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.
The author’s lament for the change in Asheville is valid and makes many excellent points. To refute his arguments by saying it’s always been this way doesn’t address the issues of struggle, the feeling of despair and the sense of loss that comes with seeing your town transformed. One also can’t deny the very truths stated in the piece about this city’s lack of diversity, its cliquey people, and its new found place as beer soaked hangout for weekend revelers.
What’s happened to Asheville isn’t unique, but it’s still happening and it’s still impacting many lives. There is an entire class that is now excluded from enjoying living here, those that don’t have the wages to afford its high rents and cost of living. Do you simply tell them, too bad? Or do you realize there is a great loss to the city because those people can’t participate? Many are young and ambitious, with dreams to contribute to the city’s culture. They can’t live here because we’ve decided as a society that providing a living wage isn’t important. We don’t even acknowledge that those out of college today or those just starting, don’t have the same chances we did.
Anyone who has the means to change things, to actually pay workers a living wage, the actually provide affordable housing, to make life affordable for anyone who aspires to be part of this community, has the obligation of make this happen. Just because you are living well, it’s probably off the backs of many others who aren’t.
The problem with Asheville is not that its changed, it’s the fact that the growth has benefited only those at the top. The flow of money goes to the same people, the rentiers, the property owners, the developers, the government administrators, the chamber, and the business owners who pay substandard wages. All of these people suck from the system and exploit the workers. We tell young people: you can’t live here, take your talents and dreams to places like…New Orleans.
well well, yes it’s true this town is turning into a place full of rich assholes from Florida and New York. They came here to experience the culture that we all know has existed and still does. But in their wake have imposed there bullshit lifestyles and comfortable lulls on us all. I’m probably the only person writing on this forum who was born and raised in Asheville and watched all my friends struggle to find jobs and end up giving in and working at some lame as new restraint or building houses in a housing development in the Madison county of fair view . But despite that I have also seen and know there is a culture emerging here that transcends groups of people who choose to shit talk and nod work together. People that are planting seeds, building natural buildings, growing our own food, and make Asheville what it is thought to be. And yes while most of this is taking place outside of Asheville, asheville depends on us to make it what it is. Who is going to grow the food for the farmers market or organize farmers markets, teach permaculture classes, prune the trees in the edible garden, go to craft circle at 40 house, play drums above the coop on Thursdays, wild craft food for those fucking restraunts. Ya we are and we have the power to change everything going down in Asheville, we are Asheville. Yes I hate what has happened to my town but mother fuckers I’m still tending my community garden on Grail street at the halfway house, I’m still picking up road kill, I’m still crafting home brews, I’m still playing my guitar on the street. What I’m saying is the resistance is Alive and if your to busy shit talking to see it we are going to sneek up on your ass and destroy the Death Star before you even know what happened… This is Luke Skywalker checking in….May the force be with you
Yawn. Nothing new here. Asheville has been a tourist town virtually since it was founded and certainly since the wealthy lowlanders from Charleston, Atlanta, etc. discovered it was cooler in the mountains during the summer.
But the cycle continues. People discover Asheville, think it is marvelous and move here. After about, on maybe 5-6 years the luster wears off and they realize how difficult it is to live in a town that has low wages and a high cost of living. The grouse about it and move on only to be replaced by new people and the cycle starts all over.
None of this is new and just because it happened to you doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened to thousands before you and won’t happen to thousands after you. You weren’t the first and you won’t be the last.
People who have lived anywhere for a long period of time mourn change. Anywhere.
I know many natives of NOLA who have mourned its changes as well.
“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’m just tired of hearing from middle class white kids who complain about their suffering and how things just didn’t work out for them as they expected. Poor you. Sorry..but your suffering pales in comparison to real issues people are facing.
Lots of good comments here! Whew, kind of a relief to me as I read so many here and on Mtn Express that are very narrow-minded and politically predictable.
Many nailed it but I’ll highlight Cecil and Jan for appropriate reality checks.
I grew up on the Blue Ridge, eventually wound up in Asheville. I lived there for about 12 yrs. Now I live in the rest of the world, which is actually very interesting and full of opportunity for everone. Trust me, a dyed in the wool subversive, you don’t really know how short sighted and narrow focused the place is until you get the courage to leave. There is really nothing there that you can’t find somewhere else(certain geological features excluded).
