ASHEVILLE, NC – The neighborhood has that wrong-side-of-the-tracks feel about it, and sure enough, the railroad runs right through the middle and sometimes backs up traffic. Great hulking warehouses look slightly shabby; from a distance, the barbecue joint across the narrow road looks less than appetizing.
But appearances are deceiving. The ramshackle warehouses and factories comprise Asheville’s up-and-coming River Arts District, and the ‘cue shack is the famous 12 Bones Smokehouse that earned top honors in “Good Morning America’s” “Best Bites” competition a while back.
It’s not that the arts are a new thing in this mountain city. Since early railroad days, Asheville has drawn people with wealth, talent and style.
In the 1890s, George Vanderbilt purchased 125,000 acres and built his palatial Biltmore Estate here. In the 1900s, the great art deco architects created an extraordinary collection of flashy buildings. In the 1930s, F. Scott Fitzgerald used the clubby Grove Park Inn as his base. For decades, the area has been known for its crafts; the Southern Highland Craft Guild’s Folk Art Center is just outside of town, on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
But the hard times that hit much of America after the 1929 stock market crash lingered here, and it’s only in the past 10 to 15 years that the downtown has filled with antique shops, funky boutiques, gourmet restaurants and a dozen galleries showcasing contemporary painting, glass, pottery, quilts and jewelry.
Along the French Broad
Still, Asheville isn’t “too” cute – at least not yet – and the burgeoning River Arts District helps keeps things that way. From downtown Asheville, it’s about a five-minute drive, or 11/2 miles, due west. Just take Patton Avenue west to Clingman Avenue, turn left and you’re there. It’s a warehouse area up against the French Broad River and serviced by six or seven streets tied one way or another to the Norfolk & Southern tracks.
We’re talking banged-up curbing, weed patches and an abundance of corrugated metal and institutional brick.
As downtown Asheville gentrified over the past 15 years, upper floors in buildings on Broadway and other central city streets went to lofts and condos. Artists with studios there faced higher rents, and increasingly restrictive zoning made it harder for artisans to pursue their crafts. Some pushed out to nearby places such as Weaverville and Black Mountain, establishing artistic satellite communities. And many just shifted west to the warehouses to create the River Arts District.
A 2008 directory lists people working in 10 venues, in fields ranging from pottery, ceramics and paint to photography, fabric, wood, metal, stone and more. Leonard Lopatin builds flutes. John Murphy makes stuffed toys and monsters.
Eileen Black, a potter who moved here from Greensboro, is president of the area’s association. In her five years in town, the district has grown from 30 artists to about 115 – people such as Genie Maples, who moved here from Atlanta with her teens 21/2 years ago, and Laurie McCarriar, a photographer who moved here two years ago from Northern Virginia.
Says Black, “You get the young hippies and the old hippies.” Her husband, Marty, a former electronics engineer sporting a “Need a little pot?” T-shirt, has joined her in the pottery business.
“It’s hard to find us; that’s one of our biggest challenges,” she says. That’s the downside of a district that’s physically off to the side
The group sponsors two annual Studio Strolls, in June and November. Most studios are open to the public on weekends, and even on a Monday, you’ll find a few busily working at their craft or packing up orders for shipment. Many of the buildings are artist-owned, says Black – meaning they won’t be chased out by high rents as the district becomes more popular
Helping raise the profile is artist Jonas Gerard, whose bright paintings and tiles appear in collections including the Bass Museum in Miami Beach. Gerard moved here from Florida about a year ago, taking over 5,000 square feet of a furniture factory-turned-storage warehouse-turned-clay-making shop. “It was time for me to move on, to make a fresh start,” Gerard said.
“We drove in and saw the art galleries, the cafes, the hippies, the drumming circle on Friday night. I didn’t see any Victoria’s Secret or McDonald’s. It was a nice homey feeling. Everyone seemed to be grooving.”
In recent years, the district has spruced up and two restaurants have opened. The Clingman Cafe – which serves gourmet coffee, biscuits and sandwiches – serves breakfast and lunch six days a week. On the other side of the tracks, in a former diner, 12 Bones dishes up chicken, sliced brisket, pulled pork and its signature slow-smoked ribs – full or half rack – that patrons smother in sauces flavored with blueberry chipotle, horseradish, strawberry and rhubarb, chili and ginger, mango and jalapeno, or mocha, stout beer and cherries.
Be warned: It’s only open weekdays at lunch. And despite its humble appearance, the line is always out the door.
Thirsty? The district also has a micro-brewery, The Wedge.
By Jane Wooldridge