In 2005 I was poor, but had some skills and a willingness to work. There were friends in Asheville who had helped me survive the years before, and it seemed like the city held some promise.
It worked (with a ton of luck). I'm in a profession I love and while times are still occasionally tight, they're a sight better than the days when my roommates and I had to decide between food and bills, all while pondering if we could possibly fit another person into a spare room (and if we should tell the landlord).
I learned a truth, past the "happiest place in America" crud: Asheville will give you a shot to realize your dreams, but try its damndest to kick your ass first. Then it will come back for the occasional rematch. This city is much harsher than it looks.
And it's my home all the same.
We have more going for us than I think we realize. There is, of course, the amazing food, drink, natural beauty, and historical architecture. Asheville's downtown has gone from nigh-abandoned to thriving in two decades, a revival that "miraculous" isn't too grandiose a word for. We have an amount of creativity across broad sectors of the population here that continues to pleasantly surprise.
Asheville is in the middle of an evolving network of cities stretching from Cincinnati to Charlotte. There's opportunity to create a city that's influential not just regionally but internationally.
Here I've seen crowds burst into perfect renditions of "Redemption Songs" and musicians play two-hour encores because they just couldn't bear to stop. I've seen derelict buildings turn into homes and businesses. In the face of steep odds, I've witnessed Ashevilleans muster amazing ingenuity.
I love the feeling, from the day I moved here to the present, that there is the freedom to live my personal life the way I see fit, without owing anyone a damn explanation.
Then there's the other side.
Asheville still faces grinding poverty, a brutal housing shortage, lingering segregation, lack of organization and political apathy, just to name a few. Culturally, this is all too often met with an aversion to honest criticism and the full-throated embrace of hype.
There is the insular nature of many of the city's subcultures, a snobbery that there is "THE community" with others frauds to the one true Asheville over which they (whatever the particular splinter) hold a monopoly.
As if that wasn't enough, that crew of flaws is presided over, all too often, by the sense of "Asheville nice" that insists on passive-aggressive sniping over insignificant issues and near-silence on the ones that matter.
The divide is frequently stark enough that people moving here or trying to work their way up are regarded (often by those who did the exact same thing earlier) as intruding scum instead of the potential future of the city.
A friend once remarked: "you know you've found a home when you have an equal list of things to love and hate." True.
Let's start by welcoming the fact that people arrive here from elsewhere. If someone's coming to Asheville with tenacity and good will, I hope for their success. We need all the talent and different perspectives we can muster. Cities only work if the array of cultures within accept that despite drastically different lifestyles they all have a legitimate claim to their home.
While we have our own evolving culture — a powerful hybrid of Southern hospitality and mountain determination combined with influences from all over — it isn't set in stone. Yet.
I'm not sure we appreciate what a gift that is. Asheville has a future where every citizen has the opportunity to fight the problems we face and turn a good city into a truly great one. Don't like something about the city? Work to change it. So many things — from culture to physical surroundings — are still mutable here in a way they aren't elsewhere, and our evolution has some mighty roots to draw from.
We are not Paris. We are not Portland. We are not San Francisco or Charlotte or Atlanta or a thousand other places. We don't have to be, and I look forward to the day when Asheville isn't referred to as “The [insert larger city here] of the South/Mountains.” We are Asheville. Full stop.
We can learn from others' mistakes and successes. We can do better.
At its core, that's what gives me hope: Asheville hasn't lost the sense of possibility that is its most powerful strength. Here, anything can happen.
In the end, Asheville is home, and there's no place I'd rather be.
Photo by Bill Rhodes