Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Visit To Asheville

I hadn't been home from NY all of fifteen minutes before I checked my answering machine and heard the two messages from my grandmother. She wanted me to call her, so I did. Her lymphoma is back--in her throat this time--and Tuesday she goes to the oncologist to discuss treatment options. From what her ENT said, these type of cancers are inoperable, but do respond well to chemo and radiation. So her prognosis should be good. In any case, it rattled me a little, and instead of spending yesterday regrouping after our NY whirlwind, we got back in the car and drove to Asheville to spend the day with her.

It was a good day. We had lunch together, and afterwards drove through Biltmore to the Norfolk Southern railyard so Sam and John could see the trains. Then, on a whim, we drove on to downtown Asheville to see what sort of changes had been made since our last trip there.

It really made me sad. Asheville is no longer the Asheville of my childhood--the Asheville I long for--the Asheville of wide swaths of trees and green and craggy coolness. The trees are being cut down for impersonal cookie cutter neighborhoods, the hillsides are being clear cut for condo developments, and the green and craggy coolness is being taken up bit by bit to create sprawling strip malls and big box stores. It makes me sick. I hate to visit anymore.

I tried to explain it to Tom, who never saw Asheville when it was so sleepy it was practically narcoleptic. What made Asheville special was its small town quirkiness--the indelible stamp of its residents on its personality--not the indelible stamp of big city developers trying to recreate a facade resembling old Asheville. This month's copy of Southern Living had a glowing review of the new Grand Bohemian Hotel that sits across from the entrace of the Biltmore Estate. It's a hideous fortress of a monstrosity that does not, as the article claims, capture "the essence of a Victorian lodge, with contemporary touches befitting Asheville's character." The old gas station and Hardees that once stood there with a view of the original cottages built for Vanderbilt's employees and All Soul's church in the distance, captured the essence of Asheville. As metaphor's go, the Grand Bohemian Hotel is a metaphor for all that is wrong with Asheville.

Once upon a time, Asheville was home to true hard working Appalachians, craftsmen and artisans, who didn't put on ridiculous airs for tourists. Visit the silversmiths at Stuart Nye Gallery in Asheville or Brown's Pottery in Arden, and tell me if they seem like bohemians to you--producing generation after generation of beautiful, traditional craftsmanship in the same place, for the same people, for a hundred years or more.

It makes me seethe with anger to see my home town stripped of its personality, littered with little cafes and shops and hotels that are clearly designed for tourists and not the local residents. Asheville used to be Asheville, but now it looks just like any other over-built, strip mall saturated New South city. It could be Charlotte or Atlanta or Greenville... who would know the difference? One big box store is the same as the next.

I know I'm starting to sound like an old woman, blubbering about the good 'ol days--but Thomas Wolfe was right. When it comes to Asheville, you can't go home again.


  1. Exactly. I am secretly praying that hotel floods horribly soon, so all us natives can sit back and laugh at anyone who doesn't realize Biltmore floods every 20 years or so.
    And Biltmore is a place. Enka Lake is NOT Biltmore Lake. Anyone who falls for that and pays more because of it deserves what they get.

  2. unfortunately the same thing is happening everywhere. you should see the 2 mcmansions that got squeezed in next to my parents' house...the same house i grew up in, in a neighborhood where the kids were all called home for dinner by a different whistle per family. and if the kid of the family didn't hear it, someone or several of us did and all yelled for the kid being whistled for, "----! you gotta go hoooome!" and the kid ran home.

    i visit there now, and know there are other kids in the neighborhood, but we just don't see them outside like when i was a kid. then drive out to the main roads and everything is big box stores of natioanl branding now. no more of the little mom & pop places where everyone knew each other going in the door.

  3. ps: hope all is well with your grandmother....


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