Sunday, September 30, 2007

Hello, stranger

Despite all accounts, it's hard to live in Asheville. To me, anyway. Perhaps it's because of stories like the one that is in today's New York Times, 36 Hours in Asheville, N.C., that make me want to run for the hills. Resort town? Asheville's young professionals? Really, I had to laugh.

The irony of my frustration with stories like these is not lost on me, mainly because I'm more than guilty of writing such stories about things to do and see while visiting Asheville -- stories I won't bother to link here because they're superficiality is astounding. Sure, Asheville is beautiful. Sure, the town has managed to diversify by adding some, as the NYT calls it, urbane sensibility amid the crunchy vibe that made the whole town stink of patchouli in the early 1990s. And I surely can't deny that when the sky is so blue you want to scoop it in a bowl or when the crisp fall air sends goosebumps across your skin, thoughts of leaving this town disappear. Asheville easily seduces. But the reality is that finding an authentic life in this place is difficult for the not-so-rich or the not-so-hippy, so much so that trying to eek out a living here is gut wrenching, even though I'm fully aware that such pieces aren't meant to showcase the realness of a place, just what you can find in the trendy restaurants, galleries and expensive craft stores.

And, then, there's the fact that my friends Julie and Ed and their little girl, Samantha, are coming to town this week. (Hey, y'all!) And looking around at what we'll do over the six days they're here, I find myself abandoning my haughtiness (see above) for the sure-to-impress activities that make stories like this one easy for the writer and the most e-mailed story of today's travel section. Go to Early Girl. *check* Go to Mela and Old Europe. *check* Visit the Grove Park Inn and the Biltmore Estate. *check*

No one -- not even my very sensitive, justice-minded friends -- want the Tour of Manufacturing Plants That Have Closed in the Past Five Years Sending Everyone to the Unemployment Line And/Or Destined to Work in a Fast Food Restaurant Near a Tourist Destination. No one wants to reveal the "Made in China" tags on items found at the Farmer's Market or really question where, exactly, in western North Carolina are fields covered in the red and green bell peppers sold there, too? (That's because the answer is not here, but, most likely, in the Carolina found farther south. My dad, a man who grew up farming, was disillusioned to discover both when we visited I naively took him to the Farmer's Market on one of his rare visits here in the early 1990s.) This really epitomizes my frustration with this place -- that, when push comes to shove, most everyone who promotes or writes about tourism here is so satisfied by appearance and creating or believing this palatable version of Asheville's so-called Appalachian culture.

Lest I seem otherwise, I'm not opposed to people visiting Asheville and are likely to support the local arts scene. I remember the times when downtown was deserted, even a bit on the scary side. It's hard to find a scary part of town today.

In truth, my biggest frustration comes from the local people who are determined to tell Asheville's story -- the one easily swallowed and reproduced in nearly every major magazine and newspaper in the country -- as one of craft and quirkiness. But then, I wonder if maybe these folks are telling that story with a wink, much like the "quilts, crafts and antiques" gag old-time mountaineers used to pull on out-of-towners, the "come and see Real Mountain Crafts" tourist traps that would lure visitors in and charge $10 for a bar of Ivory soap wrapped in "mountain-made burlap." Maybe the thought is, if they want to buy it, so be it. Maybe the thought is, we're a culture of story tellers, and this is surely our best seller.

But then I know that while Asheville seduces, money is the greatest lover of all. And that's what's come with this wave of so-called revitalization. Is that bad, in the end? Is it bad that new people coming here promote "traditional crafts" with a fervor usually reserved for Sundays?

I guess we'll know only when we get to the end of the story. And as I'm planning on making reservations and checking on gallery hours and strategizing where the best hikes will be this time of year, I know I'm also pointing a finger at myself here. Be a show off, evangelistic promoter of My Mountain Town, in all it's story-telling. *check*


Frances said...

this is hard and good, what you're saying here. i remember reading this article several years ago but i can't remember where -- it was naming the 20 most livable american cities but the writer decided to change the criteria completely and looked at things like jobs, good jobs, cost of living, community, appealing things but not touristy things. pretty daggum interesting. and none of the cities were lauded as "perfect" -- they discussed problems the city had and qualified the reasons why they chose each city.

i am so completely outta touch with you, friendly. have you moved? i need to send you email, to hang out wit u soon, jb said yesterday, "we need to go see pat & angie -- they've been here twice since i've been to see them. i miss them."

this entry of yours is awesome, man.


Anonymous said...

It seems like every magazine I look at has some flashy ad for Asheville. :) It's true this place seduces easily.