Asheville, as a city, runs to the beat of its own drum. It is a city that’s ahead of the hipster curve in a lot of ways. It’s a city that’s in transition; kind of like Austin when everyone was just discovering Austin (and before Austin became its current caricature of what Austin used to be).
- Beards are a near-must for the men, though they’ve progressed beyond the long and unkempt look
- Even the diviest of dive restaurants serve world-class food and have options to meet every version of vegan and gluten free diets
- There’s an entire park downtown that basically serves the sole purpose of hosting weekly Friday night drum circles
- The primary industry here seems to be ‘t-shirt shops.’ Just kidding. But only kind of
- Breweries are a religion
- (But it’s also host to the largest private home in the United States – the Biltmore Estate – courtesy of the Vanderbilts).
Asheville is unique from a lot of other similar ‘cities of culture’ (think Austin, Portland, Seattle, Nashville) in that it’s protected from the unchecked growth that those areas are seeing by geography. Asheville is the biggest city in Western North Carolina, but only 12th biggest in the state at about 91,000 residents. It’s a city that has many of the usual elements to growth – very low unemployment (2.9%), a dozen options for live music on any given night, relatively affordable housing (an updated 3 bedroom house in the vicinity of downtown can be had for under $200,000), not much in the way of traffic, a very short drive to ‘the middle of nowhere.’ It has something that appeals to all sensibilities.
So that geography makes it this weird kind of mashup of a place that tourists definitely frequent, but don’t really come back to stay. That gives the city a kind of unusual mashup of small town/big town vibe that’s unique from anywhere we’ve been so far.
Last week, we were lucky enough to catch a poetry slam in Asheville. If you’ve never been to one, they’re a lot of fun. The poetry is often of mixed quality, but it all has value in one form or fashion. Some will blow you away, some will make you think, some might make you giggle, and some have really cool rhyming patterns, some will bring you to tears of sadness, and some will bring you to tears of anger. The best will do all of the above in under 3 minutes. (If you’re reading this in Houston, you live in a city with one of the best HS slam teams in the country. Find them if you can. They’re unreal-good.)
But the cool thing about poetry slams is they’re a place where all kinds of people come together and appreciate their similarities and differences. People from all walks of life, of all lifestyles and personalities, just sort of chilling and enjoying the art. If you’re thinking about going, have no fear – no, you won’t be shunned for being in the ‘majority,’ just chip your money in to the prize pot and enjoy the poetry and everything is gucci.
In Asheville, there is an approximately quarterly poetry slam hosted at a place called LaZooom Room Bar & Gorilla. It’s primary function is to serve as a meeting spot for LaZoom’s city tours – which are conducted by literal standup comedians and are an absolute riot.
Shoutout to BiscuitHead for both having really dope Biscuits and supporting the scene. If you’re ever in Asheville, or Greenville, get you some BiscuitHead, and support them for supporting others.
But every once in a while, the room transforms its mishmash of garage sale furniture for a stage for an open poetry slam (with a cash prize!). What really speaks to me about poetry slams is that, while they’re art, they’re unabashedly competitive – a quality that the arts don’t always ascribe to. There is a set time limit, scoring, and point penalties for going too long.
Poetry slams are like a look inside the hot-button social issues of the day from people who are at the forefront of those movements. In rhyme.
One of the poets, named Caleb, read an emotional poem for the first time about growing up queer with a famous preacher for a father and being repeatedly sexually assaulted in the name of ‘fixing’ him. It was a cool moment to be a part of.
There were several other poems about women’s rights; others about the black experience in America; one about legalizing marijuana; and a few that cut less to the heart, like the struggles of an artist to make a living, or dealing with family or breakups.
But all-in-all, it was fun. And it was Asheville. It’s weird in a way that’s different than the average, but not intentionally different by virtue of excluding the average. It’s weird in balance. And that’s important. It’s important for our country right now to have places where different kinds of people can meet and enjoy an evening and be weird if they want, or be mainstream if they want, or just be if they want. In a few hours, you’ll feel like you’ve all become a little family.
I don’t know that Asheville is going to be our long-term answer. It’s probably not big enough to keep me satisfied for years. But it’s a great place, and if you want a slower pace and one foot in nature without sacrificing access to the food and arts and schools and career opportunities offered by bigger cities, Asheville just might be your jam.