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Asheville, N.C. Is Gentrifying, But People Have Always Been Drawn To It


We head to North Carolina now. That state was in the news quite a bit last year because of HB2, the so-called bathroom bill and then the dust-up over the Republican lawmakers' efforts to curb the authority of the new Democratic governor. But what issue you might not have heard much about is the rapid pace of change in Western North Carolina, particularly in the city of Asheville. Just last week, Asheville was ranked the second fastest gentrifying city in the entire country by the real estate database

I'm headed to Asheville next week for the latest in our live event series we call Going There. Our subject is When Your Hometown Gets Hot. We're going to talk about what happens when a place like Asheville is discovered by newcomers.

Professor Chris Cooper is the head of the Department of Political Science at Western Carolina University. He'll be joining me onstage next week to talk about some of the change happening in his part of the world which you might also be seeing where you live. He's with me today from member station WCQS in Asheville. Professor Cooper, welcome. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

CHRIS COOPER: Thanks. I'm looking forward to it.

MARTIN: So what are some of the reasons that Asheville has gotten hot? Why are people moving there?

COOPER: You know, I think it's - (unintelligible) have this broader national trend - right? - of folks moving to the Sun Belt. And I think maybe we're part of that - folks moving from the North to the South. It's an area that's got pretty good health care, that's got a lot of the markers for retirees. It's also one that folks have always been drawn to, I think.

I mean, if you go back and look at the history of Asheville, and the history of Western North Carolina, it was a place where people would vacation from the South, and they'd vacation to escape the heat, right? So if you're in Columbia, S.C., and it's 105 degrees outside and you just take a little bit of a trip up the road to Asheville, I think you're going to find cooler temperatures. You're going to find bigger views, and I think you're going to find it a really interesting place.

MARTIN: So what role does a city like Asheville play in the politics of North Carolina? Do people care in the rest of the state what people in Asheville think? Do they have an influence on the rest of the state in any way?

COOPER: They do. I think Asheville sometimes is a foil for the rest of the state, right? I think it's viewed as this liberal enclave in the western part of the state in a lot of the same ways that Austin, Texas, might look in the middle of Texas, right? You got this big red sea, and you have this big, bright blue dot in the middle of it. And I think that is Asheville in Western North Carolina.

So it's the economic center, it's the media center, it's the cultural center and it is in the region. But in some ways it is not of the region anymore. I think you definitely feel some differences when you drive 30 minutes, 45 minutes, an hour outside of Asheville into Western North Carolina more generally.

MARTIN: And to that end - and this is my final question for today because, as I mentioned, you're going to be joining me next week - why should the rest of the country be interested in something like this? I mean, why should people care that this little town has become...


MARTIN: ...So hot and that, you know, it's become a land of, you know, brewpubs and excellent restaurants, and, you know, the arts and so forth in a place that people might not expect?

COOPER: Yeah. I think it's a fascinating place for a lot of reasons. One, I think it tells us a lot about the South - right? - and what the South is and what the South isn't and how the South is changing. I think it does give us a lot of clues into gentrification, the good and the bad. I mean, yeah, this is an area that's got, you know, James Beard Award-winning restaurants. But then if you drive 30 minutes outside of town, you're in counties with real poverty, real Appalachian poverty.

And so I think all that juxtaposition leads to this really, really interesting place. You've got folks that moved to Western North Carolina to get away from it all because they're way to the right, and they might be a prepper (ph). They might be somebody who's sort of on the right extreme and fringe or you might have somebody who's way in the left extreme and fringe - right? - the kind of people that are keeping rabbits for pets or meat. So it's a fascinating place. I think it's a microcosm of the country in a lot of different ways, and it's a beautiful one, too.

MARTIN: Chris Cooper heads the Department of Political Science at Western Carolina University. He will be joining me and my other guests in Asheville for a live conversation about the rapid pace of change taking place in Western North Carolina. Our event is called When Your Hometown Gets Hot. I do want to mention our event will be live streamed, so you can participate that way, and we have a hashtag #hothometown. Professor Cooper, thanks so much for joining us.

COOPER: Thank you. I enjoyed it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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