some thoughts on asheville’s bele chere

Asheville North Carolina

Asheville North Carolina

Yours Truly was born in Asheville, North Carolina, in the <ahem> late ‘60’s, and raised nearby from then until the time he left for college in the go-go eighties. This was a time in Western North Carolina when several beautiful things in the area made it a tourist destination (The Biltmore House, Folkmoot, the Highland Games, the Blue Ridge Parkway, etc.)…but downtown Asheville was not really much of a draw for visitors to the area. Because of municipal involvement in the financial collapses of the Great Depression, the city of Asheville would be paying back some crushing debt for the the next forty years, and this included the 70’s. Because of this, commercial development downtown had only produced a few modernist buildings. Painted sheet metal facades over neglected pre-war buildings was the decorative rule of downtown when Mama would take my brother and me to JC Penney for school clothes on Battery Park Avenue. I remember a school field trip through the National Climactic Data Center, just about the most non-dramatic governmental agency you could think of, housed ironically in the travertine and terra cotta gothic chaos of the Grove Arcade. How I ached to study those leering gargoyles and fly up and down those soaring spiral staircases while we walked in line from one supercomputer to another! It was a tour of “Hal 2000” in Sleeping Beauty’s castle, and I thought this was normal. Weren’t all downtowns a little dark and grimy but full of wondrous art deco and neo-gothic detail, demurely sheathed in perforated aluminum? Visualize in the midst of all this architecturally thwarted childhood a street festival, conceived among the frustrated merchants who were hanging on in those dilapidated buildings: a street festival that would be free, full of food, drink, arts and merchandise for sale, a festival that would close some downtown streets each summer and maybe drum up some sorely needed business. That’s what Asheville decided in 1978 when it founded Bele Chere (“beautiful living” in a Scottish dialect.) To be perfectly honest, almost all I ever knew about Bele Chere growing up in Asheville was when to avoid downtown on the last July weekend each year because of it:  street closings really ruin the festive effect for locals already living the culture and uninterested in bric-a-brac. Of course as adolescence arrived and I yearned for exploration, I started to attend sporadically and actually PAY to park several blocks away (madness!!) and walk to the closed off Asheville streets for fried food, art browsing, and bands on the stage. Bele Chere was mostly successful, always big news on the local television newscasts, and eyed curiously if not suspiciously by the surrounding local folk who’d already done all the cultural exploring they cared for. Fast forward thirty-two years, and today Bele Chere REALLY takes over a downtown that it arguably helped to transform. All that corrugated aluminum is gone and downtown Asheville is a thriving mountain media superstar, always ready for its closeup and humming with transplants chatting on cellphones down those same streets that were so sleepy when I was a child. Bele Chere is now the largest free festival in the southeast United States with 300,000+ visitors expected each June. There’s even a recent debate among Asheville merchants that Bele Chere is hurting their now-thriving businesses, and should maybe be moved or reconceptualized. I don’t think that will happen because Bele Chere seems to now be a festival juggernaut that could best be managed but hardly extinguished, and Asheville and Bele Chere are forever linked, basically a happy and productive marriage, minor arguments notwithstanding. If you happen to either live in or be traveling through the Asheville area in late June, I would encourage you to visit Bele Chere and see for yourself how my hometown and her annual debunante ball have thrived and grown. I might stop by myself and marvel at how much some things change and actually pay Atlanta prices for Asheville parking while Bele Chere is going on. For more details about Bele Chere, try


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