I’m an Asheville native.My family has been in WNC since the American Revolution. I’ve lived in Tampa FL and Atlanta GA, and I personally hope to live the rest of my life in Asheville. I remember years when downtown was dead as a doorknob and the River Arts area was a stretch of neglected warehouses. This has always been a tourist area and a summer retreat for the wealthy residents of Biltmore Village and Town Mountain. I see downtown these days and I’m very happy. It is alive and thriving. We have our problems, but most of the division you complain about is within the groups of recent transplants. Yes, we have our problems. I will take them over the kind you find in larger cities any day. I wish you luck and happiness as an ex-Asheville resident and hope New Orleans will meet your expectations. I suspect that six years (or sooner) from now, you will become disenchanted with that beautiful city as well.
I love your piece, Josh. I’ve lived here twice, from ’86 to ’92, then back since ’97. I too remember the boarded-up, deserted downtown. I also remember those wonderful years when Asheville was coming back to life and everything seemed exciting and new. But I agree that Asheville is changing and not for the better. Asheville just doesn’t feel like it once did. Am I going to leave? Probably not any time soon. It’s still a great place, in many ways, and as someone who has travelled all over the world I can attest that we who live in Asheville are pretty lucky if we look at what is good here still. But I probably will leave one day because the place Asheville is becoming isn’t a place I’ll want to stay.
Busker is not all I am; it’s just the most public part of my life. This letter is not about busking. It’s about segregation, poverty, and exclusivity. Busking is a very visible microcosm that demonstrates what’s going on in the macrocosm.
And, per usual, the seniority argument emerges and ignores the real points. The City of Asheville is happy to profit off of this iteration of a culture boom but doesn’t want to share the spoils. You advertise yourself as an arts town but your artists are starving. You advertise yourself as a food town but your service industry workers live in squalor.
You advertise yourself as a progressive culture, but you’re one of the most segregated cities in the south. Your blacks are almost all in project housing when they once owned homes and businesses. Your Latinos are all in Hendersonville and south because it’s been made clear to them that they’re only welcome on job sites.
You have a housing crisis and you’re still doing nothing substantial about it. You have no industry except hospitality, and your young people have little choice other than poverty to feed the commercial machine. You’re getting rich off our vision and energy and outsourcing the fruits of our labor.
There’s a certain point where a body needs to eat and have a stable home, maybe even feel like a part of an engaged community. But your venues don’t pay, your street scene is under cultural and institutional pressure, and no one knows what to do.
I love Asheville and miss it very much, but I’ve got to be somewhere where I can help myself and others. I tried in Asheville, but people have to give enough of a damn to risk their comfort and stability to fight off corruption and avarice. Sorry, I burned out. Maybe if I had received support from the community I was working for, I’d still be at it.
Now I’m in Nola, and despite being a newb, I’ve been welcomed warmly and supported and PAID. They take their patronage of the arts seriously here and look out for the wellbeing of their artists. Can you say the same?
Many very valid points but I also have seen other cities go through the same process that you left Asheville in the middle of. Nawlins’ is a special case – it has always been a music town and an art town. Asheville has not. It truly did not come into it’s own as an arts town where that was considered a large part of the culture until very recently, relative to how long the city has been here. Beer is king here, and we see breweries all over. But seen that in other places where it has started to get old. Nobody really wants to live in a city where the big claim to fame is they drink a lot.
While it’s unfortunate that you didn’t have the talent and perseverance to make it in Asheville; it’s not exactly surprising.This is the kind of scene where only those with a certain kind of transcendent spark and determination thrive. Moving forward, you’d probably be better served devoting more time to improving your “chops” and less time to writhing in your bitterness. Good luck in nola.
Why don’t you take a look at some of my art and guess again?
I don’t think Josh’s piece was bitter at all; It was a heartfelt, well-articulated goodbye to Asheville with a lot of truth in it. There are lots of gifted and inspired artists/musicians who live here who can’t make it on their art alone. You’re the one who sounds a little snarky.
“Now I’m in Nola, and despite being a newb, I’ve been welcomed warmly and supported and PAID. They take their patronage of the arts seriously here and look out for the wellbeing of their artists. Can you say the same?”
I’m asking this seriously, not to be snarky: Who is it that is “welcoming you” in Nola? Who is the “They” who takes patronage of the arts seriously? Who is supporting and paying you?
Are you talking about an arts organization? Business owners? Locals? Tourists? I’m asking because I’m curious as to where this distinction lies between these two towns.
