Nature, Culture, and Asheville-nomics

By Roger McCredie, in Enquiring Minds on .

Pictured Above:  Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer is all smiles as she accepts a $20,000 Buncombe Parks and Recreation check from County Commission Chairman Brownie Newman (l) and another in the same amount from Robbie Sweetzer & Linda Giltz of Connect Buncombe.  (City of Asheville photo)

$40K in for a Greenway, $40K out for artwork.  It’s all good.

Item: The city accepted a total of $40,000 from two county entities to help finance construction of a new greenway.

Item: The city is installing a new piece of public art on Lexington Avenue, at a cost of $40,000.

Other than the coincidental amount of money involved, these two events would seem to be unrelated.  To City Hall-watchers, however, they speak with one voice to the city’s priorities:  what it spends its money on, and why.

Another Day, Another Greenway

On August 28, the city received checks for $20,000 each from Buncombe County Parks and Recreation and the Friends of Connect Buncombe.  These funds, together with $20,000 of the city’s own money, will be used to secure a $300,000 grant from the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization.  The grant, in turn, provides funding for the new North River Arts District Greenway, a 1.1-mile stretch of bike-and-pedestrian nature trail that will connect the existing French Broad and Reed Creek greenways.

“The grant requires a 20% match. However, neither the County nor the City of Asheville were able to fully fund the match,” Connect Buncombe’s website candidly explained.  “Connect Buncombe stepped in, offering to provide 1/3 of the required funding if the City and County could each find another third within their budgets to meet the match. Thanks to the efforts of County Commissioners, City Council members and County and City staff the matching funds have been made available and the plan will go forward!”

(Connect Buncombe is a nonprofit citizens’ organization dedicated to the furtherment of the Asheville/Buncombe greenway system.  The French Broad River MPO comprises elected representatives from 21 municipalities in Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Madison, and Transylvania counties, as well as representatives from the state Department of Transportation; its “lead planning agency” is the Land-of-Sky Regional Council.)

For Greenway proponents, the donations were a boon considering that (a) money is tight, and (b) greenway planners are still smarting from last year’s revelation that the city’s proposed greenway budget contained a $26 million cost overrun, making it what came to be called “the greatest financial boondoggle in recent Asheville history.”

A Monument for An Officially Great Place

The “Lexington Life Column” is to be installed approximately where the shrub in front of the vehicle is located, at the juncture of Shady Grove Flowers and Downtown Books & News.  (Photo by Roger McCredie)

In 2015 the American Planning Association named Lexington Avenue one of its “Great Places in America,” calling it “a funky, creative, and delightfully unexpected home to a bustling music and arts scene” and “part of the fascinating economic and social history of downtown Asheville.”  This led Asheville’s Public Art and Cultural Commission to suggest that the city should memorialize the APA’s accolade by erecting a monument to the street’s distinctiveness.  Requests for submissions were put out, and by October of 2017 the PACC had narrowed the candidates to four artists or teams, only one of whom works in Asheville (in the RAD, in fact).  The others were from New York, Tampa, and Los Angeles.

Everyone Deserves a Second Chance

But, said the PACC, the finalists “were chosen for their prior work. The jury team felt that the initial proposals did not capture the spirit of the Lexington Avenue area as described in the RFQ.”  So, rather than expand the competition or start the selection process over, PACC simply gave the final four a second chance to submit something that captured the spirit of Lexington Avenue.  Early this year, the Commission settled on the entry of French-born, New York-based Beatrice Coron.  She will unveil her “Lexington Life Column” at a public ceremony Septmber 6 at 5:30 p.m., at 65 1/2 North lexington.  (There is no 65 1/2 per se; 65 North Lex is Shady Grove Flowers; 67 is Downtown Books and News.  “65 1/2” appears to be occupied by a bush, the fate of which, post-installation, is not known.)

What About the Hookers?

Lexington Avenue was originally Water Street, so called because it was lined with troughs to accommodate the horses and mules of farmers who brought their produce there to sell.  Asheville’s farmer’s market was originally established on Water Street and remained there long after the name change, even unto the 1950’s reign of legendary city manager Weldon Weir, who ate hot dogs and held court in the market’s basement cafe on Saturday mornings.  Business growth along the street was organic and eclectic, from T.S. Morrison Hardware to Tops for Shoes.  Most of the old stores are gone now, but the buildings remain, inhabited by restaurants, cocktail lounges, and stores selling everything from beads to sealing wax.  In the 1980’s and 90’s, though, the street became pockmarked with vacant storefronts and was the territory of “the working girls of Lexington,”  a constantly changing but ever present coterie of prostitutes.  Resurgent development, though, drove the soiled doves away.

Coron’s Lexington Life Column is a 15-foot polished steel cylinder, fabricated in Pennsylvania and executed as a lacy, openwork silhouette made up of interconnected cutout medallions, each representing a part of the street’s history or a type of business to be found there.  Thus, shoes, books, jewelry, restaurants, and other categories are among the businesses depicted.  There is no medallion, however, commemorating the hookers.  Sic transit.  (Digital rendering of sculpture in place, from Coron proposal to Asheville PACC, January, 2018; public record)

Roll Over, Henry Grady

 “They buried him in the midst of a marble quarry … and yet a little tombstone they put above him was from Vermont.  They buried him in the middle of a pine forest, and yet the pine coffin was imported from Cincinnati.  They buried him within touch of an iron mine, and yet the nails in his coffin and the iron of the shovel that dug his grave were from Pittsburgh … the South didn’t furnish a thing for that funeral but the corpse and the hole in the ground.” –– Henry Woodfin Grady (1850 – 1889): “The Pickems County Funeral.”

Grady, the iconic publisher of the Atlanta Constitution, was exhorting the post-reconstruction South to make use of its own talent and resources to redevelop itself.  When details of the Lexington artwork were released, one RAD artist (not a sculptor) said, “What are we [local artists], chopped liver?” And a Facebook reader said, ” … with all the local area artists and craftsmen, they couldn’t even pay for local work.”  Another cited the project’s $40,000 price tag as “a slap in the face to Asheville’s homeless.”

But a longtime critic of Asheville’s spending priorities said, “It didn’t really cost anything.  They just took in $40,000, supposedly for a piece of greenway, but  that city budget is nothing but a slush fund anyway, so it all evens out.  Could have been worse.”

Still others mentioned that Asheville has more than once bypassed North Carolina recruiters and used West Coast headhunters to fill key city executive positions — and that the city’s $9 million marketing budget is administered by an ad agency in New Orleans.♦

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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