The essence of downtown Asheville, NC exists between two dichotomous extremes, with the outlandish opulence of the Biltmore Estate at one end of the spectrum, and grungy backpackers in a drum circle at the other.
To get a feel for Asheville’s downtown area, start at Pack Square Park in the city’s heart. Named in 1900 for George Pack, who donated the land on which it was built, the park is surrounded by Asheville, NC history, from art deco buildings to Civil War monuments.
Walking down Biltmore Avenue, you’ll pass indie record and bookstores, clothing boutiques that range in style from hip to hippie-fied, an old-timey general store, and an art house cinema.
You’ll see the lively patio of Wicked Weed Brewing, an endless array of farm-to-table restaurants, and the legendary Orange Peel music venue, all in a span of 10 minutes.
The people-watching along the way is extraordinary. There are slick urbanites, aging Boomers, bearded hipsters, stroller-pushing Earth mamas, fresh-faced college kids, red-robed Buddhist monks, dreadlocked hikers fresh off the trail, and tattooed cowboys busking for spare change… Again, all in a span of 10 minutes.
It’s an eclectic, colorful mixture of left-leaning progressives. All of them were somehow drawn to this tiny town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which many residents describe as “an island of blue in North Carolina’s vast sea of red.” And we’re here to find out why…
READ MORE: The Best Restaurants in Downtown Asheville
Asheville, NC History TOC
- The History of Asheville, NC
- The Rise of Downtown Asheville
- The River Arts District in Asheville
- The Birth of Pack Place (a.k.a. Pack Square)
- Asheville’s New Wave
- Downtown Asheville Today
- The Future of Downtown Asheville
THE HISTORY OF ASHEVILLE, NC
Some people consider Asheville the Southeast’s answer to Portland– another mountain town famous for its gorgeous natural surroundings, thriving cultural scene, and forward-thinking environmental consciousness.
But that comparison is all the more impressive when you consider that much of downtown Asheville, NC verged on the cusp of demolition just a few decades ago.
Asheville began the 20th century with a bang, with George Washington Vanderbilt II finishing construction on his 250-room Biltmore Estate in 1895.
At 135,280 square feet, the Biltmore remains the largest privately owned house in the United States. Drawn to the Blue Ridge region by its stunning scenery and moderate climate, the multi-millionaire invested his fortune in Châteauesque-style architecture, lushly landscaped gardens, forestry management programs, and agricultural initiatives.
The Vanderbilts’ bucolic 125,000-acre retreat became a favorite getaway among their famous friends, including novelist Henry James, inventors Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, and Presidents William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson.
As a result of this infusion of wealth (which funded much of the art deco-style Asheville architecture that dots the downtown area today), the city prospered for decades, and at one point became North Carolina’s third-largest metropolis.
But the bottom fell out with the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. Asheville’s residents shouldered a crippling per capita debt greater than any other city in America– $65 million– due to all the infrastructure improvements that had been made since the turn of the century.
All but one local bank closed. And it took more than 50 years before the downtown Asheville area finally began to recover.
READ MORE: The Best Things To Do In Asheville, NC
THE RISE OF DOWNTOWN ASHEVILLE
By the 1980s, the city was essentially a ghost town. Many of the historic buildings in downtown Asheville had been boarded up for decades.
The city’s economy was so awful, they couldn’t even afford demolition in order to build anything new.
Between 1960 and 1980, the population declined by 10% as residents left the Blue Ridge Mountains in droves to head for major cities.
But where some people saw a city in serious decline, others saw opportunity.
The River Arts District in Asheville
We met one of the town’s entrepreneurial pioneers while exploring the River Arts District. This thriving community of more than 200 Asheville artists includes studios and galleries filling 23 former industrial buildings along the tranquil French Broad River.
Like Vanderbilt before her, Pattiy Torno was a native New Yorker drawn to Asheville by its quality of life. The Blue Ridge area’s natural beauty appealed to her as a rock climber, while its location near numerous knitting mills worked well for her career as a clothing designer.
“I was looking for a warmer place to live that had both an art consciousness and health consciousness,” the Asheville art maven recalled as she gave us a tour of her vibrant organic garden.
“There are a lot of smart people who come to Asheville and realize this is a really nice place to live. Proactive, innovative, entrepreneurial people who make things happen. Those are the people who seem to be attracted here.”
Thanks to the crippling economy back in 1984, Torno was able to score a 3,000-square foot loft for $300 a month when she moved here.
She was one of only a dozen or so people who lived in downtown Asheville at the time, and part of a tight-knit group of intelligent transplants known locally as “the Asheville 1000.”
By 1990 she’d opened CURVE Studios & Gardens, one of the first studios in the Asheville arts district, which now houses dozens of local artists, craftsmen, and art galleries.
READ MORE: Asheville’s River Arts District: A Shopper’s Guide
The Birth of Pack Place (a.k.a. Pack Square)
But still Asheville languished, hampered by a “that will never work here” attitude, until two mavericks– both wealthy transplants– invested their time and money in making it great.
Roger McGuire was a former Southern Living magazine executive who moved to Asheville for early retirement in 1980. Then he spent the rest of his life working to restore the Blue Ridge town to its former glory.
He invested huge sums of cash (and raised millions more) to fund Pack Place, which now houses major Asheville attractions such as the Asheville Art Museum, Colburn Earth Science Museum, Diana Wortham Theatre, and YMI Cultural Center.
He also founded a non-profit group called Asheville Discovery, which was dedicated to the revitalization of the downtown Asheville business district.