Thanks for your well written letter to my beloved, Asheville. When I moved here 15 years ago, I KNEW it was going to be tough to make it here. It’s frustrating for those who don’t have a foot up in some way, but it’s also what’s helped keep it at bay for so long. It’s a golden handcuff, of sorts. Yes, Asheville is changing. Yes, I mourn the olden days sometime, but this town is SO worth saving and I see folks like Rebecca Hecht spending the time, for free, to keep it awesome. It’s not over. Yes, it’s very white here, so is Portland. You can’t get it all in one town, but this place is as close to any, for me, as there will ever be. I’m from Louisiana and you can HAVE that damn humidity. I do love much about my home state, but there is no way in hell I would ever live there again.
I have earned my living and been an artist all my life; living in DC, NY, Philly and for the last ten years, Asheville. I have been gentrified out of living/working spaces everywhere, but not out of producing honest art from honest spiritual/sensual experiences. It is a shame that I do not know one honest visual artist in this town that I can respect and/or emulate. Just like Jolene at Phil Mechanics and probably soon myself; the stifling corporatism and charades of the new age faux art sophisticates are nauseating. The images I am making now in Asheville are nauseating, but honest and not intended for the commodities market craft cliche cabal that masquerades as an art scene. It is a shame because Asheville could very well be a sacred art city (as it cynically advertises and distorts for tourists and faux new wavers). I have never experienced a worse art city in my life, and the fact that they market and lie about art to bring folk here is sickening. I have had to learn to ignore expensive beer, fancy restaurants, so-called sophisticated/educated prejudiced/bigoted people so I can maintain just a bit of my own sensibility. On the plus side….this is a good town for an artist to starve to death, financially and spiritually, and then do a suicide. There are great places on the Parkway for that experience.
“…I do not know one honest visual artist in this town that I can respect and/or emulate.”
Wow. Talk about Ego.
“..this is a good town for an artist to starve to death, financially and spiritually, and then do a suicide.”
Hurry up. Someone else wants your space.
Jonas Gerard is a towering visual artist inhabiting and working in a great tourist city like Asheville. His charity, egolessness, and production has “spiritually manifested” itself in all the new hotels and eating establishments and he deserves to be emulated and respected as Asheville’s greatest artist, especially by woman. Please, let the shining lights and fantastic works of all our great artists like him be better known to all here so we have less suicides.
How did Jonas Gerard’s sexual harassment charge work out?
If your art is half as nauseating as this comment, I hope you are the first of the starving artist Parkway suicides.
Right….Asheville has no culture. Good riddance twit.
You call yourself ‘Mule’, huh?
Don’t forget: “Wherever you go… There you are.”
Asheville deserves national recognition for the “Whitest Art Towne in America”. The artists in the River Arts District truly manifest the spirit of the “Old South” with their cultural exclusiveness.
I’m just tired of hearing from middle class white kids who complain about their suffering and how things just didn’t work out for them as they expected.
I’m over the whole “Asheville is changing” conversation. No one is going to reverse the course Asheville is on.
From what I’ve heard New Orleans, Nashville and many cities are going through the exact same changes as Asheville, so good luck finding an new artist haven that is completely absent of wealthy tourists and new hotels, that affordable to live in and doesn’t rely on tourism.
I do not find most of the complaining white kids to be middle class. Middle-class wannabe, maybe.
They are mostly hipsters who either did not attend college or if they did graduated with worthless Liberal Arts degrees before moving to(or in the case of UNCA grads, staying in) Asheville hoping to become the “next big thing” in art, music or performance while enjoying craft beer and fine foods.
They found themselves squeezed out by all of the other hopeful “next big things” and ended up waiting tables and tending bar for tips while begging for Living Wages from the socialists that they sent to City Council.
They also found themselves sharing a trailer or one room of a flophouse apartment because developers are only building half-million dollar-plus second homes for retirees. IN SPITE of all of this, they invite their equally clueless hipster friends to join them and the cycle begins anew.
So, yeah, I am tired of the whining too. Stupid sleeps in the bed that Stupid makes.
Having lived here for 6 years now, my opinions may be swept away too. But being nearly 57 AND having lived in the area 35 years ago as well as a college student at Brevard, AND having lived a lot of places in between, I probably have a bit better perspective than someone who lived here 6 years without a lot of other life experiences.
