Michael Paul Williams writes about the successful downtown revival in Asheville, NC in today’s column. Having been to Asheville many times, I completely agree with his assessment of the place and wanted to add some visuals to go with his words. So below you’ll find pictures of Asheville and its people, along with my own commentary on some things Richmond can learn from Asheville.

“On any given Friday night during warm weather months, Pritchard Park is the scene of a dance party propelled by the beat of a drumming circle.”
“For Asheville — a place whose funky vibe has been likened to Berkeley, Calif., Portland, Ore., or Seattle before Starbucks…”

Asheville’s Friday drum circle; Photo by mygothlaundry, used with permission.

Protesters in downtown Asheville; photo by Zen, used with permission.

Of course, some people in Richmond hate hippies, and even more hate protesters. But to me they’re part of the diversity that makes cities interesting. I’d prefer a city with hippies, punks, yuppies, immigrants, blacks, whites, AND protesters.

“There is a kinetic energy in this progressive and artsy city, whose skyline is framed by grand Art Deco buildings and the natural work of art that is the Blue Ridge Mountains.”

Asheville; photo by Zen, used with permission.

“[Revitalization is] largely due to Malaprop’s, home to book and poetry readings, book clubs and a decidedly uncorporate, unabashedly progressive politics. You’d never mistake it for a Barnes & Noble.

‘You don’t come here to see what you can see anywhere else,’ said assistant bookstore manager Gary Hemsoth. ‘It’s the independent businesses that give downtown its vibrancy.’

Malaprop’s bookstore- this place is great. I’ve always wanted a bookstore like this in Richmond. Photo by joeschram, used with permission.

“Woolworth Walk, housed in the storefront of the now-defunct retailer, has been recast as an arts and crafts gallery with an old-fashioned lunch counter.

Next to the counter is a poster commemorating the civil-rights movement that reads: ‘Sometimes taking a stand meant taking a seat. . . . Asheville hasn’t always been open minded.'”

Converted Woolworth’s building. Photo by early girl, used with permission.

Woolworth’s lunch counter. Photo by earlgreyrooibus, used with permission.

One characteristic of Asheville which makes it lively but was not mentioned by Williams is a lot of public art, both sanctioned and not:

Photo by s.e.v.e.n., used with permission.

Photo by Audrey Scott, used with permission.

Also worth noting is that the Asheville Downtown Association lists as their current priority tackling the panhandling problem. Instead of Richmond’s “clear the streets” mentality, Asheville is taking a humanitarian approach, called Spare Change for Real Change. They’re encouraging and promoting donations to local non-profits, but NOT criminalizing the homeless.

Consider this statement from Asheville’s business community:

“Our panhandling issue is a product of our success in downtown Asheville,” said Dwight Butner, owner of Vincenzo’s Ristoranté and a member of the Asheville Downtown Association Board of Directors. “Fifteen years ago, there was no panhandling problem because there were no people downtown. It’s not an issue that is going to go away,” he said, “but one that we will have to manage for as long as we remain successful.”

Now compare our own Booty Amrstrong’s comments on the issue of homelessness and downtown revitalization:

“One, we’re going to have to make sure that when people come downtown they’re not intimidated by panhandlers, vagrants, whatever you want to call them.” Next, “we’ve got to get the buses off of Broad Street.” … Finally, to create a destination that will bring visitors back time and again, “the city has to ensure that the redeveloped area will be well policed and kept very clean.” If it takes relocating homeless shelters, he says, then so be it. “They have to not just endorse; they have to enforce.” [via]

Imagine if the Richmond business community and politicians were compassionate and thoughtful enough to consider creative solutions to homelessness and poverty.

I believe that some of Asheville’s success is due to their openness to all sorts of people: protesters, hippies, independent business people, homeless people. They’ve sought to make their city a place hospitable to everyone, not just a select “desirable” demographic.

And returning to Williams’ column, his main point is best expressed by his closing statement:

Richmond could start by encouraging local entrepreneurship and abandoning its constant search for a Downtown Savior — a single project that will turn things around.

It should also dispense with its top-down approach and tap creative minds to cultivate a grass-roots vision for a dynamic and distinctive downtown.

Amen to that, and thanks to Michael Paul Williams for this excellent column!