The theme of Asheville author Marilyn Ball’s new book, The Rise of Asheville: An Exceptional History of Community Building, is clear from the start. In story after story of some of Asheville’s key past successes, it is the “magic of collaboration,” as Ball describes it, that shines forth.
From the story of how a group of Asheville activists stopped a massive mall from being built in the heart of downtown to the tale of a regional partnership that pulled tourists deep into the mountains, Ball notes again and again that Asheville has a place where people have come together for community.
“It’s applicable now because of all the change we’re seeing,” Ball says. “We have to move from a place of meaningful cooperation and peaceful problem-solving, versus the winner-take-all mentality.”
Here’s more from Ball about her book and how foundational community members shaped Asheville over the past half century.
Q: There are so many great anecdotes here. Where do you want to start?
Ball: How about with Stone Soup. It opened in the Allen Center, owned by a ministry that brought in a Methodist minister, Dick Gilbert, who gave them some counsel, and they had the idea to bring together several nonprofits so they could pay affordable rent. They decided to start up a restaurant there, called Stone Soup, that could bring in some money. They made their own bread and people brought in vegetables from their gardens. The profit they made they put back into the building to keep rents low. It was basically an employee-owned business and they decided by consensus. The group started seeing other issues, such as the displacement caused by the “urban renewal” of the time, so some of their employees moved into that community and started helping people in their time of need.
The first story in the book is about the Save Downtown Asheville movement. People were going to lost their downtown property through eminent domain under a plan to build a huge mall on 11 city blocks downtown. The plan really hit home when one woman, Peggy Gardner, a college student majoring in art, decided to wrap the area in fabric. She had seen the work of Christo. So she went down to the River Arts District and Ben Slossman’s and asked him how much fabric it would take to wrap 11 acres, and then she asked him to donate it. He did. When everyone got together and they picked up the fabric, it was in squares, and they had to tie the squares together. That act brought attention to what was happening, but what nailed it was Wayne Caldwell finding out that there was going to be a tax associated with the construction. The money’s got to come from somewhere, right? There was a referendum, and the people voted it down. The city had just paid off its debt, so they were ready to re-invest in the community and that decision set the stage.
Q: What do you make of all the changes you’re seeing now in Asheville?
Ball: I think we’re still on the right track when you see community-minded ventures coming in and the economy coming back. When I look at that mammoth New Belgium building by the river, I see that and think it’s going to be great for our economy. And you see how they’re working in the community with greenways and other collaborations.
Q: You are optimistic. Are you just a hippie at heart when you talk about these examples of community building?
Ball: I grew up in Washington, D.C., and saw Vietnam protests. A girl who was killed at Kent State went to my high school. Richard Nixon was president. I moved to Asheville when I was 23 and my generation was scared. We grew up having to put our heads under our desks for drills in case of a nuclear explosion. It was a fearful time. So like a lot of people, I decided to head to the hills and live like the people there. In Asheville, we could live organically, off the grid, and hang out at Malaprop’s or High Tea. They didn’t call it High Tea for nothing. People were usually high and singing, writing poetry. It was a culture where you were with like-minded people, both intellectually and spiritually.
Q: And that’s what you see now….
Ball: Yes. Asheville has been somewhat intentional in terms of growing organically, sustainably. That was our culture then, and that’s the foodie culture now, the beer culture, the music industry. They’re all examples of the magic of collaboration, where everybody considers themselves a leader because they want change to happen. So someone says “I’ll start this, but you come along with me and we’ll do this together.”
Didn’t you witness a lot this yourself, Mr. Sandford? Your own history of Asheville’s fall and rise from the 1970s onward would be interesting!
Where can we buy the book?