So, in 1976, 1977, Asheville was a fairly vacant mountain town. A few bars (we came here because Brevard was dry), a lot of shops without occupants, and a lot of nothing. Less progressive thinking. Let’s compare to Raleigh – a huge non-descript growing sprawling urban blight if you ask me. People here complain about the traffic because someone turned left on Merrimon Avenue. Imagine a daily commute from North Asheville to Asheville Mall that took 45 minutes. Nope. But that’s Raleigh to RTP rush hour. Every day.
Then I lived in St Louis for 7 years. Lord, do not venture noth of US40/I64 after dark. Lots of culture, lots of art (one of the best art museums in the country), musical heritage (Albert King, Chuck Berry, to name two), crime – St Louis and East St Louis almost always land in the top five in violent crime rates. Here, someone killed three people last fall. It was on the news for days, weeks even. In St Louis, the last year I lived there, a city with an actual population of about 350,000 people inside the city limits had 444 murders. Great music scene but just not safe to live there.
Now, Asheville. The job market is shaky because there’s no industrial base, and it seems that the hotel industry has bought our city council. Solution? Confront it. We elected two new faces to city council who are not bought by the hotel industry. That should just be the beginning. Yes there is a big “only local businesses downtown” movement and while I appreciate that sentiment, I also know there just has to be some business presence downtown that has stability, financial power, without being a corporate face that changes the look of downtown. Because, by God, I’d rather see an Urban Outfitter downtown than an empty storefront.
Tourism, it drives Asheville. Tourism and craft beers. If you don’t drink and you live locally, what is there to bring you downtown? You pay $10 to park in the parking garage to do what?
Yeah Asheville has issues but I’d rather live here than “Nawlins”.
I’m new here. Four months new, but I’m not new to Appalachia. I grew up in WV. I’ve seen coal, timber, natural gas, and now tourism. These are not new things. Just remember that what you yearn for was, in and of itself, an invasive species. The hillbillies of old came here to get away and disconnect. To paraphrase Cecil below, there wouldn’t be an Asheville if it weren’t for industrialists and corporations, your Asheville wouldn’t exist. In 1890 the population of Asheville was 2,500. Asheville is a young city.
To me, Asheville is a gem and the capital of Appalachia. It preserves culture better that satellite dishes and Fox News. Where most small towns are tearing down the local diner to put in a Rite Aid, Asheville is converting. Sure tourism fuels some of this fire, but so does academia, local conservationists and historic societies. These things wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a population that could afford these things.
Econocomically, Asheville couldn’t survive without tourism, it would hardly exist. There are 90,000 people in this small town and 26 breweries. That’s almost twice as many as the whole state of WV. Who supports that? The locals? The lines at biscuit head and Sunny Point on a Saturday morning? It is a balance. Growing up near a ski resort, you used to joke about how great it would be if the tourists would leave so we could ride in peace. When I was 18, I finally realized, if their were no tourists, there’d be no ski resort and I’d be working at the mill.
I understand the frustration, but there are certain realities in the this world we have to accept. As you are now the 3rd or 4th Asheville ex-pat I have read on this subject, there is a strange irony to your critiques. Asheville does need people to fight for the balance and keep the core alive, to keep the balance fo local and corporate, but you left. How is that motivational? You’re resignation is more dangerous to the future of Asheville than your passive aggression as you ride out of town is helpful. When the balance tips in New Orleans (talk about gentrification), will you stand and fight or send a letter from Austin?
Crowds DO NOT come here for the buskers. They come here for the 26 breweries. They attract bums and “buskers” seeking to prey on foot traffic who are known to carry lots of vacation cash. The bums and “buskers” are becoming increasingly aggressive and entitled. I would like to see the City enact some measures to protect and support the visitors by limiting the bums’ ability to prey on them, and keep the quality of buskers high and the quantity reasonable.
But I will not hold my breath. Unless it is to keep the stank out.
As artists it’s frustrating when hopes and aspirations do no manifest as we had anticipated. But as jtroop had earlier mentioned, Asheville caters to tourists. It has never been any different. I’ve been here for just over 16 years. When I first arrived, there was a good mix of locals and outsiders that seemed to have found common ground. Those that moved here generally left behind an old life to embrace what this area offered by default. There was that greater sensibility of a small town community back then, but artists did tend to exist in isolated bubbles. That has not changed. Many move away to advance their goals, or remain local while collaborating with creators outside the area. You bring to this area what you are driven to create for yourself. But you can never be a prophet in your home town.
