Just below the surface of west Asheville's worn exterior lies a rich vein of history that a group of determined community leaders wants to revive.
Stroll down Haywood Road and you'll see turn-of-the-century architecture, like the whimsical white arches and big white circles set in red brick at the old west Asheville fire station (which now houses A Touch of Glass). Next door, bricked archways once led to one of the three old-fashioned theaters that graced the neighborhood, years ago. The sidewalk in front of one still boasts its black-and-white tile, now strewn with dust and dirt and fallen leaves.
Asheville Council member Tommy Sellers once lived a few doors down, on the second floor over a row of thriving businesses. His mother still putters around at Sellers Coin and Stamp Shop, but the old apartments -- like the upper floors of many buildings on Haywood Road -- now stand vacant. And one of those old storefronts is now the West Asheville Resource Center -- the first such community center in Asheville and a statewide model for giving residents a convenient place to talk with police and obtain city-related information.
Stroll on down the road, and you'll pass more churches than you'll find on just about any other thoroughfare in North Carolina -- or so radio commentator Paul Harvey pointed out last year, in a national broadcast -- Sellers tells me one morning, as we walk the neighborhood. Many of those sanctuaries, with their massive Romanesque columns, were built in the early 1920s -- not long after west Asheville residents relinquished their township status, voting to become part of the big city across the river.
Continuing his trip down memory lane, Sellers points out an old-time barber shop. "I had my first real, paying job [there], shining shoes for $1 a day," he recalls.
West Asheville, says Sellers, was an old working-class community, the place where men like his father -- who worked in the cabinet business in the 1940s -- brought their families to live and shop and go to school. Many residents worked at the old American Enka plant in Candler (now BASF), Sellers notes. He sighs, remembering the community's thriving grocery stores, cafes, locally owned drugstores and shops -- most of them now gone, overtaken by the big chains, or replaced by other small businesses catering to west Asheville's changing demographics. The old Mays Market -- known for its meats and local sausage -- has become a Hispanic grocery.
"I guess you can't go back," murmurs Sellers, adding, "Things change."
A lot of those old storefronts now stand empty. But Sellers feels there's real potential here, and he wants to see it revived. Several years ago, as a rookie City Council member, he urged the city to sponsor a Christmas-decoration project for Haywood Road and the West Asheville Resource Center. This year, he pushed for a Haywood Road Corridor Plan -- a small-area study, driven by residents, business owners, church leaders and city staff. "Let's do what downtown has done in its revitalization," urges Sellers.
Richard Nantelle, president of the West Asheville Business Association, is one of a core group supporting the corridor plan. West Asheville's venerable commercial hub, he says, could be revamped: the metal facades removed, to highlight the 1920s architecture; the sidewalks repaired, landscaped and set with benches; on- and off-street parking better marked; the lanes down Haywood made more consistent; and old upstairs apartments brought up to city code, to help meet Asheville's housing shortage.
"It's all coming together at the same time," he says, strolling down the busy street on a breezy December day. Earlier this year, west Ashevilleans dedicated a granite marker, denoting the days when the city trolley labored up the hill from Clingman Avenue to Haywood, carrying passengers all the way to Brevard Road. In November, the West Asheville Branch Library kicked off a pilot project to gather and preserve the community's oral, photographic and written history. And city staff recently began drafting the corridor plan, after soliciting input from people like Nantelle and Sellers.
There's even a little controversy mixed in -- namely, residents' concerns about Interstate 26 being routed through west Asheville, along the existing I-240 corridor -- "Just to add fuel to the fire," jokes Nantelle, adding, "But that's good."
This latest revitalization effort picks up where the last one left off in 1995, when, Nantelle speculates, the last push languished after the resignation of then-Community Development Director Leslie Anderson -- who had tried to spark a downtown-like revival in west Asheville -- and in the face of a seeming lack of community interest. The new drive focuses on three major concerns:
• Recover, record and restore west Asheville's past. "This was once a thriving business district -- far more than it is now," says Nantelle. "Residents didn't have to go [down]town for anything."
