Thursday, July 3, 2008
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Last Friday, June 27, Zen Sutherland, a photographer, computer wizard, and Asheville observer took me on a stroll through a part of downtown to point out some of its unnoticed public art.
I got to know Zen six years ago when he was managing the Asheville Botanical Gardens, which were on my walk to campus. He'd be out early among the plants, smoking a cigar, making sure everything was green, taking in the morning. Then I stopped passing through the gardens (we got a dog and when I was walking, I walked with the dog, and for good reasons dogs aren't welcome at the ABG), and he moved on and I rarely saw him.
Then, when I started Implaced in May I thought of Zen, his interest in the various sides of Asheville, art, plants, trees, and people here. I looked him up. We spoke on the phone and he agreed to give me a tour of one of his favorite places. We met beneath the I-240 bridge over Lexington Avenue, where Molly Must and her crew are painting murals of Asheville saints.
The walk took us south along Lexington to Hiawassee, then left up the hill toward Broadway, but before we got there, we turned right into a tiny alley, which some words scratched into a bit of concrete at the corner identified as "Chicken Alley."
Zen’s originally from Washington, DC. He came to Asheville via Florida. He said that as soon as he arrived in Asheville he felt right at home.
What makes Asheville feel like home?: Zen said it was the mix of creative people of many persuasions, the loose affiliation among them, linking folks across their differences. He said it was also Asheville’s proximity to outdoor things: forests and fields. That’s the botanical side of him. Then he said that there’s a spirit of tolerance here, that even though there are judgmental people, compared to other places he’s lived, people here are generally pretty live-and-let-live. He said he tries hard not to judge others, that judgment comes from a limited point of view, and who’s to say which limited view is the right one, if any?
He took me to Chicken Alley because of the art there, the graffiti. He has clearly spent time getting to know graffiti artists. He mentioned that they speak of different areas of town as “galleries.” He mentioned the “track-side gallery” off Riverside Drive, and the “Chicken Alley gallery.”
The front doors along Chicken Alley are the backdoors of buildings facing Lexington and Carolina Lane. The buildings are low and brick and speak of an Asheville largely gone now. Zen said that Chicken Alley got its name because it was a place where people killed and processed chickens. Now its doorways open into artists's studios and living spaces.
Chicken Alley forms an L and we made the left turn to Carolina Lane, which is just a bigger alley with its own graffiti. A thunderstorm rolled through and dumped a bunch of water, so we took shelter under the roofed loading area of a Broadway store. This worked until the gutter above overflowed and spilled itself all over where we were standing. We moved a few yards away along the side of the building. Zen smoked: I think they were Marlboros or maybe Winstons. I remember red letters. I should have paid better attention. I’m so far away from cigarettes now. When the rain quit, we continued south along Carolina Lane.
Identity came up several times during the conversation. He thought that graffiti artists are, among other things, putting themselves into the public arena, asserting their identity, their very existence.
“That’s the fear,” he said. “To lose identity.” Later he described the motives of an “ego” tagger, someone who scrawls an artistic name on a wall or light pole: “I’m here! That says identity: I’m here. I’ve been here.”
Zen spoke of the ordinariness of extraordinarily creative people in Asheville. How in Asheville there were people who might be “gurus” in one religious tradition or another, folks that people outside that particular tradition might regard as strange, but here they drive a Honda Civic or a Subaru Forester, wear Bermuda shorts, and go out to the ballgame like everybody else. He suggested that Asheville has normalized eccentricity. I think he meant eccentricity of a spiritual, creative sort. We both agreed that there were eccentricities that enjoyed little tolerance in Asheville.
We turned right from Carolina Lane at West Walnut, dropped half a block to Lexington, and turned right through its business district, past the shoppers, tourists, and panhandlers, back toward the 240 bridge.
Zen said he was interested in “transgression.” By this I don’t think he meant the transgression of a mugger, but the transgression of an artist, who tests boundaries, creatively explores the edges of social norms.
His interest in creative transgression lurks behind his interest in graffiti: that it is illegal, that it challenges expectations, that it is creative and artful and expressive, that it often finds itself on otherwise ugly, neglected walls. There were places he thought that shouldn’t get graffiti. For instance, I mentioned that I was seeing “MOMS,” a common tag, painted on trees. He thought that was wrong. That wasn’t the sort of transgression he appreciated. But he said many norms are simply made up. “It’s just artificial,” he said. “That’s what bothers me about boundaries.”
