1980’s Asheville: In Those Days There Were Lots of Issues To Care About–As Is Still True Today

Just about everything I know about social activism and social agencies in Asheville during the 1980s I learned in the last six months from Ann Von Brock and Ellen Clarke while we met to plan the series ”Asheville in the 1980s: A Formative Decade Told By Those Who Shaped It.”

Ann Von Brock and Ellen Clarke will be moderating the fourth program in the series, “Social Activism & Social Agencies” Wednesday June 29, 6:00 pm-7:30 pm, Pack Memorial Library, Lord Auditorium, lower level.

Ann and Ellen will be joined by social activists from a variety of issues: Jim Barrett, Gaylen Ehrlichman, Jeff Fobes, John Hayes and Deborah Miles. The focus of the program will be on social issues pertaining to personal, family, justice and the environment.


Ann moved to Asheville in 1978 and quickly connected with others her age by volunteering. Most of the people she met had also relocated here from places like Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro, as well as the Northeast and Midwest. “They were college-educated, socially conscious, and seeking to establish roots in a small community where they could enjoy the physical resources, develop their craft or profession, and get involved in community decisions. (Many of the very same reasons people move here today.) There were also young people who had grown up here and returned after college – seeking the same things but with much more history and grounding than newcomers.”

“Many of us met in Gatsby’s for Friday happy hour, built up our network, hosted open dance parties at each other’s ‘under serious renovation’ homes, and shared our thoughts about Asheville. We came together on issues we were passionate about and in those days there were lots of issues to care about – as is still true today.”

Gatsby's Bar and Restaurant, 1980. Currently Scully's Bar & Grille. MS233.003B photo 11
Gatsby’s Bar and Restaurant, 1980. Currently Scully’s Bar & Grille. MS233.003B photo 11

“The group I got to know here wanted to live a life of purpose and they generally believed in the power of collective action. They built up the social capital in Asheville – realizing that a group with a vision can accomplish more than any of us could do alone. And because of Asheville’s size, it somehow seemed possible – do-able!”  Asheville’s population in 1980 was 53, 583 and the 2014 population estimate is 87,8882.

Ellen Clarke said that “we weren’t resource rich and we wore many hats because we were a small community, and there was a lot of resistance and we banned together.”


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Ann and Ellen both feel that a particular challenge when sharing history is who is named. “There is a tendency to pick one or two key people and attach the events to them. The reality is that most of the time a group of people were responsible and many of them go unnamed.  The success of social actions in Asheville as well as the success of a revitalized downtown is due to a very large group of people – who took on issues that met resistance and who were willing to go downtown and support the businesses that were open.  We were all dedicated Customers and came out to support local downtown efforts as they expanded.”




Ann says that “Asheville was often ahead of other communities in North Caroline in many ways– having a strong legal aid society, a food bank, sexual assault programs, an aids project. And all were supported by establishments, city or county government, United Way funding, Community Foundation funding. Other communities weren’t there yet, in terms of accepting those cutting edge issues. We weren’t always just following what was happening, we were in the forefront.”

social5-5 transparencyEllen likes to recall all the homegrown efforts that took off, and how they are influencing who Asheville is today. “Some business owners and downtown churches offered basement space for our early offices. Many of the downtown church members were also members or volunteers in the early organizations.”

Looking back on her career, Ann thinks that, “It is fair to say we didn’t always know what we were doing – how to run a corporation and how to work with a political system or a bureaucracy – so there were missteps along the way and some efforts failed.  Some organizations have since merged, some are now run through the city, county or state, and some reached the natural end of their lifespan.  What has been interesting is to observe the evolving sophistication of nonprofits.  It has been a wonderful progression in most cases. But there is still more to be tackled!”


Ann Von Brock initially volunteered with Rape Crisis and was the director of Helpmate from 1982-1986. She worked with the YWCA and then served as Special Projects Manager with United Way until retiring.

Ellen Clarke came to Asheville in 1975 and became co-director of a then new program sponsored by ABCCM to bring adult education opportunities to inmates in jail. She was the founder of Women at Risk and was the Executive Director at Western Carolinians for Criminal Justice before retiring.

Post by Zoe Rhine, NC Room Librarian


Asheville in the 1980s:  A  Formative Decade Told by Those Who Shaped It

Pack Memorial Library, Lord Auditorium, lower level

All programs are from 6:00pm to 7:30 pm

Programs are free and open to the public

Wednesday June 29: Social Activism & Social Agencies. Moderators: Ann Von Brock and Ellen Clarke

Wednesday July 27: Arts, Theater & Music. Moderators: Deborah Austin and Phyllis Lang

Wednesday August 31: Downtown Housing & the State of Buildings. Moderators: Kevan Frazier and Erin Derham

Wednesday September 28: Politics and Civic Engagement. Moderators: Leslie Anderson and Becky Anderson

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