• Preserve what's good about west Asheville, and restructure what residents and business owners don't want -- like working out a way to get half-repaired cars off the street and old appliances off public sidewalks, while being sensitive to the needs of local business owners.
• Plan ahead to accommodate future needs, such as working with the North Carolina Department of Transportation to minimize the I-26 project's disruptive impact on the community.
"These seem like separate concerns, but they're dependent on one another," Nantelle observes. "Our success in this venture depends on whether we can accommodate these three priorities." He reflects a moment on the challenge of reviving the momentum lost after 1995, noting a decline in public participation after the initial corridor-plan meeting last fall. Says Nantelle, "It takes time to rustle up the support. For a person who's always been as impatient as I am, working on this project has caused me to grow some patience."
Luckily for Nantelle, though, things do seem to be coming together.
"The timing just seemed right," says west Asheville Librarian Millie Jones about the history project. Jones, who has lived in the community for at least 40 years, attended an oral-history conference in Lenoir this past May, accompanied by fellow Librarian Karen Loughmiller. There, they learned, Jones says, that "whatever you gather is something that's not lost."
Inspired, the two returned to Asheville, determined to implement a west Asheville history project geared toward recording oral histories from the community's elderly residents, such as 91-year-old Glen Starnes. His father, who was in the real-estate business, settled in west Asheville in the late 1800s, building one of the first houses along Haywood Road. It burned down in the 1940s, and the lot is now the site of the American Legion office, notes Jones. And Starnes tells of Haywood's days as a dirt road, when heavy rains would wash out the thoroughfare in front of Calvary Baptist, making a hole so deep, folks erected a "no fishing" sign.
Starnes recalls "wild trolley rides," when you had to have a strong constitution to put up with the incessant rocking back and forth during the trip to town. And a neighbor down the road used to have his little boy lead the family cattle through west Asheville each morning, en route to pasture, Loughmiller relates.
"The library has -- and has to have -- an interest in the history," says Jones, arguing that libraries make logical repositories for historical documents and information. What's more, those residents who still remember the turn of the century are now dying off. Just this fall, she points out, the WABA lost its longtime secretary, Bonnie Hickey, who had compiled an extensive history scrapbook.
And, adds Special Collections Librarian Ann Wright, until now, most of the library system's history files have focused on Asheville, not its outlying communities. "Our information has been based on Asheville newspaper articles, and they're all about Asheville."
But since the project kickoff in early November, information has been streaming in. Like children excited about a new toy, the women pore over a small pile of recently donated clippings and pictures documenting former west Asheville schools, such as Hall Fletcher High School and Junior High -- and an old, sepia-toned photo of Aycock School's former building. "This is the first photo we've had of that," says Special Collections Librarian Zoe Rhine, sifting through pictures of smiling Fletcher High cheerleaders and a group of helmeted football players wearing their tough-guy game faces.
"One thing that has surprised us is the scope of material we've received since starting the project," says Loughmiller. One west Asheville resident brought to the library "some old stuff" he had bought at an auction. The collection includes letters from a son to a mother during World War II.
"He was trying to figure out how to keep the family house," notes Rhine. In another series of letters, a father warns his daughter about a polio epidemic in west Asheville.
This year, project volunteers will begin actively seeking more oral histories like Mr. Starnes', to complement what librarians pull together from donated letters, pictures and old newspaper clippings, Jones explains. One of her neighbors has already brought in a collection of Brucemont Circle yearbooks -- handmade and hand-decorated mementos of one venerable west Asheville neighborhood. "We're hoping that these collections and the oral histories will illuminate the 20th century in west Asheville," says Jones.
From the past to the new millennium
That rich history may be fascinating, but what's it have to do with west Asheville's future?
Pride in the community, Sellers maintains. At the first corridor meeting, he heard from a young woman -- recently moved to west Asheville -- who had already heard it termed "worst Asheville." Sellers recounts, "I heard that, too, when I was growing up. The river has divided west Asheville from Asheville, and it still does."