He called human beings “poor-weather animals,” who do best in lean times. That’s astute, I thought, thinking back to the lean circumstances of human evolution. So it isn’t just graffiti, but a certain type of individual that appeals to Zen, one who stands outside the center, who doesn't wear a gray suit and drive an expensive car. Rather Zen seems to like the spunk, wit, and creativity of folks at the margins.
He said Asheville is still small enough not to have tightly defined, exclusive communities. People are still mixed up. He used Bele Cher as an example. The street fair has gotten so commercial in the past decade that it has lost its original from-the-ground-up character. In part that’s because it has become expensive.
Zen points out, however, that Asheville has a dozen or so alternative festivals, mainly free, that allow ordinary folks and people at the margins to come and feel comfortable and express themselves. He mentioned the Lexington Arts and Fun Festival, for one, and LEAF, which charges money, but I think I know what he meant. Perhaps Leaf is funkier, more tolerant, less corporate.
He showed me a part of downtown populated by young artists. Men and women with black and brown loose-fitting T-shirts and tight off color jeans and tattoos and long uncombed hair and ink under their finger nails -- a sort of well-worn, unwashed style that has characterized this part of town since I first got to know it in the late 1970s. He was quick to add that it wasn’t the area's seediness that he liked as much as its not being a major commercial area, driven by dollars alone.
If the Lexington area is what he knows and likes, what parts of Asheville does he know least? He mentioned North Asheville and Weaverville, said he hardly ever goes to those places.
He prefers what we agreed might be regarded as “peripheral” places, where there aren’t crowds, and where people express themselves creatively: he said he likes art, the beautiful artifacts, the products, more than aggregations of many people. He likes people, he said, but not crowds. He likes one-on-one sociality, and he especially likes to witness what others have done. Graffiti, for instance.
Zen Sutherland is an extraordinary photographer and observer. Check out his blog Zenography: http://zenasheville.blogspot.com/.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
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Today's walk began with a French Broad River paddle from car park on Amboy Road to a point on the river opposite where Jonestown Road intersects Riverside Drive in Woodfin (about five miles downstream from the put-in). Then I walked back to the put-in along Riverside Drive (the first couple of miles I walked on the railroad tracks beside the road), right on Lyman, along Lyman to Amboy Road, and across Amboy bridge. Paddle began at 9:45 am. Walk ended at 3 pm.
Overarching sense was that the city had turned its back on the river.
I put in beside the river overlook, upstream of Amboy bridge, along the greenway along the riverbank. There was an old guy smoking a cigar and watching his dog, a collie-shepherd mix, sniff around. Another fellow showed up in an SUV with a big husky. The two dogs, and two men, knew each other. The newcomer and his dog walked off. The guy with the cigar asked if I was going fishing or just paddling. I told him that I was just paddling. He spoke as if he’d run the river through town before, seemed to wish I’d invite him and his dog along. He talked all the while as I untied the boat, carried it to the shoreline, which involved a six-foot drop at river’s edge, and as I put paddles and gear in the canoe and locked up the truck. It was a good, friendly start to the trip.
I sort of wished he had joined me. But I was also glad to be paddling alone.
The day was warm already. Sun hot. The water was slow, languid in most places, except where there were rocks and riffles of current at drops. The river was low so the banks were exposed and all the debris that people toss into the stream: old tires mainly but also soda bottles and cups, cardboard and packaging, fishing line. And then there were the tree trunks and other more natural litter washed down by floods, some of it hanging quite high in the branches. Real contrasts: drought time water levels, memories of floods.
The river turns north about a hundred yards or more after I put in, under Amboy bridge, past the river park, over a small ledge.
From a canoe the river seems to earn the name “broad.” Since it was shallow, a number of times I had to zig and zag across its width to find a way through. The water was clear. I could see thick greenish brown algae on the rocks. Lots of fish, which I assumed by their length and grace to be trout but learned from two fishermen at the end of my run were probably small-mouth bass. The way the sun plays with the amber-colored water made me think they were trout.
