Ever Wonder How Asheville Got To Be So Cool?

When did Asheville’s renaissance begin?” We are often asked that question in the North Carolina Room. It is also the topic of a lot of published articles. Most responses turn straight to the 1990s. But native Ashevillians and those who lived here in the 1970s and 1980s usually see it differently.

Asheville in 1983 after the addition of the Akzona Building (Biltmore Co. Offices.) Reverse reads “Asheville, N.C. still retains its resort atmosphere while also offering the ability to furnish many big city conveniences.”  

In just a few weeks, Pack Memorial Library’s North Carolina Room will launch a new monthly series looking at exactly that question. Asheville In The 1980sA Formative Decade As Told By Those Who Shaped It will kick off on Wednesday, April 27, with a look at a critical moment in 1980 when we almost lost 11 acres of downtown Asheville to a huge shopping mall. The six-part series will look at the renaissance chartered by citizens, social activists, businesses, and artists during this time. The series runs April through September on the last Wednesday of the month from 6:00 to 7:30 pm.

“We hope to dispel the myth that Asheville was all boarded up,” says Julie Niwinski, Head of Adult Services at Pack.

Building at corner of College and N. Lexington. Photo by Rachel Stein circa 1980.

Far from being boarded up, at the beginning of that decade Asheville was rated by Rand McNally’s Places Rated Almanac in 1981 the number 1 place to live among 125 small metro areas (under 125,000 population) and number 41 among 277 metro areas of all sizes. The Places Rated authors David Savageau and Rick Boyer (who moved here a couple of years afterwards) stated that they based their ratings on “nine equally weighted standards—climate and terrain, housing, health care and environment, crime, transportation, education, recreation, culture and the arts, and economics.”

Southwest Pack Square in 1982. Photo by Alan Butterworth.

So what was going on here in the 1980s to rate so well? Each of the six programs in this series delves into that question from a different perspective, including the arts, business, architecture, downtown housing, social activism and civic engagement.

We’ll soon be publishing more details on each program, but for starters here are some comments from some of the program moderators and an overview of the whole series:

(April 27) Save Downtown Asheville & The Wrap: Moderators Wayne Caldwell, Peggy Gardner and Jan Schochet

Jan Schochet, Asheville native and proprietor of A Dancer’s Place on Patton Avenue that was next to her parents’ Star Bootery store, says, “Asheville has always, always had a vibrant art and cultural scene. The question that we faced was what to do when we lost the city’s center—when the big stores relocated to the malls.”

J.C. Penny’s was the last department store to leave downtown in 1989.

(May 25) Business and Restaurants: Moderator Rob Pulleyn

Rob Pulleyn, founder of Fiberarts Magazine in 1975 and, later, Lark Books, recalls, “Lower rents and sagging property values in the mid-seventies lured entrepreneurial and pioneering small businesses and made downtown the vibrant and viable place we now see around us.”

Wall Street from the corner of Battery Park Avenue intersection reveals the remodeled rear entrances of the buildings forming a boutique district. Photo by David Black, 1975.

(June 29) Social Activism and Social Agencies: Moderators Ann Von Brock and Ellen Clarke

Ann Von Brock, early director of Helpmate and later with United Way, participated in and watched social agencies grow out of social activism. “Asheville was on the cutting edge in so many ways,” she says. “We had a strong legal aid society, food bank, women’s services, an AIDS project, and more, supported by local businesses, city and county government, United Way funding and Community Foundation funding.”

Ellen Clark, former Executive Director of Western Carolinians for Criminal Justice, sees this part of Asheville’s history as “looking at the homegrown efforts that took off, and how they have influenced who Asheville is today.”

Haywood St during Asheville’s first Bele Chere celebration, 1979.

(July 27) The Arts: Performing, Visual, and Literary: Moderators Deborah Austin and Phyllis Lang

Deborah Austin, Director of the Arts Council in the 1980s, says, “The partnerships that were unique in the eighties were connected with the arts and outdoor celebrations. We had activity from the City, the Chamber of Commerce, The Arts Council, and Quality Forward.”

Hazel Robinson, director of the Montford Park Players, helping Bill Underwood with his costume. Photo by Mary Jo Brezny.

(August 31) New Housing and Old Buildings: Moderators Kevan Frazier and Erin Derham

Asheville native and historian Kevan Frazier believes that you can’t have a vibrant downtown without housing. “The conversion of abandoned office and warehouse space in the Central Business District during the eighties,” he says, “would come to be one of the key elements of Asheville’s Renaissance.”

Sixty Haywood renovation by Roger McGuire in 1987 creating residential and retail space. Photo by David Black.


(September 28) Politics & Civic Engagement: Moderators Leslie Anderson and Becky Anderson

Leslie Anderson, Asheville’s first director of Downtown Development, agrees about the effects of activism and sums it up like this: “Asheville today may be so prosperous and so vital because there is a history of something behind that, a history of activism and engagement that I think is a hallmark of our community and I believe is a key reason for our success.”

