I mean, other than copious amounts of vomit on downtown sidewalks, street preachers haranguing you about eternal damnation, and the Thomas Wolfe house almost burning down, it was really a pretty great festival.
Bele Chere, I’m talking about, the grand street fair held in downtown Asheville for 35 years, always on the last weekend of July. Originally conceived in 1979 as a way to boost traffic in a downtown in decline after the exodus of numerous businesses to Asheville Mall, Bele Chere evolved into a behemoth street carnival that some folks begged to end.
So when our executive editor, Pete Lewis, sent me the question below, I thought this was the perfect time to reminisce — and remember why the city killed this event. Here’s Pete’s question:
“A fairly recent arrival to Asheville hears that Bele Chere was the largest free festival in the Southeastern United States, drawing hundreds of thousands of people to downtown for a weekend of music and the arts. Why did the city stop hosting it?”
I refer you to paragraph one.
Seriously, there’s more to the story. First of all, it’s a little unfair to blame Bele Chere for the Wolfe house almost burning to the ground. That happened early in the morning of Friday, July 24, 1998.
Someone tossed flammable material through the first floor dining room window of the 18-bedroom former boardinghouse, igniting an inferno that nearly destroyed Wolfe’s childhood home. The sprawling, wood-frame home built in 1883 played a prominent role in Wolfe’s largely autobiographical novel, “Look Homeward, Angel,” published in 1929.
As recounted in an excellent 20-year anniversary piece in Mountain Xpress, the structure nearly burned all the way down and likely would have if not for the Asheville Fire Department’s heroic efforts.
Called “Dixieland” in Wolfe’s novel, the house was salvageable, but what you see today next to downtown’s Renaissance Hotel is mostly the rebuilt structure. The arson has never been solved.
It was one hell of a start to Bele Chere that year.
Before we delve into the vomit issue (there’s a sentence you don’t see much in the news), the street preaching and general debauchery of Bele Chere, let’s get the city’s official take on why the festival was allowed to die.
City of Asheville spokesperson Kim Miller checked in with the city’s Regional Entertainment staff to provide a rundown.
That inaugural 1979 Bele Chere, contained to just three downtown blocks, was conceived by local merchants and business owners “with the vision of revitalizing the central business district, an area largely abandoned as retail businesses and residents moved to the suburbs,” Miller said.
It grew to become the city’s “signature music and arts street festival with arts and crafts vendors, food courts, mobile marketing experiences, and nationally known musicians,” she added. Attendance grew to more than 350,000 people roaming over 20 blocks, with six music stages.
It was indeed considered one of the largest free festivals in the Southeastern United States, although “largest” was debatable. So were the attendance figures.
When I worked at the Citizen Times, we used to joke that “Bele Chere” translated to “Beautiful Attendance.” (It was supposed to translate to “Beautiful Living,” from an ancient Scottish dialect, or maybe French, allegedly, but that origin story often was questioned, too.) They would count one person who came downtown each of the three days as three visitors, so the figures got a little murky.
At any rate, it brought a lot of people downtown, some of them even recently bathed.
Personally, I felt like Bele Chere jumped the shark in the early aughts when they booked the 1970s rock band Foghat as the headliner. Right then I knew the festival was on a “Slow Ride” to oblivion.
Don’t get me wrong — festival organizers and volunteers also booked a lot of great local and regional bands over the years. But let’s just say they lost focus.
Officially, the city told me a survey of downtown businesses showed “that for over 80% of respondents, the festival was bad for business.” The festival also tended to lose money. Miller’s summary said the festival would average about $375,000 in revenue but expenses of about $500,000.
‘Nobody really knew how to put the genie back in the bottle’
Kim MacQueen has been in downtown since 1995, opening Gold Hill Espresso & Fine Teas on Haywood Street that year. (It was there until 2003.) She’s also lived downtown, first on Haywood Street above the shop and now in the Grove Arcade.
Like a lot of us who’ve been around a while, MacQueen has mixed emotions about Bele Chere and its demise.
“I think what happened was Bele Chere got what it wished for, in that it showed people the potential of downtown,” MacQueen said. “And then it just became so big and so unruly, and I’m just not sure the city had the resources for what it grew into, to maintain it. Nobody really knew how to put the genie back in the bottle and make it smaller.”
MacQueen confirmed for me that I wasn’t exaggerating about the regurgitation issues associated with the three-day event, which featured a lot of free-flowing beer and street food. She reminded me that it seemed like every Sunday the festival would close out with a horrendous thunderstorm.