A great number of birds stood in the water or perched over head or flew past: kingfishers, herons both great blue and green, ducks, geese, doves. No turtles; I was surprised. Once I saw a bump on the water’s surface that I thought was a muskrat’s head but it was a floating log. Forest and trees along the river banks. Though the river flows right through town, you’d never know it. It’s not like there are ports or riverfront walks or docks or lots of access points. Or any access points. Even where I got on the river at the “river park” it was not easy actually to get on the river. They had a couple of decks from which to look at the water. Nothing to facilitate getting on it.
Indeed, my overall sense of Asheville’s relationship to the river was that the city had turned its back on it.
Perhaps that is changing, but slowly. As I said, there’s lots of trash, tires, debris that’s floated down stream.
The only people to face the river head on are houseless folks who camp along its banks. I counted ten camps between the river park and an area south of Woodfin. They seemed especially to like the area between railroad tracks and river, where the railroad tracks run along the western otherwise unpopulated side of the river. Nice looking camps, with trim backpacking tents and wash hanging in branches. I was tempted to stop and chat. But they didn’t know me, and I can’t imagine they’d have appreciated some stranger with house and wallet showing up just like that in a boat wanting to interview them about their camping experiences.
A friend who has worked with homeless folks in Asheville later pointed out that a good number of these fellows along the river suffer from mental illnesses, and some of them are quite anxious about strangers approaching them. “Especially from the water,” he said. “That’s supposed to be the safe side. They expect people to come from the land side. Not the water side. That could have really flipped them out.”
I’m an anthropologist, interested in “others.” And yet I sometimes wonder about this interest.
Don’t I, in a sense, create their otherness with my interest? Don’t I exoticize them? And yet I do hold onto the notion that witnessing others’s experiences is valuable, necessary, human. Better than turning my back. It’s an ongoing dilemma. Why are those houseless men along the river more interesting to me than anyone else? What about graffiti artists? Why are Gabra camel herders, with whom I’ve lived and worked and about whom I have written – why are they more interesting to me than my own neighbors? It’s their difference, of course. But difference is everywhere, and I wonder how useful the idea of degree-of-difference actually is: is my wife, Carol, really so much less different from me, or my brother or mother or friend, than someone of a different society or class? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Genetically we humans are all almost identical. And yet we look and behave and think and want and avoid in so many different ways.
Warehouses on shore
This is in the city
I especially enjoyed paddling beneath the bridges, which caught the reflection of the sun off the water. Under one was a colony of cliff swallows (I think), flying in circles and visiting the apartment complexes they’d built with mud up in the groins of the bridge posts. Like small grey clay pots.
All the way along I saw the backs of warehouses and factories, up beyond the line of trees. Here and there was evidence of fishing: a stoop, a bench, a chair, old fishing line caught in a tree. The only fishermen I saw, however, were two young men at the take-out in Woodfin, the ones catching smallmouth bass.
Plastics in Woodfin (east bank of river)
Aikido in Woodfin
Outside a tobacco warehouse
MOMS is everywhere (Lyman Street)
An official griffito
I stopped at a bank that seemed less steep, lower to the water, than others. It was beginning to concern me that the bank was everywhere so high I’d never be able to get the canoe out without getting completely muddy. Here I found a grassy patch of trees and a low bank and I stood on the shore, which was muddy but not deep mud. I pulled the canoe up to my chest and pushed it onto the bank, which lay at about shoulder height. Then I climbed up myself. I ate lunch on a rock, tied the boat to a tree, tucked paddles and gear beneath, and set off on foot with my keys and camera to walk back to the truck.
The map tells me this was about six miles back along Riverside Drive. It was, in some ways, the more interesting stretch, though it paralleled the river run. Human life along Riverside Drive faces the street, and in that way addresses people along the street. I never felt addressed, called to, noticed, while I was on the river. But here on the road were signs and storefronts and doorways and windows that invited me or looked out at me and called for my attention.
Still, there were few people on foot. I notice this everywhere I go in Asheville: the relative scarcity of walkers (downtown and my own neighborhood may be key exceptions). They’re out there. We’re out there. But compared to those in cars, we’re a tiny minority. There was no sidewalk, for instance, along Riverside Drive. And in places the shoulder was narrow or not existent. I walked the railroad track as much as I could to be safe from the speeding cars.
That was another interesting thing to note: that the road and rails tracked the river. That human geography had been shaped at least in some few but significant ways by the natural topography. Of course they did. The roads, like the water, took the path of least resistance.
The pictures speak for themselves. They reveal abandoned buildings. Graffiti on walls. Dirt and clutter by the roadside. It seems such a shame that the city would not find more ways than it does to enjoy the river.
