When it comes to downtown Asheville, I’ve personally witnessed a lot of ebb and flow, as I worked in the city’s core for a quarter century.
Recently, it’s been way more ebb than flow — and it’s not pretty to watch.
To be crystal clear, downtown Asheville has always been a little gritty, weird and fun, all wrapped into one. I still love downtown and go there regularly. When visitors come into town, we’ll hit the galleries and maybe a restaurant.
It’s still a vibrant downtown that outshines what most cities have to offer. But I noticed a change about three years ago, just before the pandemic hit.
Walking on a sidewalk in front of the Grove Arcade with a couple of coworkers, we saw a young, shirtless guy walking toward us at high speed, talking to himself and appearing highly agitated. As he intentionally passed through us, causing us to separate, he threw his elbows out, trying to make contact with someone.
It was just odd, as most of the regulars we’d see downtown were pretty chill. Some of these people might ask for money or a smoke, but that was about it.
It’s not like I was terrified, but this dude seemed very aggressive, almost like he wanted a confrontation — enough so that it stuck in my mind as out of the ordinary.
Fast forward three years, and this has become all too common, and the behavior even more aggressive. Business owners and downtown workers certainly have noticed the change — the belligerent encounters, the threats, the trash, the crime, as we reported in the opening article in our series, Down Town.
They’ve also noticed the needles and human excrement on the sidewalks and in the alleys.
Folks, it’s not like this is a bunch of whiny, entitled business owners complaining about having to rub elbows with poor people, or about privileged people “clutching their pearls” and lacking compassion for people clearly in need of mental health and substance abuse health. In fact, I’d say just about all of the employees and merchants we talked to downtown were caring people who want to see more and better help for people who are struggling — and we visited three dozen businesses.
On Wednesday, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce hosted a meeting downtown to hear from downtown business owners about issues they’re seeing. About 70 people attended and another 50 couldn’t get in, and some of those who spoke described incidents even worse than what we reported, including armed robberies.
Public Safety and Unacceptable Behavior
This issue, and this series The Watchdog is doing, are about public safety and about behaviors that are dangerous, aggressive, and sometimes violent. This affects everybody who goes downtown — hourly workers trying to make ends meet, business owners trying to keep employees safe, people on the streets who are trying to survive, locals looking to enjoy a night out, and yes, tourists who would like to enjoy a good downtown restaurant or an art gallery.
Everybody has a right to feel safe in our town. That’s not an outrageous ask.
I think we can all agree that some behaviors are just unacceptable in a civilized society, and that includes screaming at cashiers and threatening violence, or relieving your bowels or dropping a bloody needle on a public sidewalk where children walk.
Couple this uptick of aggressive, unpredictable, and sometimes gross behavior with a noticeable decline in police presence, and it is, as a restaurant owner recently told me, feeling like the Wild West downtown. We’ll look at the police issues and staffing in our next installment, by the way, and we also plan to write stories about the homeless, about drug addiction and mental health care, and other issues contributing to this.
So stay tuned.
Through this series, we also hope to spur conversation about the future vitality of our downtown, which has certainly seen decay and despair before, and not all that long ago. If the series brings about change or improvements, that’s great, but that will be up to city officials — with the input of residents, merchants, the homeless, and others with skin in the game.
But this much is clear: What’s going on now is not sustainable for anyone.
This is a complex problem with roots in drug abuse, skyrocketing housing costs, increasing numbers of unhoused people, inadequate care for those with addiction or mental health problems, trouble recruiting police officers, and much, much more. But sticking our heads in the sand, or pretending the problem isn’t there because “it’s just a bunch of business people complaining” is shortsighted, and well, ridiculous.
‘Meth has really changed the landscape’
Again, unacceptable behavior is the problem, and that can come from beer-laden drunks, local criminals, rowdy bridal parties, disrespectful tourists, and more. But a theme emerged in talking with business owners and employees: We’re seeing a different type of homeless or transient people, often younger and apparently high on potent drugs, particularly meth.
Last week, I participated in a ride-along with Asheville Police Capt. Michael Lamb, and he too said they’ve noticed a different kind of homeless person downtown: more agitated, often aggressive or violent, and very unpredictable.
He said the culprit is no great mystery: methamphetamine. While plenty of people still consume standbys such as alcohol and opioids, those substances generally cause a more mellow reaction.