Peggy Gardner’s project to “wrap” in strips of cloth tied together, all of the buildings in an 11 block area that would have been demolished under the Strouse Greenberg & Co. downtown mall complex proposal. Two hundred people participated. Photo by Annie R. Martin, April 19, 1980.

Asheville in the 1980s:  A  Formative Decade Told by Those Who Shaped It
These programs are comprised of panelists and two moderators, all of whom were involved in their subject area in Asheville during this decade. Each program will also include guests in the front row to enlarge the stage and to help answer questions from the audience. These programs will be held on the last Wednesday of the month, 6:00—7:30 p.m. We hope to see you there!

April 27: Save Downtown Asheville & the Wrap
May 25: Businesses, Restaurants and Food Stores
June 29: Social Activism & Social Agencies
July 27: Arts, Theater & Music
August 31: Downtown Housing & the State of Buildings
September 28: Politics and Civic Engagement

 Post by Zoe Rhine Librarian, North Carolina Room.


  1. That’s a very interesting historical take on Asheville in the 1970’s and 1980’s, but the impression of someone from outside the city could be pretty grim in those years. I don’t recalll much that was attractive or “cool” about downtown in those years. There were a lot of boarded-up properties, the big retail stores had moved out to the mall, there were porn businesses downtown, etc. I would still assert that the real Asheville renaissance started circal 1990. This would make an interesting discussion… any other comments?

    1. That’s the purpose of this series, Michael. If you come to the programs, you will be surprised. As “someone from outside the city,” you just weren’t aware of all that was going on in those years. I invite you to be part of the reveal!

  2. Totally agree Michael. I was a police officer in the mid-eighties and trust me, there was nothing “cool” about all the abandoned shops and the “vibe” of downtown Asheville. The Grove Arcade had been abandoned for years, broken windows, plaster falling down everywhere, and pigeons roosting all in the place. After dark downtown was mostly prostitutes, drug dealers, and drunks. We’ve come a long way, and I’m thankful so all the people who worked tirelessly and graciously to improve the social issues of downtown. Of course, there’s a plethora of other things that have changed, but I’m most impressed by how far we’ve come to help those who are marginalized in our little town (and there’s still plenty of work needed). My hope is that as we continue to thrive we always make helping others a focus, because investing in people is more important than just brick and mortar.

    1. Gladys, thank you for your work in the police department, which I’m sure was, and still is, for those still in it, tireless. You will be especially interested, then, in the June 29 program in which the civic engagement and social agencies of the era will be addressed. Please come. Your comments at the program will be more than welcome. Thanks!

      PS. I was working in my parents business during that time, and though there were many businesses that abandoned downtown for the mall, there were many of us who stayed and who enjoyed downtown during the daytime very much (and still do). Of course the neighborhoods changed over the years in mind-boggling ways–who would have ever thought that Lexington Ave (former home of all the ladies of the night) would ever ever ever be named one of the top 5 greatest streets on The Greatest Places in America list ( http://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/2015/10/01/lexington-avenue-named-one-great-places-america/73146808/ )?

      1. I agree, it’s amazing how much Lexington Ave. has changed. My uncles’ store was T.S. Morrison & Co. (my father had to retire from the store earlier because of having MS). I wanted to work there, but, my uncles would not let me. I was told that “proper” young ladies did not work around that area of Lexington Ave. My uncle Tom sold the store around 1980.

  3. When I first came here for a women Firefighters convention in 1987 there wasn’t much to do in Asheville. I think the only restaurant open on a Sunday night was Red Lobster. I decided though to purchase land in Weaverville just as an investment. No one I met in New York or anywhere else had ever heard of Asheville. Within a few years I decided to build a vacation home. It was finished in 1991 and little by little my trips became longer & longer until we decided to move here permanently in 1993. We arrived a few days before my son took my daughter in law to Mission Hospital with labor pains. Two days later my first grandson was born & the Blizzard of ’93 hit. Since then we settled in quite nicely. Asheville began to blossom & all the boarded up businesses disappeared. All types of people moved into the area giving it lots of flavor. We gained various types of foods available in the stores, a large variety of restaurants and an influx of artists & crafts. Now when I say I live in WNC everyone asks if I am near Asheville.

  4. With all the improvements and in light of the clear vision obviously held in focus over the decades from then to now, how exactly did it happen that “cool” included putting 90% of the city’s African American residents into public housing? (2016 State of Black Asheville) I, for one, have grown tired of seeing this image touted, one consistently devoid of African American presence or participation.

    1. Meta, it’s important that you know that the decisions for those housing projects were made and created in the 1960s, when most of us reading this or attending the upcoming programs were either little children or we weren’t even born yet.