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
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Neil Thomas and I walked from Montford (he picked me up on foot at my house on Pearson) to AB Tech to visit Pete Kennedy, GIS and map-making expert, to talk about the Citizen-Times "ning" on "Changing Places." We walked back by a different route and stopped at the Green Man Brewery for a beer and where Neil was meeting an old friend. I walked home from there alone. One thing that struck me on this walk was when I was walking and taking pictures I felt like a tourist, but when I put the camera away and was walking home alone at around 6 p.m. with a day pack on my back, I felt like a houseless man heading for the mission. These "felt likes" are of course projections. But it's curious how I imagine people in cars view people, like me, who are on foot. Who walks in this town? What does walking mean?
Thursday, June 12, 2008
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Today's walk took me up over Beaucatcher ridge from East End (the parking lot of the city school board on Mountain Road), down into Kennilworth, around the ridge's southern nose, and finally back up the western side of the ridge into East End. Find walk photos at Flickr:
I tell my students that ethnography is an intimate look at a small slice of human experience. What I am doing with these walks -- because of their quick, in-out, superficiality -- feels like the antithesis of ethnographic work. But these surveys are, I think, a necessary preparation. I am walking "transects" of Asheville, getting a broad feel through my eyes and feet for the city's landscapes and variations. Later on I'll settle in.
Today's walk took me up over Beaucatcher ridge from East End (the parking lot of the city school board on Mountain Road), down into Kennilworth, around the ridge's southern nose, and finally back up the western side of the ridge into East End. For anyone unfamiliar with Asheville, East End is historically one of Asheville's African-American neighborhoods, largely demolished by so-called urban renewal, reduced to a fraction of its former self. Kennilworth is one of the city's older, more affluent, and largely white neighborhoods.
I was never more aware than during today's walk of Asheville's geographic and demographic variations: a working class neighborhood made of tiny box houses and trim, crew-cut lawns would suddenly give way to Tudor houses and dense gardens and old, storied trees, and around the corner, small bungalows and even a couple log cabins. Likewise, crowded development on one street would end, and then I might have been walking along a forest lane. It gave me goosebumps to see this variety so close to city center.
The variation won't last. Not all of it, anyway: I came upon builders in the forests developing dense gated communities on once green slopes above town. Like Tolkien's Ents, the woods seemed threatened as I walked through them. Of course, that perspective expresses a bias for a particular scenario, one that preserves trees. There are other biases. Put another way, development on the slopes seemed assured.
Thursday, May 29, 2008
One of our routes:
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It seems funny to think but I know my neighborhood, such as I know it, through my dog. Carol and I walk Rita, a black standard poodle, three times a day, and since we like to walk, we see a good bit of Montford and beyond.
One of our walks is indicated on the map above. But there are dozens. One takes us south to the community center, with its grassy lawn and ball field and outdoor amphitheater. Another takes us along Cumberland toward town, left on Starnes (where we lived twenty-six years ago) then back along Flint. Another is over to the university, via Reid Creek, back through what we call the “urban forest” – wooded university property across Weaver Boulevard from campus – to West, and then down to Broadway and home. A map of this walk follow the text below.
I say it seems funny that Rita is so central to knowing our neighborhood. I’m not sure why, but it is. Perhaps it is funny that more than half the people we know here we know because of a dog.
She is an extroverted poodle, eager to meet all friendly people and dogs, the more the better. So we meet them. And since anyone who knows dogs knows that a tired dog is a happy dog, we are eager to let her play with other dogs. They tire each other out faster than we can walking them.
There are many people whose names I don’t know but whose dogs’ names I do know. But I know these people as the “mother” or “father” or “owner” of so-and-so dog. At least I know them a little, know them to wave and to ask about their dogs. If not for Rita, most of them would be strangers.
It makes me wonder how people get to know each other. So many drive to work and play – there simply aren’t many reasons, besides walking dogs, to get to know neighbors.
We know our immediate neighbors: Fran to our left and Joy and her kids to the right, the McMahans across the street, Lenora and Steve also across the street. These people we know before Rita. We know Pamela, a door down to the right, and Rebecca (I think that’s her name) in the Tudor house beside Lenora and Steve, but I think we know them better because of our dogs. Harold lives at the corner of Birch, Walter around the corner on Birch – and we knew them before Rita. Cecil down Pearson with his dog Laddy, and Donna next door with her dog Woofer, we know better for Rita. Then there are the Richardson-Dillingham’s at the Pearson bend, the Merrills along Danville – and most occasions we’ve had to talk with them have been over the dog. We know more people in Montford north, and I’d venture that’s because we walk the dog that way more than we walk her south.
