Too Much to Choose From: Searching for Inspiration in Asheville

Asheville is an Appalachian Shangri-La. This year-round resort town, tucked between the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains, draws a funky mix of New Agers, fleece-clad mountain bikers, antiques lovers and old-time farmers. And what’s there not to like? Charming yet surprisingly cosmopolitan for a town of about 73,000, Asheville has a Southern appeal all its own. There are lazy cafes and buzzing bistros, Art Deco skyscrapers and arcades reminiscent of Paris, kayaking and biodiesel cooperatives and one of the world’s largest private homes — the Biltmore Estate, a French Renaissance-style mansion with 250 rooms. No wonder so many locals first started out as tourists.

— New York Times

“Freak City USA” or, as Rolling Stone once called Asheville, America’s “Freak Capital,” a haven for hippies and other assorted cultural radicals. “Paris of the South,” “San Francisco of the East”: sobriquets evoking a literary, artistic and architectural cachet.  “Beer City USA” (an award and an undisputed boast).  These are a few of the monikers of a remarkable city nestled in the mountains of western North Carolina.  Tourism drives much of the economy, and its boosters are not reticent.  Exultations – “This is the creative economy!” as craft artist retailers publicly exclaim – reflect more than marketing strategy.  There’s an ethos at work.  Asheville combines conventional tourist appeals to affluent visitors to the Biltmore Estate and nature lovers drawn by the majesty of the Blue Ridge Parkway with edgier, more political gestures. The same city that welcomes tourists defies many chains:  “Local is the New Black” is a slogan adopted in recent years by downtown Asheville businesses.   Subversive cultural politics percolates in this city, though much of its impact is channeled into the obvious mainstream boosterish outlets as well as the indie and hip ones, such as the alternative papers the  Mountain Express and Ashvegas.

local is the new black poster
Asheville Style: Making the “Buy Local” political point. The reverse side of these t-shirts read, “Unchained and Independent”

This esteemed blog has looked at Asheville before.  My thoughts on the city – one I have grown to love as a tourist – have also borrowed from Alex Sayf Cummings’ report from another small southern tourist magnet, Chattanooga, Tennessee.  Cummings has also recently discussed the tumultuous politics of the state of North Carolina (and though Asheville is not named, the city sits within the more conservative “traditionalist” mountain west).  The photo essay revealed an Asheville unfamiliar to the usual tourist gaze.  Though downtown flourishes and the Biltmore area garners lucrative visitors, as a city, Asheville suffers much as other American cities do from inequality and pockets of blight and neglect.  In Cummings’ reading of Chattanooga, the emergence of Chatype, the city’s own font, illustrates ingenious, yet problematic, municipal branding.  Chattanooga seeks to build its economy by building its reputation as a haven for the “creative class” in an era of “the neo-liberal emphasis on privatization and public-private partnerships.”  Asheville exhibits this dynamic, too.  The city has, however, burnished its credentials as a creative mecca (as well as a conventional tourist resort town) far more than Chattanooga.  Asheville’s western North Carolina setting, rich in folk art tradition and enhanced by Biltmore and the Blue Ridge Parkway, endows it with aesthetic and marketing advantages Chatype cannot so easily give Chattanooga.

Alert visitors seeking excitement in Asheville have not far to look.  The city does “take its pleasures seriously,” as a 2010 New York Times travel piece observed.  Increasingly, however, this quest might morph into a search for answers.  How did Asheville become so cool?  What accounts for its inclusion, tolerance, and progressive cultural politics?  Once you begin asking those questions, it is tempting to suspect that Asheville holds the key to changes needed in cities across this country.   Having no real hometown myself and being given to the kind of rootless proclivities common to intellectuals, I wanted both pleasures and answers.  Asheville, I hoped, would offer lessons for the ideal city.  My most recent visit, however, veered somewhat from the usual itinerary.  It also left me with new perspectives.

