Back in the 1970s, the concrete-block planter in front of the Rockola Motel was filled with clumps of creeping phlox. We would drive past the spring display when my family came into West Asheville on Saturday mornings, headed for French's and the library. Sometimes I would ride into town on the Starnes Cove jitney -- a rattley old bus that let us off near the top of Lexington Avenue, so we could visit Morehead's Feed and Seed. The bus went past the Rockola, too, and people in the seats in front and in back of us would comment on the flowers.
What they didn't know is that the starters for those plants had come from the bank in front of our home in west Buncombe, planted there by the previous occupants. Some of my mother's cousins owned the Rockola back in the days when it was a sweet little guest motel with a view of the mountains, and they had pulled up some starts to plant out front.
I drove past the Rockola a few days ago, and the old motel is mostly gone now. The planter hasn't had any phlox in it for years, and it's a long time since my cousins owned the place. Things change, you know; you have to get with the times -- at least that's what I'm told. So it's perhaps not surprising that the arrival of a new year got me thinking, as change and new years often do.
Until recently, my life had frequently intersected with Patton Avenue. You see, that's where my primary grocery store was, and I'd take the back way through Emma and arrive there in a matter of minutes. We spent lots of time and money at that store, so we were surprised to get a card a few months ago informing us that it was closing the next day: the next day. After patronizing this store for decades, the best they could give us was 24 hours' notice. The staff, we learned, had had little more warning, and we all commiserated about the shake-up's coming so close to the holidays. We were advised that we could take our business to one of their other outlets, both of which are farther away.
With gas being scarce and appropriately expensive, I began patronizing a different store that's nearer where I work in north Asheville. I figured I could do double duty on the trip north, saving gas and maybe even some time. It was never my favorite store, but it had what we needed most of the time. No hummus, however -- another lesson, I reckoned, in the need to either make my own or get it at the Co-op.
A few weeks later, though, that store closed as well, a victim of the tony mountain development that towers over the shopping center. Maybe it wasn't posh enough for the folks with the fine view shed. Or perhaps the overlords have plans for a gorgeous new grocery store, one that carries hummus.
The paper-and-party-gear store on Leicester Highway always had the best selection of seasonal papers as well as any color hot-and-cold cup you wanted. The staff was always helpful and sometimes funny. That place, too, closed in December, yet another victim of the ragged economic outlook and the all-important bottom line.
But while the closings are annoying (and, I confess, sad), it's the destruction of the tatty old buildings that's the worst. How easily and even gleefully we raze these funky structures -- the very buildings that give Asheville its quirky charm. Yes, I'm sentimental because I grew up with them, but I'm also frustrated by the waste and lack of foresight. Because in 10 years, we'll look at pictures of these places and lament the homogenization of small-town America.
Even now, we page through books about historic Asheville and reminisce about Buck's and the north block of Pack Square. I'm sad about what's been lost in this little town -- the Imperial Theater and the Back Alley Boutique, Morehead's Feed and Seed and the old Opera House. What is dispensable in a town's history? And how do we balance that history with the needs of a growing town?
But I remain hopeful, too, in spite of myself. Even when the Hayes & Hopson Building meets the Rockola's fate, Asheville will carry on. The little town changes, its weird old structures replaced with weird new ones. From the ankle-deep mud of the original South Main Street to the vision of The Ellington to the never-quite-right public square, Asheville's cranky, pompous character endures.
Thomas Wolfe would be proud. I think.
Bookseller, Pagan advocate, gardener and amateur historian H. Byron Ballard lives with her family in Asheville's historic West End.