Perhaps if we had children we would know our neighbors as well or better, but we’d probably know different neighbors. Neighbors with like-aged kids.
It makes me realize that people know people – neighbors, colleagues, friends, relatives, no matter – through activities and intermediaries.
A person walking down the street aiming to have a conversation, just like that, would, frankly, be met with a certain amount of suspicion. Not sure I’m proud of that fact, but I believe it’s true. The same person at the other end of a leash or stroller becomes a certain sort of identity. I can “identify” them, even if I do not know them, and because of the leash or stroller feel, however rightly or wrongly, that I “know” something about them. That something serves as the basis of at least an initial engagement.
Similarly, places – or should I say “spaces” – are not significant in themselves but as arenas for the activities that take place in and around them. Or are associated with them. Or are passed through on the way to other arenas with social significance.
Places are social arenas. Their meaning (at least, I can say, the meaning of Montford, my neighborhood, to me) is predicated on social relations built up in them, and these social relations are, it seems, predicated on activities, practices, rituals, routines. People don’t form relations with each other out of nothing: they relate to each other within activities.
Perhaps I am speaking too generally. Certainly this is my experience – I get to know other people over our dogs, on a walk, sharing a meal, discussing a problem, watching a game, raving about a book or movie. But I don’t think I’m so different. It is difficult to be social without something in our hand, some pretext.
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Tuesday, May 27, 2008
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They worship differently in north Asheville from west Asheville. In west Asheville, I noticed, though there was one Yoga center and a sprinkling of New Age herbal healing schools, most churches were either Baptist or Methodist.
In north Asheville, I saw no Baptist churches, only Episcopal and Presbyterian, but I know that are also two Jewish synagogues, a Friends meeting house, several Yoga centers, and one Zen Center.
This led me to the telephone book where I counted Asheville’s advertised religious communities: I counted nearly 350, and while some may have been counted more than once, I checked and found very little duplication in the list of churches in the Yellow Pages. (For instance, I did not count churches listed under Orthodox that I'd already counted under Greek or Eastern Orthodox.)
Among the 350 communities more than 100 were Baptist of one sort or another. Seventy-five called themselves Baptist, and another 54 called themselves “southern,” “general,” “free-will,” “independent,” “missionary,” or “grace missionary.”
The next most common faiths were Methodist (35), Presbyterian (25), Nondenominational (17), Episcopalian and Anglican (15), Roman Catholic (10). I counted 62 different faiths – some with only one Asheville congregation, others with several – and they represented a broad range: African Methodist Episcopal, Baha’i, Buddhist, Church of God, Full Gospel, Holiness, Lutheran, Mormon, Muslim, Pentecostal, Salvation Army, Seventh Day Adventist (and Baptist), Unitarian, Zen. I did not see advertised but know there is at least one Hindu community here. I also know of half dozen Buddhist communities that were not listed in the telephone book (at least not in the places I was looking).
I do not know street names well enough to place them all, but I am confident that just as there are class differences between west and north Asheville, there also are religious differences. Of course, a systematic study would include not just houses of worship but also worshippers – one neighborhood may have more churches but fewer worshippers than another. Still I think the walk through the phone book was suggestive.
Another difference that was immediately apparent was that, while the west Asheville bus was nearly full, the north Asheville bus was all-but-empty: there was one woman at the back when I boarded. Another man got on when the bus reached Merrimon Avenue. Both got off at Ingles at Beaver Dam Road. I was the lone passenger from there to the city’s edge at Elkmont.
So two glaring differences: churches and bus ridership. Doubtless there are others.
I got off the bus in a commercial area with lots of shady trees. It’s a transition area between the Beaver Lake community to the south and the strip of gas stations, alignment shops, groceries, lumber yards, cheese and wine stores, and restaurants that crowd Merrimon for the next couple of miles north.