Black Mountain College: Asheville’s Radical Roots

In Asheville you cannot help absorbing some of the art and architectural history of the city and western North Carolina, thanks to the abundance of Art Deco buildings, terrific galleries, studios, and the well-publicized tradition of Appalachian folk art (indeed, the Folk Art Center is a must-see destination along the Blue Ridge Parkway).  Somewhat less well known to casual tourists, perhaps, is the historic source of a significant part of Asheville’s aesthetic sensibilities and cultural politics: Black Mountain College (BMC).  Founded in 1933 in nearby Black Mountain, NC by John Andrew Rice, the school soon became the home of Bauhaus power couple Josef and Anni Albers.  Fleeing Nazi Germany, the Alberses taught at BMC for a number of years.  For almost a quarter century, in the improbably ustic if beautifully scenic location, BMC nurtured a radical avant garde tradition in the visual and literary arts.  A significant slice of mid-century American artistic innovation happened at BMC.

Though BMC closed in 1957, its legacy is lovingly and intelligently preserved and shared by the BMC Museum + Arts Center (the BMCM+AC). The Fall 2013 newsletter immodestly but accurately describes the small site as “a little jewel in downtown Asheville.”  Its current exhibit is “Black Mountain College: Shaping Craft + Design” and features an excellent selection of works from several media by BMC students and faculty.  Don’t skip the video, a brief documentary on the history of the school that focuses on how students interacted with the physical setting and their unconventional but passionate mentors.

As you leave BMCM+AC and head toward the heart of downtown, Pack Square, more works by the College’s students and faculty are displayed in the collections of the Asheville Art Museum.  The permanent BMC collection heavily features paintings and prints of the Alberses.  The Art Museum’s current exhibit is “Lasting Gifts,” a small but intriguing selection of its recent BMC acquisitions.

joseph fiore black mountain lake eden
Joseph Fiore · Black Mountain, Lake Eden 1954, Watercolor on paper, 14 x 18 inches. Asheville Art Museum, Black Mountain College Collection. 2012.53.01.22. Black Mountain College Collection, Permanent Collection.

The Art Museum has been staging exhibits of BMC work for several years.  The elaborate brochure I bought at the museum’s gift shop, a large triptych featuring an essay on BMC, emphasizes the importance of the college’s history for both American art and the western North Carolina legacy.  The College, it asserts, “has shaped, like perhaps no other place in America, the terrain of visual culture and the possibilities for artistic practice in ways that are still being measured.”  BMC had been “arguably the most important site of the cross-pollination of European modernist art and its American counterparts,” particularly due to the College’s commitment to experimentalism and defiance of convention.

The BMC faculty, led from 1933-49 by Bauhaus masters the Alberses, set the tone for students who pushed the boundaries in painting, textiles, prints, and poetry.  During the summers in the 1940s and 50s, the College hosted visitors such as experimental composer John Cage, architects Walter Gropius and Buckminster Fuller, and painters Jacob Lawrence, Robert Rauschenberg, Elaine and William de Kooning.

Cage’s summer visits in 1948 and 1952 produced remarkable experiments in theater, music, and the first “Happening,” his 1952 performance Untitled Event.  For 45 minutes, several artists performed at once, reading poetry, playing the piano, playing records and dancing, and – in Cage’s case – delivering a Zen Buddhism lecture.  Black Mountain proved a fruitful place for Cage.  It spurred the creation of some of his key musical experiments, including his homage to Rauschenberg’s all-black paintings, the “silent” (yet filled with human and other ambient noises) four and a half minute score, 4’33’’ while also establishing Cage’s friendship with Fuller, whose geodesic experiments resonated with Cage’s Zen anarchism.  During the 1950s Cage’s experimentations led to recording and remixing sounds he classified as “city”, “country”, “electronic”, “manually produced”, “wind” and “small.” In other words, BMC begat key relationships, collaborations and influences across several artistic disciplines that proved formative for a mid-century counterculture.

