you doing about it?
The saddest part about it (especially from outside) is that the one thing all of the cliques have in common is this attitude of detached cynicism about Asheville’s future. “Yeah, it’s all screwed, harumph, gonna have to move in five years,” then lean back with a craft beer and some Cali herb and chill. You’re a unicorn, Asheville, but you’ve been so distant from your horse cousins that you’ve forgotten what makes you so unique. If you were as passionate as you are nihilistic, you’d be a force to be reckoned with.
Healthy lifestyles have always been important to you in the time I’ve known you, Asheville, even when your reasoning was sketchy. You may think shopping at Greenlife is expensive, but you’ve got it so good. Try to eat healthy as an artist in New Orleans and you’ll remember what a food desert is. You may think APD doesn’t do a good job, but they actually arrest murderers and thieves and put them in jail. Here, they take, on average, an hour and change to respond to calls, and they may not even show up if no one got shot or stabbed.
You actually have clean water to drink and swim in and appreciate (though if you keep slacking, frackers will take care of that). Even your tap water is drinkable. Contrast that to Louisiana’s, which only occasionally contains brain-eating amoebas. You’re all about non-violent, non-confrontational communication, and that’s productive at least as much as it makes you an equivocating fool. From where I stand right now, I’d count that a victory, even if it’s the quality that ultimately undoes you.
You’ve got so much to offer that you take for granted, and watching you let it be bought out from under you without even a temper tantrum is deeply disheartening. The fact that you can get all up-in-arms about a couple misogynist assholes who charge too much for coffee but not for the assault on your cultural vitality is why I’d rather be here than there. I live in a place infinitely more diverse and non-cohesive than you’ve ever been, and despite the enormous challenges, people here will fight to defend their shared cultural legacy.
As I said before, Asheville, I see what you were to me and what you can no longer be. You were an image, an ideal. You were the relief of being in the company of others who “got it”. We fled the ignorance and inequities of American society and escaped into the mountains. We made our own little bubble and patted ourselves on the back for being ahead of the curve, but our foundation was shoddy. We thought we had found a way out, and we built our entire narrative on that lie. No place is safe if you don’t have the courage and the foresight to defend it.
I hope you’ll have a twelfth round comeback, but I’m not banking on it. If it sways you at all, know this: there is nowhere else to run to. Gentrification is suffocating every cultural center in this country at a greatly-accelerated rate. Artists, if you don’t find a way to rally your communities and stand up to this pressure, in Asheville or elsewhere, you will live the rest of your lives on the run, waiting for your hard work to be co-opted. If you can’t sustain and fortify the life of your culture, at least make a brutal piece of art out of its death.