Thursday, May 29, 2008

Dog Walks

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.
City-Forest Walk

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

North Asheville Walk

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Religious differences
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.

Bus ridership
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.

Beaver Lake
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.

West Asheville Walk

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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.

The neighborhood

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.

Into town
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.