john cage, paris 1981
John Cage

Bob Moog, the synthesizer pioneer, is a notable example of a more recent artist in Asheville who may be regarded as something of an heir to Cage and the BMC spirit.  Thus it’s not surprising that a number of people remain actively engaged in preserving and understanding the BMC legacy: local and visiting academics, artists, as well as residents and tourists drawn to both the historical experience of the College (and its famous artists) and the sense that staging exhibitions, programs and conferences stimulates new insights on old aesthetic issues today.  Many works created at BMC remain as challenging as they were during the College’s life.  My own visit was too poorly planned to fit in BMCM+AC’s Re-Viewing 5: Shaping Craft + Design, an international conference on BMC held on the campus of University of North Carolina-Asheville.  I thus missed a chance to hear Christopher Benfey, a distinguished writer, critic and poet discuss his book, Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival, which connects, among other things, western N.C.’s pottery traditions with the history of BMC (Benfey is the great-nephew of the Alberses).  Lesson learned.  I’ll be sure not to miss the BMCM+AC’s annual (Re)Happening on 5 April 2014 which will feature lots of performance art.  In the meantime, there’s always the reading to be had online at Journal of Black Mountain College Studies.

These destinations – BMC Museum and Asheville Art Museum – had not really been on my radar before, such is the hypnotic effect of the city’s array of contemporary galleries.  Many thanks to Georgia State University’s Michelle Lacoss for suggesting (repeatedly) a visit to BMC Museum and for thinking about the transnational Bauhaus roots of Asheville’s aesthetic and intellectual sensibility.  As exhilarating as the galleries (especially Odyssey) proved once more on this trip, I found the BMC exhibits more helpful in thinking about where Asheville comes from.  Asheville’s influence in the world of fine craft art is firmly secured, from the tourist-beloved Woolworth Walk and Grove Arcade to the New Morning Gallery and Blue Spiral Gallery to the River Arts District.  Most of this creative work is, of course, far more commercial and less avant garde than what the masters of mid-century BMC envisaged.  Indeed, as Lacoss points out, Asheville appropriates the cachet of BMC to further polish its brand.  Is this not a trade-off a city makes, a balance between actual creativity (unbridled searching for truth or beauty) and a market-tested, financially sustainable (or downright lucrative) branded reputation for creativity?

Burning and Restoring a Writer’s House

After visiting the BMCM+AC, and while trying to decide whether it was too early to go beer shopping (strictly for friends, of course) a momentary loss of direction round a corner led to street signs pointing (somewhat unclearly) to the Thomas Wolfe House.  The great early 20th century Asheville-born writer was raised in his mother Julia’s “Old Kentucky Home” boarding house.   Crucially, as this visit occurred during a prolonged federal government shutdown, the Queen Anne-style Wolfe House is a North Carolina state historic site.    That not only provided me with a chance for a tour, it became, I soon realized, a key factor in a story I had known nothing about: the burning and rebuilding of this historic house.  The story gives a sense of how Asheville (and “neo-liberal” America) works, with planning, financing and work contributed by a mix of public and private sources.

thomas wolfe house

The house isn’t as easy to find as you expect because it has been encroached by recent development in the neighborhood.  “Though rambling and large,” writes Anne Trubke, “the Memorial on Market Street, a busy, central Asheville thoroughfare, is becoming increasingly harder to find.”  Having never read Wolfe, the author of the classic novels Look Homeward, Angel (which features the house as “Dixeland”) and You Can’t Go Home Again, I feel better reading Trubek, author of a book on visiting museums of writers’ homes and confesses, “I have a Ph.D. in English, and I was never assigned Wolfe in college or graduate school; no one even suggested I read him for my dissertation on American literature.” For those also missed Wolfe’s opus, here’s a primer from a New York Times review of a modern reissue:

In 1929 Thomas Wolfe, big, bombastic and unkempt, strode into the literary world with a huge novel about the making of a genius: himself. ”Look Homeward, Angel,” Faustian in its ambition, was about Eugene Gant, Wolfe’s alter ego, and his self-dramatizing relatives from Altamont, a fictionalized version of Wolfe’s hometown, Asheville, N.C.

Trubek is not alone in seeing a connection between the partial eclipse of Wolfe’s house first by development, and more dramatically by a devastating fire in 1998 at the hands of an arsonist, and the decline of his literary influence.  Whereas Norman Mailer once hailed Wolfe (somewhat nostalgically) alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway as the greatest writers who influenced him, it seems few make such claims today.  In 2000 a reporter for the Los Angeles Times dryly noted,

Each week, it seems, he falls off another syllabus. Two summers ago, none of his books made the Modern Library list of the century’s 100 greatest novels. Then, the same day the list was announced, his house went up in flames.

