A firsthand look at the unique ‘rural city’ at the foot of the Southern Appalachian Mountains.
Last week, we began a month-long expedition across eight cities in the US and Canada in search of inspiration in the way people live, work, play, and connect with one another. Over the course of our journey, we’ll be sharing dispatches from the road here -‘snapshots‘ of the inspiring people, businesses, and ideas we come across in some of North America’s most unique, and uniquely livable, burgs.
Our first stop: Asheville, North Carolina, a smallish city of roughly 69,000 residents, situated two hours northwest of Charlotte at the foot of the Southern Appalachian Mountains.
Asheville belongs to a short list of liberal outposts that dot the largely conservative South. Its openness to alternative lifestyles, politics, and subcultures has earned it a reputation as being one of the most progressive cities in the United States (PETA voted it the most vegetarian-friendly small city in America, and Rolling Stonechristened it ‘the new freak capital of the United States’ a few years back). Its all-embracing attitude and focus on community support, along with its picturesque environs, are also what make it one of the “happiest places in the United States,” according to some.
Asheville isn’t perfect – unemployment rates are still relatively high, and the city’s demographic diversity is lacking – but nearly everyone we encountered vouched for Asheville’s unique livability. “We call it a ‘rural city,'” explained Dana, a second-year student at UNC Asheville. “It’s a haven for independent thinkers, weirdos… but in the middle of this natural paradise. I don’t think you can find that anywhere else. [It's] the best of both worlds.”
Some Inspiration from Asheville:
Early Girl Eatery: Julie Stehling (above) and her husband John opened their restaurant Early Girl Eatery nine years ago with the intention of bringing quality, homecooked-style southern food to Asheville while supporting local farms and food purveyors. A large chalkboard propped up behind the register at the Early Girl displays the list of 20+ CSAs, family farms, and other local businesses that provide the ingredients for the restaurant’s offerings. Though the Early Girl has become a go-to spot in Asheville for locals and tourists alike, the restaurant has managed to stay true to its “made from scratch” motto (John’s parents still prepare all the baked goods for sale) while continually supporting and strengthening the local food community.
Harvest Records: Matt Schnable and Mark Capon (above) opened Harvest Records six years ago with the hopes of bringing more to Asheville than just an independent music store: “Our goal from the get-go was to not just sell records… We wanted to create a culture around music, not just sell [it].” Mark, a Florida-transplant, had considered a couple of other cities for the venture, but Asheville – and its people – seemed like an ideal fit: “It’s not a tiny town, but it’s not a big overwhelming sort of city, and all the negative things that can come with that. It seemed like we could just fit right in… It’s a really friendly place. When you first come here, it’s kind of amazing how warm and open people are, non-judgemental. People do what they want here, so it seemed like a perfect place to slide in.”
Asheville has long been known to nurture an eclectic mix of music subcultures (from punk to bluegrass), but Harvest’s arrival in West Asheville invigorated the local music scene while spurring development in its once largely-neglected neighborhood. Since founding Harvst, Mark and Matt have helped bring a wide range of top-name acts to town and produced several records under their label, Harvest Recordings.
The “Buy Local” ethos is a brand of its own in Asheville. This poster (top image) can be seen in most of the windows along the shops of Lexington Avenue, one of the city’s main drags. We also came across the signage on t-shirts, bags, and other accessories being sold in stores around town. One local boutique owner explained to us that the sentiment had “always been part of [our] culture, but now we’re trying to spread the message.”
Build it Naturally in downtown Asheville features a wide range of eco-friendly, non-toxic, recycled and renewable building and interior design products and materials. It is located right next to the French Broad Food Co-op, which hosts farmers’ tailgate markets every week in its parking lot.
Asheville Contradance: Every Monday night, hundreds of Asheville locals (from teens to seniors) crowd West Asheville’s big, scrappy Grey Eagle Tavern and Music Hall to contradance – a hybrid form of partnered dancing that combines elements of square-dancing and old English country dancing. The contradancers we encountered ranged from next gen hippies to mountain dwellers to everyday folks (like us) looking to experience something uniquely new & old-fashioned. Fiddle and banjo players usually provide the music, with a caller announcing the sequence of steps in real-time.
Stay tuned for our next Snapshot on the Road dispatch from Toronto, Canada, coming soon…