I’ve been photographing/documenting the city for 10 years. Many gradual and quantum changes. Busking seemed to reach a peak between 2009 and 2011. I recall seeing musicians, face painters, and living statues raking in $200 to $600 in a 4-6 hour stint (back of course when time limits for prime sidewalk real estate were more liberal. But demographics have evolved. People used to visit here for the local arts and the mountains. Hotels and beer attract a different kind of clientele.
Attitudes change. It’s a bit more dog-eat-dog these days. Merchants running off street performers. Angry tourists throwing garbage at buskers. Congestion. People stumbling in the streets inebriated. As Asheville becomes more urban, so do the problems that plaque a burgeoning city–more homeless, more crime, more drugs. When this becomes the street vibe, it becomes difficult to cling to those days when the atmosphere was more innocent.
Change is a constant. But the worst thing anyone can do is become so discouraged or envious that it devolves into seething resentment. It only perpetuates the cyclical isolationism that stifles and suffocates any arts scene.
Beer City!, has it’s consequence.
I’ve been here as long as Joe has, and he nailed the way I feel about AVL today in a lot of ways. We’ve seen a lot of the same things change. I graduated from UNCA and am a musician and graphic/multimedia designer by training and trade. I have played (and continue to play) a lot of music but have also worked a day gig of some sort in my entire life here in AVL. I hate to disappoint buskers, but even established, professional musicians in AVL have a hard time making a living off of regular gigs for a long time. Busking is even less ‘secure’. In fact, there is nothing very ‘secure’ in Asheville in the arts, which is why those of us who have been here for a while through all the changes know that to make it here, you have to fight for it. The ‘culture of free’ we currently live in doesn’t help matters. People like art a lot… until they have to pay for it.
Joe is right in that the vibe has changed from a sense of community/common ground between locals and outsiders, and even business folks to one that is more ‘dog eat dog.’ While no one debates that ‘change is gonna come’, the key here is that the changes that have happened have started to divide the community and destroy the vibe that Asheville once had. Outside money and outside influence are dictating more and more how things are going to be done it seems, and not many people are fighting it. Tourists have always been here, and always will be. The issue now is that the tourists seem less respectful of Asheville in general. Visit, consume, leave the mess for the locals to clean up… that seems to be the vibe, versus coexisting with locals.
I do feel the need to remind folks that the beer scene (and our ‘Beer City’ moniker) existed in harmony with the ‘old school’ nature of pre-2012 Asheville for a long time without the vibe/balance being upset too much. It’s hard to blame a lot of the ‘shift’ on the brewing scene totally. A lot of the original folks on the brewing scene would probably tell you that the culture of the brewing scene actually helped foster the ‘old school’ vibe of Asheville a lot a decade or more ago. Sadly, that is now getting lost with too with ‘big beer’ moving in.
How big do you want to (or can you) be before it falls apart is the question Asheville faces right now.
Good words, Joe. And you have been here long enough to see these things evolve. I know when I first arrived here in 2010, there seemed to be a more “wide open” street performer scene. Now it is regulated, it seems, and almost seems like an extension of the live music in clubs out into the streets. But as you said, if you choose to leave instead of work to retain the art/local flavor of Asheville, you have taken the side of being part of the problem instead of part of the solution.
I guess one factor that I haven’t considered is there could be many more buskers now competing for prime real estate. More buskers = less money.
It’s nothing new that Asheville is clique-ish, it’s pretty much like any other City in that way. And as calcified as Asheville/ Buncombe politics is, it’s nothing compared to NOLA politics.
It’s well known all over the Country that Asheville is a byoj City. And live here requires innovation, grit or a trust fund.
I lived in NOLA for ten years, and moved here before the great revival occurred. I’ve seen similar growth spurts in both Cities. NOLA during and after the Worlds Fair of 1984, and the obvious recent one here in Asheville. As to quality of life, Asheville has NOLA beat hands down. Just look at all the burglar bars on all the windows in NOLA, and the very disturbing line of refineries on the Mississippi river up to Baton Rouge. The water source for NOLA is that river. You cannot escape the despair and harsh realities there like you can here by taking a drive on the Parkway.
The dazzle/dazzle of NOLA will wear off, sooner rather than later.
Well, he’s certainly not selling New Orleans.
