Despite having lived in the USA for extended periods of time I am still unclear about my favourite parts. The western swathe from New Mexico to Wyoming is unique, but the south-eastern states often draw me back.
So following a retail conference in Nashville (I have at least decided I prefer Memphis for music) we returned to the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina; Asheville in NC to be specific.
Asheville has a reputation as one of the more appealing small cities of the USA; a home to a different culture and approach. There are certainly more aging men with ponytails (not an option for me, sadly) per square mile than elsewhere and an embedded counter-culture.
Yes, Asheville has its share of interstate by-passes and hideous miles of urban commercial ribbon sprawl, but it also has something else – tangible in its downtown (small by UK standards of course) and its attitudes. Asheville’s downtown is a melange of local businesses, shops, restaurants and spaces, with a focus on local artists, artisans, music and economy/society. The centre is a busy vibrant place, with localism in action everywhere.
As spaces have been vacated – see the Woolworths and Kress department stores – so they have been re-used as artist’s galleries and showrooms. Micro-breweries abound and stores and restaurants proudly proclaim their local sustainability focus.
By way of contrast we also spent time in Madison, Georgia, famously spared on Sherman’s fiery Civil War march to the sea and thus a small town with the finest collection of antebellum homes in the USA. The downtown is the classic central square and radiating spaces of small-town USA, and now in quite a lot of difficulty. The commercial activity has re-located around the interstate intersection four miles away and the downtown survives on small local spend and the tourism visiting the houses.
So beyond scale, what’s the difference between these two places? In Asheville there seems to be a willingness to try things, to mix things up (we loved a Jamaican/Italian restaurant) and to re-use the the past to build a future. In Madison the local paper bemoaned the petty bureaucrats who forced renovation to be carried out only in traditional ways using traditional tools and crafts. It’s obviously more complex that that, but this constraint reminded me of our debates in Scotland over authenticity and renovation/renewal, and the ways in which good intentions can produce bad results.
Whilst it is (too) easy to blame the property market and the banks for our current position, another thought did occur in Asheville. Did the conditions and space only become available for local users with the collapse of land and property values in the downtown and the almost total flight of “national” commercial activity? Are we at, or will we be at this point in some of our towns in Scotland? And if not, should we seek to precipitate it? And if we are there, then what barriers are there to this local renaissance and how do we overcome them? I am convinced we have the imagination, the artists, the brewers, musicians et al – and the retailers – to make places locally special. What we need is to decide which version of the future for our towns we want and begin to make it happen.