I’ve been following the conversation about whether to build a new performance arts center or renovate the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium for over a decade. Now a project estimated at $100 million, estimates just 5 years ago showed we had a project estimate for $55 million, resources were invested in planning and consulting, and there have been a variety of reports on the community’s conversation. Just this week, Asheville became the first city in North Carolina to officially declare a climate emergency, so we need to act responsibly and urgently. Here are the questions presented by the Asheville Area Arts Council with my answers:
What do you think are the biggest issues facing Asheville’s creative sector? What do you propose to do to address these issues?
As a piano teacher in Asheville for the past 13 years and part of an artist, musician, and performance arts family, my husband and I are working multiple jobs to make ends meet while the cost of living rises and the tourism industry strains our natural resources and infrastructure. I will not pretend to speak for everyone in our artist community, so I’ll share part of my story and some thoughts:
When we moved to Asheville in 2006 after helping our friends open Harvest Records, we rented a 1,000 square-foot house in West Asheville for $700-month. We could both work from home, and to pay the bills while we incubated our craft, we worked unreliable low-wage retail and hotel jobs full time and overtime. That house has since more than doubled in rent.
I’m familiar with stagnant wages, gigs for “exposure,” and friendships made and lost while learning to build community where few thrive and many struggle. It’s difficult to articulate a story I’m in the middle of as I’m watching it happen, like being in the river while it’s raining, but I can best explain it as this–we’re navigating an abusive relationship with our tourist industry and an economy that views us as disposable.
I am more familiar every day of what it means to have participated in gentrification of Asheville, to have made beautiful what was stolen and demolished. The loss of place and people priced out hurts, a pain familiar to this community for decades. We definitely aren’t going to come to a set of fast, easy answers in this survey. In conversation with community members about these questions, I’m hearing affirmation of my own concerns: we’re dealing with lack of trust; systemic racial disparities; erosion of dignity & value; modeling bad behavior from patriarchy & capitalism; and lack of affordability in every aspect–housing, work space, and basic living needs. When I say we have to Be ‘Bout it Being Better, I mean we have to join in solidarity across race and class for a resilient community in the face of climate change, white supremacy, gentrification, loss, and trauma, and it’s going to be a serious endeavor. It has to be, because we’re in community together, and our next generation is already holding us accountable to what comes next.
What I suggest comes next looks like the heart of what a Green New Deal for Asheville could look like, but will require thorough community engagement in order to build trust and promote healing: cooperatively-owned community spaces as part of neighborhood resilience efforts; a Poet Laureate and Artist in Residence program; an eviction protection fund for renters; community-led efforts to address equity in our schools and training programs; capital improvements through participatory budgeting; and rotating seats on boards & commissions centering Black, Brown, Latinx, Indigenous, and LGBTQ+ artists lending their professional and lived experience to decision making as part of participatory democracy. It will require divestment and accountability in our current City budget so we can invest in solutions, addressing the false-narrative of resource scarcity as we coordinate accountability in the region, and building coalition with cities across the state to address state legislation, especially regarding our occupancy/hotel tax.
What role do you see the arts sector playing in our city or county?
We know how to address, build, navigate, challenge, and shift culture. We are living libraries of stories, paintings, sculpture, dances, and songs. We can map solutions and document next steps. We realize dreams of the possible and impossible. We collaborate and exemplify taking care. We’re what brought us here and will keep us together, regardless of who comes to gawk or appreciate. We are what makes Asheville memorable, interesting, and like every attempt to capture the view of a WNC sunset, impossible to experience after it’s gone.
Do you support the proposed renovations to Thomas Wolfe Auditorium? Why or why not?
Not yet and not this way. We are woven together, and need each other to participate in community-based solutions. We’re talking about a decade of spending up to $100-million dollars in taxes from the hotel industry, and that accountability belongs to all of us. What will an investment from occupancy taxes towards our resilient future look like? First, we must address our deep wounds from red-lining and urban renewal. We need to invest in deeply-affordable housing through creative and collaborative solutions: the Asheville-Buncombe Community Land Trust, housing for poor and working folks, equity-building tiny home villages, and more. We need to address our crumbling infrastructure; secure our food and water systems; restore our tree canopy; connect our neighbors and visitors through an accessible multimodal network; and in doing these things, secure training for quality, local jobs as we move towards community-wide efforts to transition from fossil fuels. Then, we’ll have a foundation we can be sure to grow on with our neighbors as our mountain home realizes its potential to be one of the most beautiful, sustainable places to live.
The City of Asheville’s Public Art Masterplan was created in 2001. Would you be supportive of a new city/county public art masterplan? What would you like to see included in this plan?
Yes. We are capable of a plan that engages our brilliant leaders and change makers while investing in our youth. After volunteering hundreds of hours with fellow volunteers on the Transit Master Plan to ensure the best possible outcome, I understand a plan like this is must be a community-led engagement effort that centers equity & inclusion, not a reaction to an out-of-town consultant agency’s plan. We can model collaboration that will last, from engaging our local language justice efforts to expanding capacity at our community centers–I agree when I hear this could mean Asheville being a place to live and to visit that wouldn’t have so many damages to disguise. If connecting and skill-sharing in an intentional process by and for people most impacted by gentrification, displacement, and trauma sounds like a cause for community celebration, I hope you’ll join me in building community, sending liaisons, reporting back for those who can’t be in the room when decisions are being made, and getting busy about this kind of work.
In closing, I invite you to envision with me an Asheville where we spend all of our 2020’s collaborating through art & culture to heal and uplift during these trying times. Not just funding the pretty and the convenient, but ensuring space for the difficult conversations, the heart surgery needed so our whole community can shift, heal, and connect. This will require an social attitude adjustment as we lean into what community means, strengthening our bond with each other and with those returning or joining in the work. What does it look like to empower our youth to join in decision making through participatory budgeting as we paint, sculpt, weld, craft, pen, move, and vocalize? How can we share our resources and skills, and how do we protect our most vulnerable along the way? That’s the place where I want to belong, and I hope you’ll join in the movement.