      There used to be a strong middle class black community in Asheville, when I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, but like many of Asheville’s natives there weren’t the jobs to support the kids when and IF they wanted to return in the 70s-90s. So they stayed in Charlotte, Atlanta, Raleigh or further afield where there was more financial and social opportunity. So yes, the majority of African Americans are in housing projects because the black middle class has dwindled in Asheville.

      Now, as to WHY the housing projects have remained, I’d say that’s an issue for many people in the city, county, state and national governments over the years to answer to, as they are passing (or not passing) policies and programs to help or not help this situation. Most work gets done by people being directly affected. There ARE some people on the local level trying to help within the communities (DeWayne Barton comes to mind) but it is a problem.

      “Cool,” in the sense of this series, addresses the dozens of media writers and thousands of tourists and newcomers who’ve arrived as a result of the media writers. Of course it’s not cool for everyone. Plenty of locals say they either don’t go downtown (usually because there are too many tourists) or there are too many expensive restaurants for them to be able to afford to rush there.

      As a last word, I’ll say that there are probably many people within the African American community who are doing things that I (and most others in the non-African American community) don’t know about.

      For sure, we could do a much better job of sharing and exchanging what’s going on in each others’ communities.

  5. Dear Meta, thank you for your comment. Pertaining to this series of programs each moderator has worked diligently to include the local Black community as panelists and as guest panelists. The North Carolina Room is putting on these programs. Our work is to collect, preserve and make Asheville’s history available. Over the last ten years we have worked hard to gather photos and stories of the Shiloh, Southside, East End/Riverside, Stumptown and Valley Street area neighborhoods. Much has happened in Asheville’s history that many, including myself, wish might never have happened. such as most of the Redevelopment Renewal projects this city took on. But our job as librarians is to document what has happened and what is happening. We are thankful for your comment that is now part of this conversation, and for how it enlarges our, and the community’s view. We hope you will continue to comment, and also hope you will come to the programs. Zoe Rhine, Librarian

  6. Love seeing this! I came to town in 1979 for a radio job and knew the area since I had kin here. They were in Yancey county and we’d ride into the city for shopping. When I moved here the town was blighted and parts to be torn down, but the Asheville “1000” came to the rescue and helped it become the vibrant place it is today.

    I seem to remember Bele Chere being on just one or two streets back then with very local entertainment.

    There were such good times as we burst through the 80’s and beyond. So many creative opportunities too and in such a relatively small space. I do miss those days.

  7. To me, the tipping point for Asheville’s cultural transformation took place in 1980 when after losing a beautiful historic block on Patton Avenue, talented young folks, many who had migrated here during the late seventies said “enough is enough.” The photo of the human chain and white banner around the eleven blocks slated for demolition is the iconic symbol of this tipping point.

    I moved to Asheville in 1974. During the late seventies young talent was starting to gather here and from that community of talent, a folk music coffee house was formed, the Asheville Junction, a food co-op, the French Broad Trading Co. and a farm-to-table natural foods kitchen, the Stone Soup.

    A decade later, 1990 was the tipping point of economic viability and growth in the downtown business community. Spurred by the cultural growth that began a decade earlier, places like Barley’s would open, fill up with people and spur more restaurants downtown as well as a fledgling craft beer industry.

    The tipping point of each decade would accelerate other transformations and gains to where Asheville can enjoy the renaissance that is underway.

    How long has Asheville a been cool place? I say definitely since the late seventies.

  8. Was a newly independent young person here in the 70’s and 80’s supporting myself in artistic endeavor and very much in the “scene” as it was amongst those of us in “The Asheville Sub 1000”. Dancers, potters, musicians, woodworkers, and other artistic works, teachers, hospital workers, some of us working(squatting) in the RAD way before it was the RAD (thank you, Patti). And our parties indoors or out ~ year-round! The parties! We framed in the rough terrain that became what is so cool now. As Paul McCartney sings: “They can’t take it from me… i lived those early days.” Victoria the Dressmaker

  9. I grew up in Asheville (AsheVegas to us!) in the 70s-80s, and there was definitely a very lively scene downtown, IF you knew where to look, and who to look for! I have many pix from those days: Punks, drag queens, goths, artists, skaters, quite a range of alternative types enjoyed the character of Asheville’s urban landscape. Pattiey (sp?) Torno was a major influence, especially with her radio show, and great loft parties. Without a doubt my life was sent on it’s current art/design trajectory as a result of those days!

    1. Thanks for your note. That’s the Asheville we are telling about in this series of programs. Wondering if you would be interested in sharing any of your photos that you describe here. With your permission we would scan them (assuming you want to keep the originals) and add them to our photo collection. Some of the moderators for the next 3 programs–especially the next one July 27th on the arts–might want to use some of them in their program. You can email us at packnc@buncombecounty.org
      Zoe Rhine

      1. Zoe ~ I have plenty of photos but they are all of us when we were young ~ and a lot of that was in costumes! Do you want landmarks or people? Glad to help,
        Victoria Mobberly

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