Turning south back into the city, I came first upon the affluent Beaver Lake community. If west Asheville’s neighborhoods felt rural, in a family-farm sort of way, this part of north Asheville pretended to gentry. The homes here were not mansions, but they were large and over determined, with leaded windows and carved doors and wide, freshly painted porches with stone floors, and steep lawns falling to street or the lake itself. On one porch I saw a large, life-sized statue of a sitting Buddha.
The fact that this community has a private lake and two golf courses says something of its privilege, in contrast to west Asheville, which has its charms but neither lake nor golf course).
I continued south on Merrimon, past Beaver Lake on my right and the Country Club of Asheville on my left. The street is lined with large sycamores. There were geese and ducks on the lake. A hawk sailed overhead. I saw a red-winged blackbird, which I have not seen around here. A mother and children walked their lion-sized golden retriever on the golf course. This was a picture for the cover of affluent America: not rich, but upper middle class. The cars here: new Volvos, BMWs, Audis, and Mercedes Benzes.
The road fell to a creek that flowed from the golf course, under the pavement, and into a bird sanctuary (yes, Beaver Lake has a large bird park on the south end of the lake) where the creek met another coming from farther south and together fed Beaver Lake. I saw a couple of male blue gills defending nests in the creek’s shallow waters.
After the sanctuary came the new North Asheville Public Library, and then a series of strip shopping centers, including an Ingles, a Fresh Market, several travel agencies, a number of restaurants (from Marco’s Pizza to the upscale Savoy), several convenience and gas stations, at least six drug stores (in a span of under two miles), all but one built within the past six years, a family-owned toy store, several banks, real estate offices, a UPC store, insurance agencies, an ABC liquor store, a financial consulting firm. In this section, billboards advertised BB Barns Nursery (for landscaping needs), the upcoming Ringling Bros. Circus, U.S. Cellular phones, and Carlyle & Co. jewelers.
A small neighborhoodAt the top of the hill, where a trendy bar called The Usual Suspects sits, I turned left on Gracelyn Road, past Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church. A colleague who lives back in this neighborhood had asked me to stop by to help move a new dryer into his basement. I turned right on Melrose, and then made the first left onto my colleague’s street. We moved the dryer in a few minutes, he gave me a glass of cold water, and we spent a few minutes talking about the neighborhood. I counted three renovation projects in two small blocks. He said that neighbors were putting a lot of work into their houses (as was he), not to sell but for themselves to live in. As we stood talking, a woman in one of these houses approached with a baby in her arms: a family-friendly community. She called my colleague by his first name.
I returned to Melrose, turned left, and at my colleague’s direction, found a path at the end of the street that curved down through a small wood to Long Street, which parallel’s Merrimon and provides back access to a number of business along Merrimon.
More businessesI walked through the parking lots for a honeyed ham store and burger parlor, turned left on Merrimon and continued my journey south. At Edgewood I turned right toward UNC Asheville, passed through a different sort of neighborhood, pleasant but not as affluent as Beaver Lake or up and coming as the Melrose area. This is no doubt the result of several apartment complexes along Edgewood and the number of transient students in the area. I know from other walks that neighborhoods to the north and south of Edgewood are more stable and, especially those just to the north of it, the houses are finer and larger and perhaps more owner-occupied.
An ecological observation: we are enjoying the emergence of the 17 year cicadas now, but their appearance is uneven. They are all over much of campus (at least my corner of it). They are crawling on trees. Their cast off exoskeletons litter the sidewalks. You can hear them whir like spaceships and buzz saws in tree tops. But not everywhere. I heard none along Beaver Lake. I heard them in the Melrose area. I heard them on campus. I do not hear them in my own neighborhood.
That would be an interesting map: where the cicada sing and where they don’t.
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The bus station
The first thing I notice is demographics. There are as many black or brown folks as white, and in my world, the world of the university, which is mostly white, this is remarkable and refreshing. The place feels like other places I’ve lived, and I have the weird sensation of being somewhere at once familiar and unfamiliar, old and new.
The bus arrives on time at the top of the hour. More people than I’d have thought need to get on and we queue delta style, converging currents on the door. I’m surprised how well it works, but then I’m not in a hurry. I’ve put on my fieldworker’s suit. I’m content to watch and wait. I take a seat in the back across from a young white woman, a blonde, with three dark, bi-racial daughters, triplets.
A man on my side remarks that he couldn’t handle three daughters. He says he could handle three sons, but not three daughters. I have no sense that the two know each other. The woman says she has a son, too. She smiles. She seems to take pleasure in someone recognizing the hard work she puts in. Then, as if to demonstrate this, she spends the rest of the journey keeping the three in tight form.