My response to him is the same response that I have given a thousand times now. Youth comes into play here. You’re mid 20s, fresh off the bus and idealistic. You scratch out a living, move in with a bunch of people and party. These are the best days of your life. Then after a few years, things change. Your friends start to move or pass away. Rent is going up. There are new stoplights and buildings. You examine what you are and you seem to be stuck in a rut. This scenario happens EVERYWHERE, not just Asheville.
A lot of us are here for the long haul. There will be ups and downs. Five years might seem like forever for young people, but it’s just a drop in the bucket.
Always great to see some intelligent, rational thought here. The author brings up some excellent points but I think his perspective is different than many people here. Dayne and Cecil make good points, and I agree with Marc on the perspective of age. Those of us who have been here for multiple decades, who are entrenched and decided that this is the place, likely still believe that this is the place. I’ve had so many friends move on from here over the years, and it still continues today (mostly because of the job market), but many of us stuck around and have jobs and kids now, or we’ve been here for 40 years. It’s different from our perspective.
Asheville has only gotten better in my time here-it was cool but ultimately not much going on in the 90’s-but I do think we’re at a tipping point largely due to tourism. Asheville is no secret anymore, many people want to move here and tons more want to visit. The problem I see is the city catering to those tourists, and potential new arrivals, more than the residents. Infrastructure and services for locals who need them daily/weekly are secondary to the next touchpoint that’s going to bring more tourists and money to the city.
It’s not really fair to compare Asheville to New Orleans, as New Orleans is unique amongst the cities of the world. But Asheville is certainly in a position to lose or dilute the culture that we do have here. We must be careful.
Some people have a very limited understanding of history, I’m afraid. Six years is way too short to get any real appreciation of a city and a culture, IMHO.
There has always been a dance between big money and the arts, and Asheville goes through swings like any other place. Consider Vanderbilt: a devil or a saint? He drove up prices like mad when he decided to buy everything he could see, and his rich Eastern friends flocked here on the new railroad connection. But he brought in European artisans who upped the game of all the crafters here, as did his wife’s effort to empower local weavers and woodworkers – to get their work to market. He paid for the YMI Cultural Center, about as much as any rich person could do given his culture milieu in the way of raising opportunity for the black community.
Or Grove. Taking advantage or leaving an artistic legacy? He left us the Arcade and the Grove Park Inn – both architectural gems – and a public library system that boosted education.
Then too the industrialization by rich corporations taking advantage of cheap labor and the rails, who built all those once-empty warehouses that now provide affordable studio space to our burgeoning arts community.
Of course money follows success, and there are always greedy people – and I’m in no way intending to defend excess. But the built environment here was not built by buskers. The built environment and all those pesky tourists are what make some buskers pretty successful. Six years? Pah! When I got here 35 years ago many of the downtown storefronts were plywood and it was a ghost-town most evenings. Try busking for tumbleweeds – it may be spiritually uplifting but it sure won’t pay anyone’s rent.
Did Asheville let you and your friends down or was it your perception of this place that let you down?
I hate to state the painfully apparent truth here, but Asheville didn’t/doesn’t/won’t ever have the infrastructure, job base, diversity, music scene, patronage, etc. of a bigger city because Asheville isn’t a big city. We are a mountain town in NC that (largely) caters to tourists.
Please be aware that people have been making these same complaints *since before you came here*:
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
Thank you Josh for this honest and reflective letter. I too am struggling with Asheville’s changes. I moved here in 1982, then moved back in 2000 because I loved the downtown. Now I have a hard enjoying downtown. And all the hotels going up, they are the corporate monsters.
Josh thanks for writing this it was wonderful to read. You have an artistic and articulate style that expresses in beautiful ways. I think you’re brilliant but you probably already realize that about yourself.
Now a simple but important question perhaps deserving of a part-2. What do you feel would need to happen to truly revitalize this fair city? What can we do? What steps must be taken? What would a revitalized asheville look like?
Having lived in Santa Cruz for seven years I watched as the city council attacked and dismantled downtown busking. I was so confused why they would do this. Buskers attract people downtown, those people spend money. Even though I don’t necessarily agree with that line of thinking either, it was at least very clear to me that busking was good for downtown business owners and there was a harmony there. But alas the downtown business owners gathered together and influenced the city council and won. There was to be no longer an accordion or a banjo to be heard downtown and those who tried faced stiff fines and possibly even arrest.
There is still busking in downtown santa cruz but it is a slim fraction of what it once was. It once felt like the goddamn renaissance. Which is how I felt about asheville when I first arrived.
