Wednesday, June 25, 2008

What makes Asheville Asheville

One of the keenest impressions I’ve gotten walking around Asheville is the way different cultural forms live in close proximity to one another.

Until recently, Montford, my neighborhood, was a mix of different races, ages, classes, genders, and sexualities. I say “until recently” because what the natives call “gentrification” has begun to diminish race and class diversity, and perhaps also age diversity, with whiter, richer, and older people moving in, displacing black, poor, and young residents.

Even the layout of the city suggests variation. Neighborhoods have a mix of straight urban streets and curving rural lanes, as if planners intended to mix the mood of Asheville’s communities. That, or city growth over the past hundred years integrated existing rural patterns as it extended into surrounding farmland. Even now you can hear laying hens clucking, even a rooster crowing, in city yards. Few, of course, but some.

Many older neighborhoods contain a mix of building styles: Tudor post-and-beam next door to cedar shingle bungalows next door to brick and mortar next door to river stone with tin roof. Small one-story ranches sit beside two- and even three-story Victorian mansions.

It is as if, at one time, people of different classes were neighbors.

Think of it. Doctors and lawyers living in the same communities as tradesmen and -women who fixed their cars, did their hair, built their houses, or sold them groceries.

Given Asheville’s Jim Crow past, there was not until the last thirty years or so much racial mixing (and there still isn't). But white people of different castes did bump into one another, borrow cups of sugar, wave across hedges and fences, greet each other from porch swings, ride together on the trolleys into town.

Even downtown is a mix of architectures: tall buildings beside short, brick and stone, office and shop, industry and retail. Some of this variety can still be seen in the faded and chipped painted signs on second- and third-story walls. No doubt it can be confirmed by old city directories.

Nowadays the trend is toward classy restaurants and craft boutiques selling high-end trinkets and luxury items – all good stuff. But there are fewer ordinary clothing, hardware, grocery, and drug stores. These days it would be very difficult (at least expensive) to live, to do all your business, downtown. I cannot think of a cheap diner where you can get a square meal under $5. They’re there, but few. A couple of hotdog stands.

An emblem of downtown diversity is the juxtaposition of city hall and county courthouse – one art deco, accented with curves and tiers and tiles; the other neo-classical granite, looking conservatively modern.

Frankly, I prefer city hall. It has a certain flare, a delight in itself, a sense of humor. The county building is square and stolid by contrast.

Each building speaks for itself. But the combination, their sitting beside each other like artist and banker, lawyer and farmer, at a drugstore counter, suggests an even higher style, an American cosmopolitanism.

Is it possible that this mixture constitutes Asheville’s aesthetic – a characteristic of the old city’s sensibilities?

The focus of public discussions on Asheville’s growth and development has lately been upon content – size, height, and style of particular architectures. Perhaps that is the wrong strategy, if the aim is to preserve the Asheville that has been so attractive to its own residents as well as outsiders.

It is not any one style but the relationship between different sorts of architectural styles (and the people they represent) that expresses the “Asheville-ness” people rightly want to preserve.

Biology tells us that life seeks diversity (and this pursuit is expressed in the genetic diversity achieved when an individual of one species seeks a mate of the same species that is otherwise genetically distant from it, that is, not kin).

Variety suggests health. The impulse lies behind our sense of beauty. Out of an interest in otherness comes an aesthetic that prizes difference. The axiom that beauty is in the eye of the beholder is true because each of us desires a different other. The impulse to urban variety suggests our collective sense of health.

I’m reaching here with the biological metaphor. There is plenty of evidence that human beings also seek out others who look a lot like them: many people seek mates of their own class, religion, race.

Still, I do think when people express what it is about Asheville they like most, they point toward its variations, its diversity. And it is precisely that diversity that will be lost, given current trends.

Legislating variety may not be possible. Encouraging it may be possible, and desirable. But it won’t be easy.

Striving for diversity is a lot harder than insisting, like some nearby communities do, on uniformity. It is simply easier to manage a planning department that insists on one kind of building.

Having different sorts of people, tastes, and sensibilities on the same block foreordains that they won’t always get along. But if the analogy to biology is accurate, uniformity isn’t healthy. And it isn’t attractive.

It isn’t what makes Asheville Asheville.


zen said...

Yep. Too often it is urban 'zones' that are rubbing elbows rather than neighbors of different class and station. Asheville is still small enough to have avoided the clumping of like-minded aggregate, but you're right that the pressure of growth is creating bubbles of similarity.

Pete Kennedy said...

Is the picture in this post on Westwood Place at the top of Toxaway?