The man who remarked on the daughters spends the rest of his journey ignoring them. He talks instead with a bearded, long-haired, overweight youth across from him about hallucinogenic drugs: mescaline, peyote, Hawaiian wood rose, mushrooms, jimson weed, and so on. They recount a surprisingly long list with recipes for preparation. This is curious because early in their conversation I heard the first man say he was a recovering alcoholic. And this caught my attention because it prompted the other into a long discussion of his own round-the-clock drinking habits.
At one point a middle-aged couple – late 30s I’d guess – mixed race, she black and he white – gets on the bus and sits beside me, between me and the alcoholic who knew so much about herbal pharmaceuticals. I assume they were houseless though I can’t say why – perhaps it is their pairing, and the roughness of their faces, the unwashed over-worn smoothness of their clothing. They didn’t carry any gear, though, so my assumption is probably wrong.
The woman sits near me and the bus seats are narrow so our arms touch, and I let that happen and so does she. I think about the various ways people make contact with each other and suppose that, for some, the bus is the one place they mingle with others, engage in civil discourse. It is anonymous contact between me and the woman, but our arms are bare and her skin feels smooth and warm, and for a moment I feel close to her.
As soon as the woman with the triplets across the way gets off, however, the woman beside me moves across the aisle, and the ‘closeness’ disappears, if it was ever there.
The bus crosses the river on Clingman, which becomes Haywood on the other side, and growls along Haywood, through West Asheville’s business district, toward Patton Avenue. I want to get off before the bus turns on Patton, but I’m uncertain exactly how far Patton is, so I press the plastic strip that signals the driver to stop five or so blocks early and get off at Cloyes Street. This is where my ramble begins.
I go out walking
My aim is to walk along Haywood, wander through neighborhoods, cross the river at Craven (a smaller bridge than Clingman), then climb the hill through other neighborhoods back into town, back to where I’d parked my truck near the bus station.
My intention is to do this through a number of parts of town to get a firsthand feel for the varieties of places in Asheville. My method: take photos at least every five minutes as I walk, keep my eyes and ears open, and make notes, but not obsessively: at this point I want something less systematic and more organic to occur, for the landscape to lift itself into my consciousness.
I turn back the way the bus came along Haywood’s sidewalk through the business district. It is unlike downtown Asheville, none of the buildings is taller than two or three stories. An occasional church steeple is taller. It feels like a small North Carolina town. (Asheville itself is a small North Carolina city but it feels bigger down town as it has some ten and twelve-story buildings and an architecture found in larger cities than Asheville is.)
The business district
I’m struck by two things: Haywood snakes more than I expected of a street through a city business district. And the type of business veers from a North Carolina norm more than I expected: here are banks and diners and churches and insurance agencies; here too, however, are holistic and herbal medicine schools, coffee roasters, Latino markets, and beauty salons catering to beautiful people with died hair and nose rings that I’d have expected in Greenwich Village, or even Chapel Hill, but not West Asheville.
There is an American Legion Hall, several Baptist and Methodist churches, but also a West Asheville Yoga Center. There are a couple of pubs. Pubs, not bars. One calls itself an Irish pub. There’s an eclecticism here that suggests the street is different places to different people, and that people here do business in parallel universes. I wonder what the Baptists think of the transgender bookstore?
The street changes as I approach I-240, which bisects West Asheville. The businesses are a little grungier, less peopled. There is a gas station and some empty storefronts.
On the other side of the interstate I turn left on Westwood and enter an old neighborhood. Though I see few people, this area feels old, working-class. Only a few houses bear the tell-tale signs (Tibetan prayer flags, Volvos in the driveway) of gentrification. The street feels like old Asheville, like Asheville felt when it was young.
Indeed, I am moved to take pictures of houses and yards that remind me of farm houses and yards I knew in my youth: white clapboards and flowers and lawns trim but not precious. No landscaping: lawns interrupted by rectangular plots of vegetables and flower beds and old roses gone to riot. I feel transported in time. This might be a small town far from Asheville, except, eventually, I round a bend in the road and see the city across the river.
Another thing I notice is Westwood curves like Haywood, even more so. It is rural lane more than city street. That is something to say about large parts of Asheville, which hold on to their rural, Appalachian character, if nothing else than in the sort of planning that went into the layout of streets and yards. The lawns here are huge, farm scale.
