Outside downtown, many parts of Asheville today give little hint of the past. In these areas, new development has transformed the urban landscape almost beyond recognition, leaving barely a trace of the landscape, the farms, the neighborhoods that have been displaced.
But Asheville City Transit Route 9 provides a window into what's been lost and gained; in less than hour, it traverses a variegated slice of old and new Asheville. From the Asheville Transit Center, the bus first heads west across the French Broad River and on to Regent Park, a shopping center adjacent to Westgate. The Patton Avenue commercial strip is thick with discount stores, fast-food outlets and assorted stores. At this point, there are only two people on board (it's the 12:30 p.m. trip -- one of the less popular ones, says the driver). The morning and late-afternoon runs are busier, he reports.
A little farther down Patton Avenue, we turn onto Florida, proceeding through a neighborhood of little old mostly brick homes. The route follows Dorchester (a shortcut to Brevard Road, or 191) and then we hit Haywood Road, the lifeline of the West Asheville renaissance. But after a brief stop at Ingles (where many bus riders come to shop -- including, apparently, my two fellow passengers), we turn off down Brevard Road (itself a symbol of the past -- these days, who would choose this route to Brevard?).
Soon we reach the Farmer's Market, deserted at this time of year. Finding no riders, we continue on to the Biltmore Square Mall, a sprawling retail complex hemmed in by highways. How many people even realize the bus stops there? Although there is a small sign (just outside the movie theater) announcing that fact, there is no posted schedule. The driver, however, says more signs would just confuse the public, and people would ask him for directions more often.
The mall stop marks the terminus of the route, and the bus now begins its return journey, heading back to Asheville. Spotting a frequent passenger, the driver stops to pick up Andrew Cooper, a 23-year-old man with a shaved head. Cooper, dressed in a hooded shirt, green pants and running shoes, says his car was totaled in a recent traffic accident, so he now relies on the bus to get wherever he needs to go.
"I used to just hop in my car and go somewhere," he says plaintively. "Now it's hop in the bus and go somewhere. Sometimes I look for a second job. Sometimes I just get on to go."
Today, Cooper, who works at Abercrombie & Fitch at the Asheville Mall, is headed downtown to talk to a counselor at Joblink, a cooperative county/state job-search service in Asheville. Cooper said he likes his current job, but he's hoping to find better-paying work on an assembly line.
When we get to the West Asheville Ingles, five more people get on. Several regulars greet the driver -- he said he quickly gets to know them -- and the conversation turns to an impending snowstorm and the long lines it produces at the grocery store. On the way back downtown, the bus again traverses a slice of the old Haywood Road, passing gas stations, check-cashing places and automotive-repair shops. Outside a thrift store, five more folks board the bus; a few blocks later, a Latina woman and a man who appears to be her father (he's just finished doing his laundry) get off in front of a pest-control business.
Then the urban landscape intensifies as downtown Asheville once again rises before our eyes. Buses, and bus routes, are valuable because they link the commercial world of grocery stores and shopping centers to the life of the streets. And bus route No. 9 gives us something more -- a sense of this city as a living, changing entity.
Route No. 9 - Brevard Road/Biltmore Square Mall
Monday through Saturday, the first bus departs the Asheville Transit Center at 7:30 a.m. It reaches Regent Park at 7:35, Florida Avenue at 7:40, and Haywood Road at 7:45. The route continues down Brevard Road, reaching the Farmer's Market at 7:52 and Biltmore Square at 8 a.m. The return ride reaches the Farmer's Market at 8:10, the Hanover Center on Haywood at 8:15, Clingman (Patton School) at 8:22 and the Transit Center at 8:26. The pattern repeats every hour, with the last ride of the afternoon pulling into the Transit Center at 6:26 p.m.