Downtown Asheville Shopping & Residential Projects
Julian Price, heir to the Jefferson-Pilot insurance fortune, took a much more micro-focused approach to community-building.
After moving to Asheville in 1990, he founded Public Interest Projects, which funds independent businesses and provides an entrepreneurial model for sustainable community growth.
PIP invested in small companies that eventually evolved into Asheville institutions, including the Laughing Seed Café (the city’s first certified Green restaurant), French Broad Co-Op, Fine Arts Theatre, Malaprops Bookstore, and The Orange Peel.
They also took on ambitious downtown residential projects that many locals said were doomed to fail. These included renovating the Carolina Apartments, the Old Penney’s Building (which now has 23 lofts), and the Asheville Hotel (which has 29 apartments).
Chic, urban, and conveniently located, these residential areas began selling like hotcakes, with waiting lists for potential buyers before their renovations were even finished. As a result, Asheville’s downtown area reported 65% growth between 1990 and 2000.
ASHEVILLE’S NEW WAVE
“You don’t choose Asheville,” Black Walnut Bed & Breakfast Inn owner Peter White told us conspiratorially in his antique-filled dining room, as wife/co-owner Lori served a 3-course gourmet breakfast fit for a king. “Asheville chooses you.”
I’m instantly reminded of our conversation with Pattiy Torno, who told us that Asheville was built on an energy vortex, much like the ones that supposedly give cities like Santa Fe and Sedona such spiritually and creatively rich cultures.
Over and over during our trips to Asheville, we met people who described feeling drawn– almost as if by some metaphysical force– to Asheville’s vortex of energy.
And when they sensed that we were kindred spirits– intellectual, entrepreneurial, creative– each of them would tell us, “You guys should move here!”
All of their personal stories were eerily similar. The Whites– baby boomers who became entrepreneurs because they didn’t want to work for anyone else– moved to Asheville after running a bakery in Martha’s Vineyard for 29 years.
Attracted by the Blue Ridge region’s gorgeous weather, natural beauty, and a vibrant arts community, they bought a historic home in downtown Asheville’s Montford neighborhood in 2004.
Over the last 15 years they’ve invested their life savings in renovating the 120-year-old home and turning it into an elegant Southern-style B&B that has been featured in Travel & Leisure and 1000 Places to See Before You Die.
Chef Peter Pollay, a Chicago native and former President of the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association, moved here in 2003 to open the Posana Café for similar reasons.
He has since emerged as one of the primary architects behind the city’s “Green restaurant” movement, which has produced numerous award-winning Asheville restaurants.
Pollay credits Asheville’s quality of life with attracting the innovative chefs who are currently driving the city’s thriving restaurant scene, which has garnered glowing articles in Bon Appetit and Food and Wine.
“Asheville has a diversity of high-quality restaurants because a lot of the chefs here have worked in the big cities,” Pollay postulates.
“We have great chefs coming to live in the Blue Ridge mountains, in a diverse, open and welcoming community. We have a thriving food scene here because of that, and more people are coming to visit Asheville as a result.”
DOWNTOWN ASHEVILLE TODAY
Living in Asheville has proven to be so enticing that more and more of those visitors seem inclined to stay. Despite the economic downturn, Asheville NC’s population has grown by nearly 35% since 2000, from 69,000 to more than 92,000 in 2019.
There are so many newbies here today that, if you’ve been in the city for five years or more, many local residents consider you “Old School.”
Nearly all of the people we’ve met during our time visiting Asheville seem to share the same strong, entrepreneurial spirit that defines this mountain town.
There’s Asheville Medieval Collective founder Phil Ferguson, who moved from Illinois in 2009 and hosts full-contact battles with foam weapons in Carrier Park every Sunday.
There’s chef Edwin Bloodworth, who specializes in wild game and foraged foods, and moved to Asheville because his cuisine was considered “too progressive” for his hometown of Boone, North Carolina.
And then there’s 12 Bones Smokehouse owner Bryan King, who moved back to Asheville with his wife/business partner Angela Koh after years of working in Silicon Valley.
The more we got to know these downtown Asheville transplants, the more we started to wonder if living in Asheville, NC should figure into our future plans….
THE FUTURE OF DOWNTOWN ASHEVILLE
It’s only during my conversation with Lori White, just minutes before we leave the city to head home, that I’m finally able to put a finger on exactly what it is that makes Asheville a Mecca for such a diverse assemblage of artists and intellectuals.
“The Boomers grew up trying hard to change the world,” White laments. “We wanted to make it a peaceful, sustainable place. In our generation, we were unable to effect that change.”
“But here you have natural beauty all around you, in a vibrant city which is a haven of art and music. [It’s] powered by these inventive young people doing their own thing– making their own bread, growing organic vegetables and fruits, foraging for mushrooms. This is like Disneyland for real, thinking adults.”
And that’s when it hits me: Asheville may be the one town in the southeastern United States in which the counter-cultural revolution actually worked.
The question remains whether the city will be able to continue its current rate of growth without losing what made it special in the first place. Or, as Bryan King says, “How do we evolve without losing the area’s soul?”
With big brands like Sierra Nevada and New Belgium opening breweries in the River Arts District over the past 5 years, numerous big hotels currently on the drawing board for downtown Asheville, and new restaurants popping up like weeds, the city will soon find out if “progress” and “progressives” can peacefully co-exist.
It might be a utopian fantasy to believe that a charming place in the heart of the Blue Ridge mountains can nimbly balance small-town charm with big city bankrolls. But if anyone can, it’s the arty, intellectual independents of Asheville. –Bret Love; all photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted