Asheville ~ City of Strangers

“Where are YOU from?!”

The words, coming from the disembodied head that suddenly appeared from a split in the curtains at the back of the little one-room boutique I had wandered into, startled me.

“Murdock Street,” I said.

“Oh, you’re from here!” the head exclaimed, looking surprised.

“Yes,” I replied, irritably. “Some of us are.”

With just four words, Where are you from? the woman to whom the head was presumably attached managed to hit one of my rawest nerves. A child of peripatetic parents, these words have haunted me my entire life. Where am I from?

That this happened in Asheville, the town where I have lived for the past seventeen years, the town where I’d finally found a home, the town where my boyfriend of nine years is a fifth-generation Ashevillian, in a little shop that used to be owned by a friend of mine, turned an innocent question into a heat-seeking arrow to my heart.

Once upon a time, Betsy’s shop was a place for a reliably friendly greeting and a leisurely exchange of gossip about men and dating and people we knew in common as I browsed her latest collections. Our tastes were similar. Almost every time I bought something, she would say, “Oh, I have that one, too!” And we would laugh and promise not to show up at the same place at the same time wearing something from the shop. Betsy always gave me “the Asheville discount” – something the downtown shops reserved just for ‘locals’ and which no longer exists.

One day, I happened to wander in while she was getting ready to have photographs taken for an upcoming ad in a local magazine.

“Hey,” Betsy called out. “Want to be part of our shoot?”

An assortment of friends and family had chosen clothes from the boutique and were getting dressed. But that day I was already wearing something I’d bought from her a month or so earlier – a similar top, as it happened, to the one Betsy herself was wearing.

Betsy wanted the photos taken at Pritchard Park, a triangular area of rocks and plantings just around the corner from her shop, best known for its homeless population , open air chess games and Friday night drum circle.

We spent the next 45 minutes assembling ourselves in various groupings on the rocks, laughing and chatting and posing for the camera.

And that’s how Asheville once was. A town of welcoming smiles, easy conversation, friendships and spontaneous adventures. A community you belonged to, just as it belonged to you.

Mulling over the concept of belonging, I looked the word up and found it dates back to a Middle English verb, belongen, from be + longen “to be suitable.”

According to Cornell University, which has an entire page dedicated to the concept on its website, belonging is the feeling of security and support when there is a sense of acceptance, inclusion, and identity for a member of a certain group.

This is not a frivolous desire. Social belonging is hardwired into our DNA and a fundamental human need, according to the authors of a recent article in Harvard Business Review.

Asheville suited me. It was in Asheville that I felt I had finally found a place where I belonged.

Everything is ephemeral, however, even small towns. And Asheville has been changing. Having been overly successful at promoting itself, the precarious balance between community and opportunity began to tilt – disproportionately some might say – in favor of hard economics.

In recent years, developers and visitors to Asheville have been rapidly taking over. Since 2015, new hotels have sprung up all over town like unwelcome mushrooms after too much rain. A plethora of breweries spawn legions of beer happy visitors who cycle around town on open air buses or float down the river in boisterous clusters of linked inner tubes. We no longer recognize the people we pass on the streets. We can play the license plate game in one of the downtown garages and score better than we would on an interstate. Asheville’s authenticity, what has made it so unique and special, is rapidly dissipating under the onslaught of tourists who swarm the city sidewalks like ants on a honey spill.

Betsy sold her little boutique a few years ago to someone from out of town. I don’t know if the Oz-like apparition from behind the curtains is the new owner of her shop, but her apparent surprise at someone “local” coming into shop said it all.

“I just like to know where in the world everyone is from!” she exclaimed brightly, trying to salvage the first impression, but only making an already awkward conversation worse.

I had wandered into what had once been Betsy’s boutique this past week, hoping to connect for just a moment to how things used to be. To touch, even if briefly, that sense of belonging.

But, as with so many places in Asheville, there are new faces in the old spaces – and the magic that once was, has vanished.

Author: kristin fellows

Documentary film consultant, writer & photographer Kristin Fellows is based in Asheville, North Carolina. She has worked as a documentary film consultant for more than 125 films on a multitude of topics. Kristin’s adventures in the past several years have taken her to Iceland to hike volcanoes and photograph puffins; to Barcelona, Mexico, Addis Ababa, and New Orleans for street photography; and most recently, to Athens for a big fat Greek wedding, to Helsinki to get beaten with frozen birch branches in the city’s oldest public sauna, to Portugal to track down the backdrop of an old photograph, and to Italy to travel in the footsteps of her late grandmother. Her travel articles have been featured in Pink Pangea, a travel blog for female travelers, and other publications. Her photograph, “Skywalker,” was chosen as a National Geographic Photo of the Day in 2015. Kristin is very nearly finished with her first book, "Lions, Peacocks & Lemon Trees" – a travel memoir that follows a collection of old letters half way around the world, from the Blue Ridge Mountains to Ethiopia to Portugal and Italy. Educated in both London and the US, Kristin also has a cherished diploma from Álfaskólinn, the Icelandic Elf School. Kristin is the niece of the late New York Times foreign correspondent, Lawrence Fellows. Follow Kristin on this blog and on Instagram @ kristinfellowsphotographswords

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