Asheville: A Shareable Mountain Town

Asheville North Carolina is situated in the Southern Appalachian mountains, a region with a wealth of sharing traditions. Historically, the relative isolation of the mountains and the necessity of making do with less have meant that relying on community is a means to survival. Regardless, it has never gone out of style to share music, food, stories and medicine. As one native Ashevillian says "We help each other out. It's not complicated." These days, Asheville's sharing culture is a healthy mix of the traditional and the cosmopolitan. The economic downturn in the past half-decade has spurred an abundance of community activities and projects for which dollars are not a requirement.

It seems almost impossible to spend time in Asheville without sharing food. The potluck dinner is an institution here, and you will be invited to many, where more often than not, you'll be sampling homegrown vegetables and foraged bounty. If you're new in town, throw your own and invite everyone you meet.

The monthly Ashville Quaker potluck.

Asheville's community garden network is easy to plug into and has a strong emphasis on food security, with many gardens growing collectively rather than in individual plots. One of the most accessible gardens is the George Washington Carver Edible Park. This downtown forest garden is over ten years old and is now bearing fruit, literally. A boardwalk leads through a grove of trees including pear, chestnut, juneberry, pawpaw, fig, cornelian cherry, and persimmon, all free for the taking. Another garden maintained by the Bountiful Cities Project is the beautiful Pearson Garden, which has a weekly workday/potluck on Wednesdays, and an outdoor kitchen and covered area that is a perfect setting for community gatherings. Other places to find a home if you have a green thumb are the Joyner Community Garden, Burton Street Community Peace Garden and the Pisgah View Peace Garden.

The Earth Day 2012 celebration at Burton Street Community Peace Garden. Credit: Burton Street Community Peace Garden. 

Food Not Bombs operates from Warren Wilson College and serves free food in Pritchard Park every Saturday at 2pm. Not far away, Rosetta's Kitchen has the Everybody Eats plate, a heaping portion of beans, rice and slaw (or chips) that costs $2 to $6, sliding scale. Those that can pay more contribute to a pot for those who can't pay at all. