Search this site:

The Commonspace

Feb 2004 / elsewhere :: email this story to a friend

North Carolina Highlands
By Jim Roberts

Welcome to the modern home of the real Cold Mountain, in western North Carolina. Yes, the real Cold Mountain is about a half an hour from my new home in Asheville, North Carolina. Asheville is a modern city, but with a preserved history.

After living in Charlotte for six years, I jumped at the opportunity in November of 2002 to move to an authentic town to become the Executive Director of the Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council. Asheville has an international reputation thanks to our many tourist destinations such as the Biltmore Estate, the Grove Park Inn Resort and Spa and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Asheville was a place that Rachael, my better half, and I would retreat to on weekends. Just like most people who visit this place, we said, "I would love to live here one day, if we could find a career opportunity." Ironically, now that is my job — to help create opportunities for entrepreneurs to start and grow their companies as a way to help balance our economy, traditionally based on tourism, healthcare and manufacturing.

According to Rachael, Asheville is much like her well-known hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico: a lovely, quality-of-place setting that natives and tourists love and respect together. Asheville has been called the "Paris of the South," but I prefer to call it the mini-me version of Austin, TX. Austin's motto is to "Keep Austin Weird." Asheville was recently written up in Rolling Stone Magazine as "The Freak Capital of the United States." We probably have more Caucasians with dreadlocks per capita than anywhere in the U.S. Some of the best people-watching occurs when you have a drink at the Bier Garden and watch the people flow in and out of Malaprop's Bookstore in downtown.

The "Paris of the South" reference comes from the sense of the culture in the region. Many artists have their full-time residences in the Asheville area, such as Ben Long, America's best known Fresco painter. Asheville is also the home of well-known writers like Thomas Wolfe ("Look Homeward, Angel"), Carl Sandburg and Charles Frazier, author of "Cold Mountain." The riverfront is becoming the unofficial arts district with pottery, glass, woodworking and painters.

Asheville is best known as the retreat for the rich and famous for the pre-Depression jet-set society. George Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, built the largest privately owned home in the U.S. here, for his family. Asheville was chosen for its beauty, but more importantly for the clean air, for his mother had breathing problems. Word of Vanderbilt's "mountain cottage" spread and soon the rich and famous, including the Rockefellers and President McKinley, were making their way via railroad to a small mountain town in western North Carolina. (The Vanderbilt family still lives in Asheville running the estate and doing real estate development.)

Unfortunately the Asheville area's fortunes did not last long, as the Great Depression hit the real estate market here and most wealth was lost. The upside to that is the preservation of the downtown buildings. Asheville is one of the top ten most preserved cities in America. It's an authentic "walk back in time" type of experience with old time general stores where you can buy a true Raggedy Ann doll, Chuckles candy and outdoor camping and hiking supplies, then walk next door and have fresh sushi in a modern, but family owned restaurant.

For a small town of around 70,000 people, Asheville pops up on national rankings for a variety of things. Best place to retire, best place for a second house; the Gold Hill Café was ranked as one of the top ten coffeehouses by USA Today. Warren Wilson College was just cited by Outside Magazine for its variety of outdoor activities. University of North Carolina Asheville is the liberal arts school for the state system and is home to the Center for Creative Retirement. Asheville is also the headquarters of the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of the most visited places in the United States. Fall is by far the best time to visit the Parkway as it has the best changing-of-the-leaf colors in the southeast.

Western North Carolina is mostly known for outdoor activities which are usually available right off of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Mountain bikers, hikers, skiers and kayakers can be seen all day throughout the region. The area is connected to the Blue Ridge Mountains and to the Smokey Mountains, as well as to several rivers such as the French Broad and Swannanoa. White water rafters travel here often for the challenges of the Nantahala Outdoor Center.

It's a tourist destination for the sophisticated set as well: the Biltmore Estate is now open to the public and to lighten your wallet, they have created the Biltmore Inn. The Grove Park Inn is the most famous place in our area for jet setters. With the addition of a new top ten spa, GPI has long been a short-drive day trip or weekend retreat for Atlanta and Charlotte's CEOs and their families. Locals can go to the Inn for cocktails beside the multiple fireplaces that are the size of most guest rooms.

With a migration of people who moved here from plastic, sprawled-out cities, Asheville locals have created an interesting place to live. Atlanta natives have created wine shops and burrito eateries. Local breweries are also unique, with the Scotch-Irish inspired Jack of the Wood with live brewgrass music. The Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company has $2 movies with homebrew. Locals have teamed up with some New Orleans transplants and created the town's new entertainment jewel called "The Orange Peel". The OP is where all the "next" bands play such as Chris Robinson (former lead singer of the Black Crowes, now on a solo tour). The OP brings in great talent such as Sonic Youth, Arrested Development, Suzanne Vega and Vida Blue. Asheville is also home of Belle Chere, the largest free music festival in the southeast.

Asheville can be the place where someone can come to be anonymous or get plugged into the community right away. The locals are passionate about conservation, environmental issues and politics. The true four seasons are a unique experience to most people who think they have a vision of the south.

There is no real flow to the average day for the typical person in Asheville. Everyone is allowed and encouraged to be themselves. And we plan to keep it that way.

Jim Roberts is the Executive Director of the Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council and was cheering for the Carolina Panthers during the Super Bowl. (Sorry about the Rams!) He used to live about an hour east of St. Louis in Centralia, IL.

Church and State | Games | Expatriates | Communities | From the Source
It's All Happening | Young Minds | The Ordinary Eye | Elsewhere
Sights and Sounds | Media Shoegaze | A Day's Work | From the Editor

© 2004 The Commonspace