I turn right on Toxaway, the city before me, and the landscape drops steeply along a small lane with dogs, and I worry that they’ll run into the road and bite, but they’re on tethers and I am safe. Here is an old mobile home – a rare sight in Asheville but common in the county. This one is old and rusted and leaning, in the process of falling off its foundation. Someone has jerry built new foundations to catch the trailer before it falls. I want to take a photo but the door is open and though it is dark inside clearly someone is home, and I am afraid to turn their home into a spectacle.
Perhaps by making an exception of it (I’ve been taking pictures of homes all along the walk) I make it even more a spectacle. There is no winning with such judgments.
At the bottom of the hill Toxaway spills onto Mill Road and I turn right and then left onto Craven, across from the Asheville stockyards, and then cross the river.
Before crossing, however, I notice beside the old stockyards a semi-tractor trailer loaded with metal cattle stanchions of some sort and a driver adjusting the load. I’d read that the stockyards were no longer in business. But I can smell cattle, and I see the driver, who looks like a cowboy or a country-music singer, so I approach and ask. He tells me the stockyards have been closed for about five years.
“But a man down the road here leases the barn for his rodeo bulls.”
“Rodeo bulls?” I repeat.
“Yep. Rodeo bulls.”
“Are there many?”
“There’s a bunch of them in there.”
It’s dark and I can’t tell, but I can smell, and I see through the wooden fencing a couple of what look like Holstein calves, heads down, peering back through the slats at me.
That's why the driver looks like a cowboy. He hauls portable fences for rodeos.
The river district
Across the bridge I enter what the city calls the “River Arts District.” It used to be an area of warehouses and factories and tobacco barns (and the stockyard), but these are all either empty or much slowed or taken over by artist studios. Railroad tracks pass by behind the first row of brick and wood buildings.
I’m photographing the tracks when I see some colorful graffiti along an old embankment wall. I’ve had an interest in graffiti, if for no other reason than it represents a different sort of vision of the city than the Chamber of Commerce promotes. Then I see two young men actually making graffiti.
I’m nervous to approach – I’ve heard that graffiti artists are purists and like to be anonymous and secretive (which is curious as their tags advertise them). But it's broad daylight, the middle of afternoon, so I walk over and admire their artwork, ask if I can watch. They seem pleased. They do not stop. The conversation is punctuated by the whistle of spray paint cans.
I don’t pry. They ask what I think. I remark that I think it is art. The one declares that it is art. The other, clearly his friend, smiles and says he doesn’t like to use the word, because to him everything is art and calling it art is unnecessary. Perhaps pretentious. The latter is making a piece with only two colors, seeing what he can produce with that limitation. He also says that’s what his finances can afford. The other says he took the day off to paint. He is putting white accents on his piece, giving a realistic impression of light reflecting off something bright and new. They’re pleased to have a wall no one seems to want to defend against graffiti. I ask about graffiti on top of graffiti: there’s all sorts of tags effacing the mural-like work on the walls here. They shrug their shoulders and say it’s all part of the scene. The one who’d taken the day off work said that if graffiti artists like what you’ve done they’re slow to add their own marks, but even these marks can become part of the layering of painting on painting that seems to be the point.
I wonder whether graffiti artists ever think to paint streets, Pollack style. Let traffic add its own random layers.
It’s getting late so I pull myself away. They’re not that keen to talk with me and I don’t have any paint cans. It occurs to me it would be interesting to learn from them how to do it. I walk back to the road, take it up to West Haywood past an abandoned house, boarded up and painted over with gang tags and overgrown with sumac, and then up around newer structures, some of the gentrification happening on what still is called “Chicken Hill” (I suppose because its formerly rural residents kept chickens, or maybe they fought roosters – I don’t know). I turn right on Hilliard, which is now a straight city street, and head back to the bus station.
Looking back west across the river. Just to my left was a small group of people standing over a for sale sign. The likely new use of this lot will not be its historical use (which was not its use before that, and so on).
An abandoned house on West Haywood, where I'd turned to climb the hill in toward downtown.
New homes on what is still called "Chicken Hill."
The way straightens out along Hilliard Avenue downtown.
A view up into Aston Park, across from Carol's office.
I turned left onto Ashland Avenue to return to the bus station where I'd begun.