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Only in Asheville: An Eclectic History

Only in Asheville: An Eclectic History

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Only in Asheville: An Eclectic History

220 pages
3 hours
Jun 8, 2015


A unique blend of visionaries, risk takers and creative souls lends energy to Asheville's historic streets. Today, bohemian street performers, funky shops, exquisite art galleries, restaurants and craft breweries blend in among some of the most revered vintage architecture in the country. Discover quirky figures like a "nun" named Sister Bad Habit, who entertains passengers on the LaZoom bus; the "Man in White" living statue; and Asheville's Village Witch. Be inspired by innovative dreamers such as Julian Price, who invested millions in the once-desolate downtown Asheville, giving money to an eclectic mix of restaurateurs and shop owners. Author Marla Milling traces the people and places that make her hometown a truly unique city.
Jun 8, 2015

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Marla Hardee Milling is a full-time writer in Asheville and a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). She is the author of Only in Asheville: An Eclectic History (The History Press, 2015). More than 750 of her articles and essays have appeared in many publications, including Blue Ridge Country, where she is a contributing editor; Luxury Living; Parenting; Redbook; Our State; WNC; American Style; NICHE; and others. She spent ten years as a news producer at WLOS-TV in Asheville and six years as director of communications at Mars Hill College.

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Only in Asheville - Marla Hardee Milling



Some call Asheville weird. Others call it the Paris of the South, the Santa Fe of the East, Beer City, U.S.A., the New Age Capital of the World or the Happiest City in America. Rolling Stone magazine named Asheville the Freak Capital of the World in 2000, and Travel and Leisure called it the Quirkiest Place in America in 2014. You might have your own name for it. For me, it’s always just been home.

Asheville marches to a different beat—perhaps one coming from the drum circle on Friday nights in Pritchard Park. The drum circle features a random assortment of drummers pounding out a synchronized beat, surrounded by dancers, gawking tourists, hula hoopers and connected locals who love celebrating the contagious energy.

Defying stereotypes and canned descriptions is Asheville’s forte. There are many differences among people in this town, and yet everyone seems to just coexist. There’s a blending here of opposing ideas and cultures and experiences, yet for the most part it is an oasis of tolerance. It’s also a place that can take criticism or a faux pas and poke fun at it. When a state senator in the piedmont of North Carolina dubbed Asheville a cesspool of sin in 2011, it just became a humorous slogan—it can still be found on T-shirts around town. The phrase even caught the attention of Peter Sagal, host of the NPR quiz show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! He recorded a message for WCQS radio’s fund drive congratulating Asheville for its new distinction.

When Pauline Frommer appeared on Good Morning America in early 2015 to promote Frommer’s Best Places to Go in 2015, she touted Asheville as their number one pick but drew scrutiny when she said this: We’re picking [Asheville] this year because the sketchy riverside area has been totally redone thanks to New Belgium Brewery, which has poured millions of dollars into this area, making new parks, artists collectives, farmers markets, bike paths.

A drummer pounds out a beat at the drum circle in Pritchard Park. This event takes place on Friday evenings in warmer weather. ExploreAsheville.com.

Local people quickly latched on to the term sketchy and scratched their heads over the claim that New Belgium Brewery, which hasn’t even finished its new facility here, is somehow responsible for the success of the River Arts District. It’s the creative energy of many artists who make the RAD popular and one of the reasons New Belgium saw it as a good place to open a brewery. Of course, instead of getting mad, the folks at Image 420 in West Asheville responded in true Asheville spirit by creating another T-shirt. This one says, Still Sketchy After All These Beers.

Frommer was a bit premature in saying the river district had millions of dollars poured into it, but she is right about that money coming. On March 22, 2015, the Asheville Citizen-Times reported that upgrades in and around the River Arts District will reach $50 million within the next six years. The article added, The infusion of public funding into a once derelict industrial district will be accompanied by about $200 million in private investment. The funneling of money and energy into this area will definitely transform Asheville in ways that can only be imagined at this point. Big change is underway, and Asheville is only going to get bigger. It’s my hope that it doesn’t lose its uniqueness in the process.

Tiny mouse doors on the bottom of a Woodfin Street building lend to the magical, whimsical vibe downtown. Photo by Hannah Milling.

Asheville is a place where, like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get or what you’re going to see or experience. It might be discovering tiny mouse doors on the side of a building on Woodfin Street, spotting a gargoyle hanging over the side of the Jackson Building or catching a glimpse of some freshly painted graffiti on a rambling, vintage building.

You might also cross paths with a man dressed as a nun. He might be sipping beer in a local brewery or riding a cherry red bike. That nun, known as Sister Bad Habit, is really Jim Lauzon, who owns the popular LaZoom tour bus with his wife, Jen. You’ll read more about him later on, as well as other colorful Asheville personalities.

So what is it about this place? How did it become so unique and different from other places? Why is this place now winding up on just about every top ten list imaginable? In addition to the Frommer’s 2015 nod, Forbes named it one of America’s Smartest Cities in November 2014, and a National Geographic Travel book released in October 2014 named Asheville one of the World’s Best Cities. This town is innovative, exciting, progressive and anything but ordinary, but what is this incredible vibe all about? Those are the questions I set out to answer in this book.

Sister Bad Habit (aka Jim Lauzon) knows how to generate laughter and smiles when she rides alongside the LaZoom Comedy Bus. LaZoom.

Ben’s Tune Up features a restaurant and an amazing beer garden in a former auto shop. Photo by Zen Sutherland.

Asheville is a vibrant, exciting place in 2015, but that’s nothing new. It’s been a vibrant, exciting place throughout history. It’s continually evolving, though it’s been through its share of rough moments in time. Despite the hardships, there’s always been a mysterious pull, especially for creative spirits, artists, musicians, nature lovers, writers, mystics and those seeking ways to more fully explore themselves.

It’s been a place marked by great wealth and great talent. Even bad events can leave positive results, and that was the case of the Great Depression in Asheville. While it proved to be a severely difficult time in history, it also left Asheville with many of its architectural treasures. Asheville simply couldn’t afford urban renewal, as it carried the burden of paying back every cent owed for projects completed in the Roaring Twenties. There was great enthusiasm in the ’20s and a lot of opulence, as noted in the detailed architecture. Saving those treasures from a bountiful era lends itself to the positive vibe felt in town today.

As an Asheville native, I came into this project with a strong love for my hometown. My family, on both sides, has been in these mountains for generations. Like most early settlers to this region, it was a hardscrabble life, with people surviving through ingenuity, dedication and hard work and calming the soul through creative endeavors, music and laughter. Asheville is the product of that strong mountain spirit, as well as the wealth funneled in by others who have discovered this place along the

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