Asheville advertises its Appalachian roots. They’re authentic. For two centuries the city has been a hub of mountain commerce. But the people the city now flaunts are not the same as come.
The life-size figures above, for instance, are frozen midprance in front of the downtown Civic Center.
Other bronzes grace various points along the city’s “Urban Trail,” including a few coppery turkeys and pigs at Pack Square. The livestock commemorate the Buncombe Turnpike, along which 19th century Tennessee drovers used to drive stock to South Carolina markets.
When I first lived in Asheville in the 1970s, you could still see mountain people coming to Asheville with their pickup trucks to sell goods, buy clothing and equipment, visit doctors, have an ice cream cone, make a day of it.
But in the past couple of decades the city has gentrified. I see less evidence of visitors from rural Western North Carolina, who truth be told are more likely to visit Wal-Mart than one of the city’s fine galleries or boutiques.
I suppose mountaineers do come for the “shindigs on the green,” at least as performers. Certainly there are former residents of the surrounding slopes living in public housing. I know several who have settled into one or another of the city’s high rises.
The county’s rural high schools still hold graduation ceremonies at the Civic Center, which draws rural folk at least for one day a year. That, and for the semiannual gun show. But the celebratory dinners are not likely to be held at one of downtown’s twenty-five-dollar-a-plate bistros. The courthouse and jail draw rural residents, too, but for less happy reasons.
(Culpatory note: I've made a problematic assumption that "Appalachian" implies rural, that there is no meaningful urban Appalachian identity. That's of course doubtful. Indeed, I've met a number of old Ashevillians who strike me as closer to Appalachia than some rural farmers: native residents of Chicken Hill and East Riverside, for instance, compared to affluent landowners in Fairview. Nevertheless, the basic opposition to which I'm drawing attention here, between people whose roots are deep in the area vs. affluent tourists and recent arrivals still holds.)
Nowadays the city shines its bright lights for tourists. Though it promotes its ties to mountain culture, the people it reaches are not the folks that once came in wagons. They don’t have enough money.
It is, I think, a sad irony that the sorts of people preserved (and celebrated) in bronze no longer feel welcome downtown, displaced by others from elsewhere who have funnily enough come to meet them, and perhaps make contact with another place and time.
The scene reminds me of a familiar one in East Africa: safari companies routinely take clients to visit phony Maasai villages, where the tourists mingle with and take photos of actors “living as they’ve always lived.”
In Asheville, the old timers stand still.