He'd like to see that wrong-side-of-the-river label washed away for good.
Sellers mentions a loan program, available through the Preservation Society of Asheville-Buncombe, offering low-interest loans to help property owners restore the facades and other features of their west Asheville buildings, he explains. But, though instituted several years ago, the program has sparked little interest in the business community. Speaking of some longtime, old-fashioned west Asheville business owners, Sellers comments, "How do you go and approach someone to fix up their place? You've got to be sensitive."
But getting the facade program going could give Haywood Road the facelift it needs -- and make the corridor as attractive to visitors, residents and businesses as other revitalized main streets in western North Carolina, such as those in Waynesville and Hendersonville, Sellers insists.
"It needs a pilot project -- someone willing to step forward and try it," Nantelle observes. Recognizing that the burden of paying for such improvements falls on the property owners, he continues, "It's going to be a slow go, but once a few take it on, others will follow suit. We have a lot of old-timers in business still, but nostalgia will catch up with them."
A few small steps already in the works may also help trigger bigger things. Nantelle expects benches to be installed along the sidewalks on Haywood Road sometime this year. And City Council has recently approved its new parking plan for downtown, Biltmore Village and Haywood Road. It calls for staff to work with the North Carolina Department of Transportation on restriping Haywood (to make lanes more consistent), improving parking and pedestrian access along the corridor, and cracking down on illegal parking.
Says Council member Earl Cobb, who has lived in west Asheville since 1954 (except for a three-year stint in Atlanta), "If we had better parking here, businesses could really thrive." The recently completed parking study, he mentions, reported that much of Haywood Road's on-street parking is not marked. And some spots -- along blind curves -- may actually pose a hazard to drivers on the busy thoroughfare.
Available off-street parking must also be better marked, so visitors and customers can find it, Cobb continues. "We've been promising west Asheville such stuff for years. They feel like they're the last ones to get anything from the city," says Cobb, pointing out that 60 percent of the registered voters in Asheville live on his side of the river -- even though many of them don't vote.
The number-one thing they want, according to the results of a fall community meeting led by city Planning staff, is a "strong pedestrian emphasis [on Haywood], with crosswalks, benches, bike racks [and] green areas," says City Planner Carl Ownbey. Nearly 100 people participated in the first two meetings held on the corridor plan. Other top priorities include shedding west Asheville's junkyard image, preventing the widening of Haywood, encouraging small businesses that meet residents' needs, and relocating I-26.
"We downplayed the I-26 issue a bit, because it doesn't directly affect the entire corridor," says Ownbey. "From my perspective, the traffic flow and pedestrian activity is maybe the primary thing, along with better streetscaping and landscaping."
Like Nantelle, however, he'd like to see more interest and participation in moving the proposed improvements along. Since the first few community meetings, attendance has fallen off, and Ownbey says he's not getting many phone calls on it. "But maybe that's a good thing," he adds with a laugh: Ownbey is involved with another, more thorny issue -- the Trinity Baptist controversy -- and a fellow staff member was responsible for shepherding the hotly contested Charlotte Street Corridor Plan through to completion, Ownbey notes.
In any case, he has started drafting the plan, which he hopes to present to the Planning and Zoning Commission next March, and then to City Council in April.
But to bring new life to this historic community, says Nantelle, "People are going to have to do it for themselves." Revitalizing west Asheville in general, and the Haywood Road corridor in particular, he insists, "is really dependent on the people." Publicly owned green space, for instance, is limited along the busy road, so property owners will have to be the ones to step up and do something. It's the same with off-street parking: Many of Haywood's churches have managed to meet their needs by buying adjacent, vacant residential properties and building parking lots.
Nantelle adds that nonprofit groups have also offered to help: Quality Forward volunteers are willing to install decorative planters along the street, just as they have downtown.
Reflecting on Asheville's success in revitalizing downtown and Biltmore Village, Sellers concludes, "We're reaching for the stars. But that's OK -- we've done it before."
For more information about the Haywood Road Corridor Plan, call Carl Ownbey at 259-5830.