I think that music on every street corner inspires all who here it to create art, to make music of their own, to dance.
Any sane city that wants to create richness must encourage busking, must CATER to buskers instead of fight them and perhaps we must mobilize to elect a city council that will stand for the buskers.
Identifying the action is the easy part though.
After 8 years I’be thrown the towel in on this pit stop as well. Actually I’m shocked at how so much of Josh’s “letter” runs parallel with my own experiences in the last three or so years.
Good luck, man.
Two less buskers to annoy me downtown. Progress.
I’m not a busker.
I’m curious, Al… Describe for me your perfect downtown. Apparently, despite Asheville having one of the nationks nicest, it isn’t for you, so tell me what sort of downtown would please you.
What sort of businesses would it have, and who would patronize them? How would those people dress and look? What would the downtown souund like, look like?
I rather get the feeling from this and previous comments is that your private downtown Eden would be very akin to downtown Jackson, circa 1950.
I loved downtown in 2008. But since the arrival of too many microbreweries, the crowds have become overwhelming, the buskers and beggars (and it is often difficult to tell one from the other) who prey on them have multiplied like cockroaches and have become aggressive and offensive, and the once pleasant streets are now saturated with trash, puke, piss and dog shit every weekend of Spring and Summer. I could care less what they “look like” (but thanks for totally missing the point with your tired effort to paint everyone you don’t agree with as racist), so long as they are polite, sober, and don’t use downtown as their toilet or dog park.
Your comment “I be thrown in the towel on this pit stop” seemed to imply that you were. In any event, we do have do many people coming here to “busk” (or beg, it is hard to tell the difference sometimes).
No argument from me there. For me it simply comes down to the job/healthcare and housing markets. I should’ve clarified.
Understood. If you don’t work for Mission, Biltmore Industries or the City/County, you are trying to live champagne dreams on a PBR budget. I just wish more people would do their homework before trying to come here to live and work. If they are not begging for cash in the street corners, they are begging City Council for Living Wages. Better to live affordably somewhere else than add to our surplus of beggars.
You came from somewhere else, you got your fix here, you went to somewhere else, no one cares.
I was here before you showed up and I will be here long after you leave. Asheville is many things to many different people. I was here in the 60’s , the 70’s the 80’s and the start of this boom in the (late) 90’s. People come and go and are so dramatic about it , they come want to change Asheville to suit them and when it kicks their ass they leave, I just smile and wave.
Another self indulgent opinion piece…. Probably an artist in the same realm Sean Penn is a journalist.Your arrogance and ignorance is astounding…enjoy NOLA…somehow I think Asheville will manage without you.
This article is heavy on points (many of which are valid) but light on ideas or resolutions. Simply opining for the good old days doesn’t get it done, and neither does simply moving away, although you have to make your own decisions and I respect that.
Are there things I would change about Asheville? Sure, but the biggest change you can bring is being active in your community and voting for the change you believe in.
There are things that are damaging to Asheville’s future and things that we certainly all remember fondly from our past. Things that we will never get back. But there are many of us still struggling and fighting to make this a place full of life, music, art, friends and family. There still is a local Asheville that is real and full of interesting people.
Finally, people make a community, and I would argue that what Asheville lacks in ethnic diversity it makes up for in ideological diversity. Look at where Asheville is; squarely in the middle of the very white southern Appalachians, and look how it votes.
We aren’t and never will get it perfect here, and no one else will either. Asheville certainly isn’t the first city to fall victim to its success story. From the tone of your letter, you sound unhappy. I sincerely hope you find the things that you are looking for out there.
Is that to suggest my opinion is irrelevant because I was part of the first wave of gentrification?
“In the six years I was with you…”
Busk: from ‘Buscar’ – To search or to look for. oh wait, this isnt about busking, we’re just gonna use that as a platform.
“All I knew was that I was not going to starve for a sixth winter in a row.” Why do you starve during the winter? Whats the difference in winter and summer, as far as starving goes?
“You advertise yourself as a progressive culture, but you’re one of the most segregated cities in the south. Your blacks are almost all in project housing when they once owned homes and businesses. Your Latinos are all in Hendersonville and south because it’s been made clear to them that they’re only welcome on job sites.”
You know not what of which you type, sir. Is Hendersonville a job site hub? ‘Your blacks’…One of the most segregated cities in the south, eh? What other cities have you dropped bags in? You mentioned Atlanta…