Wolfe died in 1938, and his diminished fame is a shame, especially since, as Trubek notes, he “was once a literary lion, famous for his prose and infamous for his hard-drinking, bad-boy behavior.”  In that sense, it’s easy to imagine Wolfe fitting into today’s freaky, beer-loving Asheville.  As a historian, I find it hard to imagine Wolfe not being a fit subject since there is a book about him by David Herbert Donald – one of Abraham Lincoln’s finest biographers.

thomas wolfe
“Big, bombastic, and unkempt”: Asheville native and novelist Thomas Wolfe

If Wolfe’s novels and short life (he died of tuberculosis just before his 38th birthday) are not worth revisiting, what of his house?  “Wolfe’s obsessive realism,” writes Trubek, “makes the Thomas Wolfe House one of the few writers’ homes that achieves its aim: The restored boardinghouse provides the autobiographical context for scenes from his fiction.”  His zeal to flee from his mother Julia Wolfe’s big but often full boarding house, and from the provincialism of a small southern town, propelled him to a New York-based career, but the house, naturally, remains where it has always been, though it is not quite what it was in Wolfe’s day.

The fire in 1998 was quickly contained by the Asheville Fire Department, but the dining room was entirely lost and many areas of the house were damaged, including the roof.  Two hundred household items were damaged or destroyed and hundreds more “required some degree of restoration and repair.”  The arsonist has never been caught, and the act of violence shut the Wolfe House for six years and cost $2.4 million to restore it for visitors. The fire raged in the middle of the night.  The restoration, by contrast, yielded quieter but equally dramatic sights, and those who cannot visit the house can still get a revealing look at the restoration.

Some called it the “one nail-a-day” restoration. The North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources admirably committed itself to a painstaking process: its “decision to undertake a museum-quality restoration turned what might have been a far more straightforward proposition into an exacting and challenging labor of love,” as one participant explained.  Insurance and private donations paid for much of the work.  Working closely with the National Park Service, the state and the Wolfe House staff meticulously repaired and recreated the house’s interior in detail, intentionally preserving, as well, some its historically “shoddy workmanship” from a century ago.  As a restoration architect put it, “The big challenge is not to gild the lily.”  During my tour of the house, the guide spoke often about the fire, distinguishing between pieces that were replacements for the originals and those that were not.  As you would expect with a 29-room house, some rooms remain off-limits even now, and some “rooms” are tiny spaces once uncomfortably occupied by less-than-affluent boarders.

fire gazer novel
What would Wolfe think?

Apart from the restoration policy implications for state governments and historic sites, the arson itself lives on in the mind of Asheville.  The arson remains unsolved, and a $1,500 reward for tips leading to an arrest is still being offered.  There is even a novel about the crime: a fantastical tale with “visions of Zelda Fitzgerald, pagan rituals, a sub-culture embedded in the city’s infrastructure, and fires of unknown origin.”

Wolfe rests at Riverside Cemetery near O. Henry, a short story writer who also is famous (and another author I’ve yet to read).  I followed in the footsteps of so many other tourists: I bought Look Homeward, Angel, without any idea when I shall read it.

Farm Policy?

Though the Wolfe House visit was unplanned, one thing I got right on this trip was to finally attend one of the many excellent book talks at the city’s premier bookstore, Malaprops.  The indie downtown store has not only supplied me with books about Asheville, it always tempts with a fine selection of books across many categories and tea and coffee.  In its inherent quality but also its perceptive self-promotion, Malaprops beautifully illustrates the intertwining of downtown Asheville’s reality and image, cause and interest.

