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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Small-city smart growth: you can't go home again - or can you? (part 1)

Kaid Benfield

Posted January 14, 2008

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Asheville, North Carolina is the opposite of New York, New York in a lot of ways.  Not as opposite as it used to be – and we’ll get to that in a second – but still pretty far removed.  Yet, when it comes to a progressive urban cause like smart growth, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.  And so, it seems, maybe you just can.

downtown, from Town Mountain RoadThe “classic” photo image of Asheville is the one just to the left, no doubt taken from or near Town Mountain Road, the last steep, twisting part of the stretch that takes you down from the Blue Ridge Parkway via the Old Toll Road and right into downtown.  It was featured for a couple of years in the pro bike race the Tour Dupont, enabling the riders to have a really hairy descent as they approached the downtown finish line.  But I digress, and I'm just getting started. 

I have to say that it is more than a little disorienting to have the sleepy Bible Belt town that I grew up in, and couldn’t wait to exit from, go all trendy on me.  But there’s no doubt.  Asheville has become a sort of Santa Fe East, and I’m here to report that it’s more good than bad.  Great music bars, better vegetarian restaurants than we have here in DC, galleries galore filled with really good stuff.  Even an interesting, walkable downtown! 

With a little trepidation I note that all sorts of arty pilgrims are making their way to Asheville.  My friend Don Chen has a friend there.  So does my NRDC colleague John Grant.  And, in a snippet that I think says it all, NRDC’s blogmeister supreme Ian moved there last year from New York.  Ian would deny that he’s a hipster, but we know better.  Good heavens, Asheville is even being written about in the New York Times, which I assure you would not have been applauded by all the locals back in the day.

Thank goodness all the hokey people from local TV thirty years ago are still on local TV, or I’d be getting nervous.

Don’t worry, this will eventually be about smart growth.  But indulge me a little.

looking east on Patton AvenueOne of the reasons that Asheville was well-positioned to harbor smart development is that it has a rich architectural legacy.  There is a lot of native wood and stone in local Asheville architecture.  In addition, in the early 20th century, when the town was trendy before, robber barons like railroad and shipping heir George W. Vanderbilt and patent-medicine hawkster E.W. Grove came to town and built stuff, including the country’s largest private residence.  (Vanderbilt also left an important conservation legacy, since he assembled and owned the land that became Pisgah National Forest, mostly to the city’s west and north.)  There were health facilities, to take advantage of the mountain air in the days before air conditioning.  Scott and Zelda spent time there.  So did O. Henry.  Thomas Wolfe, whose book title I riffed for the heading of this post, grew up in Asheville and renamed it Altamont in his novels.

You can see some of the architecture in the images of Asheville’s downtown in this post.  The photograph, above, looks east on Patton Avenue toward the terra-cotta-roofed city hall.  But my favorite downtown vista is depicted in the painting, below, looking south on Haywood Street toward the arched doorways of the old S&W Cafeteria.  The steeple of the church my family attended is just behind it.  The painting is by Jeff Pittman, and he has a great website where you can see and purchase more. 

looking south on Haywood Steet, by Jeff PittmanAsheville’s downtown remained largely intact because, not to put too fine a point on it, the city’s economy sucked for a long time, when other towns were tearing down their aging Victorian and Art Deco buildings and replacing them with whatever.  That didn’t happen in Asheville, at least not much, so when the economy picked up – and, conveniently, so had the preservation movement – the infrastructure was ready to accommodate new uses.  It was only logical that some of those new uses would be related to things creative, since Asheville and the surrounding region had always had an arty tradition, based on indigenous mountain crafts and music.

The revival of Asheville’s downtown, and other smart use of in-town space, will be the subject of the next post.  (Read Part 2 here.)

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