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A Conversation About Fast Growing Cities


This week, Michel Martin visited Asheville, N.C., for a conversation about a very rapidly changing region. The tiny mountain town and surrounding counties are experiencing a boom in tourism and new residents. All of this activity is taking a toll on the region's infrastructure, and longtime residents are wondering what the influx of people will mean for the preservation of culture and natural resources. The conversation begins with Professor Chris Cooper of Western Carolina University explaining a bit about the political culture of the area followed by Scott Dedman, an Asheville housing advocate.

CHRIS COOPER: It's an interesting area, right? You've got this pocket of blue. I think of it a little bit like Austin, Texas, right? I mean, nobody would accuse Texas of being a particularly blue place, but certainly Austin is. And I think Asheville serves the same function of West North Carolina. So in the last presidential election, Buncombe County went blue and up where upstate is, Watauga County went blue. And all of the other 21 counties in Western North Carolina went red.

And so I think that leads to a really interesting place with a really diverse culture, politically, racially to some degree. I think culturally there's a lot of strands moving through here at the same time. So it's a fascinating place to study people and what they do.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Scott, let's talk about, you know - you've seen things over a couple of decades now, and I wanted to ask you what are the - you know, the upsides of the changes you've seen over time and what are some of the downsides?

SCOTT DEDMAN: I reached out to friends and I said put it in perspective. And I talked to many, and one friend sent me four sentences that I think will be very telling, if I can read those. It said (reading) on all sides we hear talk, talk, talk in a single chorus, speculation in real estate. Along our streets and town, the ownership of land is constantly changing. A spirit of waste and destructiveness is everywhere. The best places in town are being mutilated. One town property has been paved with a desolate horror of white concrete, and they've built stores and garages and office buildings - all raw. And they're putting up a new hotel. It will be 16 stories of steel and concrete and pressed brick, stamped out of the same mold as if by some gigantic biscuit cutter of hotels that has produced a thousand others like it all over the country.

Now, that's what you hear a lot in Asheville. That was written by Thomas Wolfe about...


MARTIN: Wow. When was that?

DEDMAN: He wrote that about the 1920s.


DEDMAN: And he wrote to his oldest brother (reading) we've dressed up our hair with hotels to vamp for the tourists.

So I don't say that to validate the common opinion that everything is overbuilt and too busy. I say it to point out that it's been the opinion in Asheville for almost a hundred years that everything's moving too fast for us. Everything is being too built. So there's always that push and pull here.

MARTIN: Annette, I want to bring you in. You are also from here from the area. You're an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, as we mentioned. I wonder if you ever feel you have feet in both the past and the present.

ANNETTE CLAPSADDLE: Right. We were the very first to be hot.


CLAPSADDLE: So we've had a little bit longer to work through some of the changes, I think. But definitely I feel like I quite often have a foot in both places. I grew up in a family that owns a small business that caters to tourists. And that's how the Qualla Boundary survived in the days before gaming was through tourism. And that has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades really.

And one thing that we have also seen is the way that we can use tourism to be more authentic now compared to maybe 20 years ago when we were catering to the tourists who wanted the inauthentic Native American-type of imagery. And with the boom in tourism that has come specifically from gaming, we have the means to be more self-sufficient, but also to support our artists who want to create authentic Cherokee art. So we've kind of wrapped our heads around this idea of tourism and what it can be for us as a culture as opposed to just meeting the demand every single day of what tourists expect of us.

MARTIN: Julie, why don't you - what do you want us to be thinking about?

JULIE MAYFIELD: Well, so I guess what I would want us to be thinking about is, you know, Asheville is going to grow, as I said earlier. All we can do is really manage that growth and try to direct it in a positive way. So Asheville is going to change as it always has, but what I would encourage people to think about is that the change isn't necessarily bad. It's just that it's going to be different, and those differences still bring a lot of positive benefits. We wouldn't have the money to be building the things that we're building right now without the growth that we're experiencing.

So I'm - I am hopeful for Asheville's future I think we're in a good spot. We think of ourselves as a progressive, inclusive community. We have work to do on that front. But I think we're going to get there. And if I could just say one word about the more rural parts of the region, and since the other hat I wear is sort of - is about the land, you know, people in this region and Western North Carolina love the land. We've done enough regional planning here to know that, that that is the number one thing people love. They love the forests. They love the rivers. They love the fields. They love the mountains. And what I would want to say to anyone in Western - rural Western North Carolina who's listening is we can lose that.

We do have 1.8 million acres of protected land, but there is so much that is not protected. And we lost a lot in the last growth spurt when that growth was not managed. And we did lose trout streams. It wasn't just back in the 1920s. We have lost trout streams. There are rivers that are no longer fit to be in or swim in or fish in, and we can't afford to do that anymore. And we don't have to, and we need people to realize that, love the land and realize that there are ways to keep it the way that we want it.


SINGH: That was Asheville City Councilwoman Julie Mayfield and before her, you heard Annette Clapsaddle, an enroll member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina. We were also joined at the live event by Oscar Wong who founded Highland Brewing Company in Asheville, and his daughter, Leah Wong Ashburn, who is now the president and owner of the brewery.

If you missed it, you can watch the entire live event at The conversation in Asheville also touched on some of the environmental impacts of an exploding population. Author Ron Rash read an excerpt from his novel "Serena," which is set in 1930s North Carolina during an era of heavy logging and deforestation.

In this scene in the Great Smoky Mountains, loggers have just cut down the very last tree in a valley, and they're grappling with the sight of a barren landscape where there was once a vibrant forest.

RON RASH: (Reading) A flock of goldfinches flew into view, their feathers bright against the valley's floor as they winged southward. They swooped low with the flock contracted, perhaps in memory. For a few seconds, they appeared suspended there then the flock expanded like gold cloth unraveling. They circled the valley once before disappearing over Shanty Mountain. Their passage through the charred valley as ephemeral as a candle flame waved over an abyss. Henryson studied the silted stream for a few moments before turning to Ross. Used to be thick with trout here, this here stream. There's many a day you and me took our supper from it. Now you'd not catch a knottyhead. here. There was game, too, Ross said, plenty of deer and rabbit. Squirrels and bear and beaver and bobcat, Henryson said. And Panthers, Ross said. I seen one 10 year ago on this very creek. Well, I'll not ever see one again.

SINGH: That's author Ron Rash reading a passage about deforestation from his novel "Serena." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.