Meth is a different animal. Lamb said you can often spot users by their erratic, high-energy behavior, known as “tweaking.” We saw it firsthand about 9:30 p.m. in Pritchard Park.
A homeless guy, drenched in sweat despite temperatures in the fifties, couldn’t stop talking, pacing, sitting, standing and clutching himself. His hair glistened with perspiration, and his shirt was soaked through.
He talked about working construction the next morning, but if he made it there I’d be amazed. He sat down, stood up, and paced some more, sometimes bending over as he walked.
It was like his body was fighting itself, maybe wanting to calm down but unable to do so. Honestly, it was sad as hell, but I can also see how if you’re trying to walk to your car after work it would be scary, too.
He’s a small guy, and Lamb checked on him to make sure he was okay. The man said another homeless man had punched him in the chest earlier that night, but he didn’t want to file a report.
After a few minutes, he walked off, stripping his shirt off, still talking to himself.
“Meth has really changed the landscape of what we see downtown,” Lamb told me as we rode around, again mentioning that they used to deal mostly with people high on cocaine, or drunk. “Their behavior was somewhat predictable, and you knew who were the nice drunks, versus the mean drunks. But the meth use has really caused a lot of mean and unpredictable behavior, and that’s why you have a lot of business owners that are afraid to confront people any more.”
Talk to merchants, workers, and business owners downtown, and you’ll hear a similar tale: Downtown has gotten much worse in the past couple of years, as far as public safety and cleanliness. The people who live and work downtown are scared and worried — and some of these people have been downtown for decades and seen the downtown at its darkest hour in modern history.
Downtown has seen ugly times before
For you newcomers, that was the 1980s, after all the stores had relocated to the mall area off Tunnel Road the previous decade, leaving behind boarded-up buildings occupied mostly by pigeons, and the raccoons that would feed on pigeon eggs. A porno theater occupied what is now the Fine Arts Theatre, and prostitutes had regular routes they plied.
Downtown essentially died, until a group of visionaries in the 1990s brought it back to life, and then it exploded in the early aughts. And now it looks like downtown is once again cycling through an ugly phase.
My Watchdog colleague, Andrew Jones, attended the Wednesday meeting organized by the Chamber and TDA, and he shared some comments with me from those attending.
Amanda Ball, manager at the Highland Brewing Downtown Taproom in the S&W building, said employees and guards in the building had witnessed people appearing to be homeless “entering the building using our public bathrooms to perform sexual favors in exchange for money and drugs.”
Ball described a man who came at employees during closing with a two-by-four and “then took his aggression out on a parked car in the back alleyway.”
Karis Roberts, a bartender at The Wedge Brewing Co.’s location in the Grove Arcade, said, “Everyone’s feeling very unsafe, very traumatized from just going to work to collect a paycheck.”
Roberts said she and her coworkers have been trained in first aid and Narcan, a nasal treatment used to bring people out of an overdose.
Yes, other areas of Asheville, whether the River Arts District or West Asheville, are just as important, or even moreso, to the people who live and work there than downtown, which tends to get all the love and attention. People living in public housing also need more police protection and shouldn’t have to fear for their lives when walking to the car.
And yes, a hundred times, we need more affordable housing, drug treatment programs, and mental health care.
But like it or not, in the here and now, downtown, probably along with the Biltmore Estate, is an economic engine that keeps thousands of people employed, generates an enormous amount of taxes, and yes, draws millions of tourists. The tourism machine here is huge: In 2021, 12.5 million visitors spent $2.6 billion across local businesses in Buncombe County, according to the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority.
Look, we all know downtowns ebb and flow.
When I started working on O. Henry Avenue in 1997, the Grove Arcade was an ugly, bricked-up former federal office building, and when you walked to your car at night it was common to get propositioned by a male prostitute. I remember being excited a new “restaurant” had opened in the Flatiron Building on Battery Park Avenue, until I ordered a tuna sandwich and the “chef” literally opened a can of StarKist in front of me, added mayonnaise and slapped it on Wonder Bread.
Trust me, downtown used to be a real dump. Now it’s a gem.
But it’s looking pretty dusty and chipped up right now. The city better wake up and start polishing.
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 email@example.com