“It was a thing of beauty, because it would send everybody home, and it kind of washed the streets off,” MacQueen said with a laugh. “God was very helpful with this.”
Initially, MacQueen said, the event was “pretty brilliant on the part of the city” because it showed everyone how much fun downtown could be when it was crowded. But as downtown revived in the late 1990s and went on a growth tear, the merchants and restaurateurs didn’t need a big surge of people downtown in late July.
In fact, the festival became a detriment to local businesses, as the city said.
“It kind of hurt local businesses, because they all wanted to have funnel cakes,” MacQueen said, referring to attendees.
I’ll add that the turkey legs from the street vendors were also pretty fantastic.
After a couple of decades of Bele Chere, what local businesses really wanted was a boost to visitation in the early fall, not late July.
“Every year, they would have a brainstorming session after Bele Chere — ‘How can we improve it?’” MacQueen said, noting that the city officials always brought in flip charts. “And every time — and I mean, I bet I went to 10 or 12 of those meetings — and every single time the first suggestion was, ‘Have it in September. We don’t need help in July.’”
In those days, Asheville took a real tourist dip in September as school resumed. The city would duly note the September suggestion on the flip charts, MacQueen said.
“And then they took it back to City Hall and threw it down the flip chart black hole,” MacQueen said.
The fest also drove downtown residents insane, as it started at about 10 a.m. and ran until 10 p.m., although it’s not like crowds magically dispersed then. MacQueen said where she and her husband lived on Haywood Street was just a few dozen yards away from one of the stages, which featured karaoke singers at night.
Let’s just say talentless renditions of “My Heart Will Go On,” the theme song from the Titanic, still leave a scar on her auditory memory, forever.
Also, after a day of drinking, many of the revelers were slow to head home. And they were not quiet.
“Here’s the noise that I think they should record and send into space when they show the ET’s Earth noises, and it goes like this: WOOOOOOO! WOOOOOOO!” MacQueen said. “I mean, what is it with guys having four beers and the WOOOOOOO! WOOOOOOO?’ It was non-(blanking) stop with the ‘WOO.”
Clearly, that’s another scar.
Between the duration of Bele Chere, the size, the people, and the long hours, it just became relentless.
“But it did have its moments and it was fun,” MacQueen said. “I wish we could have found a way to throw a festival that continued to show who downtown Asheville is, and make it work for everybody. I feel like we still could do that if we had a little smaller thing.”
The upcoming AVLFest looks like a nice step in that direction. Billed as “a venue-based music and arts festival,” it’s scheduled for Aug. 3-6 in Asheville. It will “fill 20-plus area concert halls, clubs, and outdoor venues alike with an exceptional multi-genre lineup of local, regional, and national talent,” according to the website.
Sounds nice, but I doubt attendees will be leaving their lunches in merchants’ doorways.
Air dogs, street preachers and poor grammar
I’ve got to say, that last Bele Chere in 2013 tugged at my heartstrings a little. Somewhere on the internet is a video of yours truly starring in a video for the newspaper in which I celebrated the very last Bele Chere.
To get in the mood, I wore cut-off jean shorts and a black, homemade armless T-shirt. Right out the gate, I chatted up a gigantic dude standing in the street, wearing cut-off shorts and nothing else.
I also asked a vendor if he had a T-shirt in 3XL (he didn’t), asked for more grease dipping sauce for a turkey leg, and then talked the operator of the “Air Dogs” exhibit into letting me run after a tossed ball and plunge into the pool, just like the real dogs did.
I almost caught the ball in my mouth, but I did not fool a little girl watching one bit.
“Mommy, that’s not a dog,” you could hear her say in the video.
Ah, those were good times.
“I mean, there’s nothing like a festival — it’s festive, right?” MacQueen said.
Yes. Yes, it is, Kim. Even when it occasionally slips into three straight days of unfettered hedonism.
In its official statement, the city expressed how Bele Chere became less necessary as the downtown evolved into a “bustling community and popular tourist destination.” It also took sales away from local companies as outside vendors swarmed the city.
The street closures caused transportation issues, and Bele Chere brought “increases in vandalism, disorderly conduct, and disruptive behavior by festival attendees.”
But trust me, other than that, it was pretty great. Rest in peace, Bele Chere.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at jboyle@avlwatchdog.