And you thought you had only bought a book at Malaprops
And you thought you had only bought a book at Malaprops

Thus I found myself on a Thursday evening at a book talk about, of all things, farm policy.  I cannot recall when last I visited a farm.  In a city that always registers to me as ultra-urban, despite the mountains and super-abundance of natural beauty and outdoors recreation, food can seem important only as one of Asheville’s delicious rewards.  As an Atlanta resident, I’ve savored the benefits from such ATL/Asheville connections as Chai Pani and Farm Burger, with the latter emphasizing its environmentally and ethically superior grass-fed beef (somehow, despite living just over two miles from the Decatur location, I found myself eating twice at Farm Burger during this brief visit).  On previous visits, I had been stunned by the bevy of farms, farmers markets, co-ops, and organic or farm-to-table restaurants and cafes.  I had seen ample evidence all over town and marveled at the listings in the Local Food Guide, which I perused while waiting for a table one morning at the super-cute and delicious Early Girl Eatery.  The strength of the local food movement in and around Asheville is considerable.  The book talk proved an ideal opportunity to think about Asheville’s exceptional place from a different angle by hearing Wenonah Hauter discuss Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America.

Hauter is executive director of Food & Water Watch, a D.C.-based consumer and environmental advocacy group.  Foodopoly draws heavily from recent reports issued by the organization to provide an overview of America’s dire health, food safety and farming predicament.  Her book is very much a work of argument on behalf of her movement.

As it happens, I believe it was she I ran into earlier that afternoon while going for a late (healthy and local) lunch at Green Sage (another fine suggestion, Michelle Lacoss).  Neither of us had been before and I did not recognize her at that moment.  As we gazed in awe at the extensive overhead menu, she said Asheville’s food options were “too much to choose from,” a sentiment with which I agree (though less strongly, perhaps, than when that is applied to the city’s art and beer, which impose the true tyranny of choice).

Foodopoly documents the stranglehold a small number of large corporations have attained over the last few decades over American supermarkets, junk food, produce and organic industries.  The hegemony of the few – consolidated by their lobbying clout in Washington – is, Hauter believes, the key source of many American problems such as faulty food safety, less healthful affordable food options, and the decline of the family farm.  Much of the book’s information is known to those who follow health, food, and environmental news more closely than I do, but Hauter packs it with a forceful muckraking vibe and unapologetic nostalgia for an earlier generation less compromised by the Foodopoly.

As a speaker, she is energetic, succinct and polished, as befits a major non-governmental organization leader who seeks to affect policymaking circles by building a grassroots movement.  The audience for her talk was about as large as Malaprops could accommodate, attentive and (perhaps inevitably) overwhelmingly white and middle-aged.  Two local farmers in blue overalls listened closely and asked challenging questions during the Q & A period (which, I confess, I did not understand, as they seemed to revisit old battles that have not always placed Food & Water Watch on the same side of all farmers).

rally against fracking - asheville

The book does not mention Asheville, and its topic is distinctly national, yet it felt altogether urgent when discussed at Malaprops.  Whatever easy criticisms can be made of the homogeneity of the liberal, socially conscious whites who love organic products and farm-to-table or slow food trends for reasons of taste as well as ethics, the discussion was certainly earnest and informed.

Hauter did make the point in her talk that the whole nation cannot be “like Asheville” in its liberal sensibilities and advanced progress to safe, tasty, natural, sustainably and locally-raised food.  Instead, her argument is that we need federal and state government reform, a re-regulation of the agribusinesses and a restoration of anti-trust law to combat the “Walmarting [of] the Food Chain.”  Greater attention to what the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration are doing, and to the battle in Congress over the farm bill (yes – after all we’ve been through this Fall, there’s a serious battle over the farm bill!) is what is needed from citizens in Asheville and beyond.  Only when governmental reforms are enacted will we really make major progress, she argues, on the problems of obesity, needless food-related deaths, and depression in the small-farm sector.

Her point turned on its head my quest for the secret to Asheville Exceptionalism.  Instead of asking why we aren’t all like Asheville, her argument about farm and food policy suggests we might better recognize the nation’s regional diversity and reunite like-minded citizens on behalf of national causes.  Celebrate local culture – celebrate Asheville – but not with misplaced sentiments about its authenticity, and not without thinking and acting nationally.  The alternative is to continue relishing Asheville’s culinary and cultural delights in splendid isolation and to risk the encroachment of national decay on one of the really rare enclaves of eclectic, creative, and forward-looking urban cultures.

Larry Grubbs is a senior lecturer in the History Department at Georgia State University, and the author of Secular Missionaries: Americans and African Development in the 1960 (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010).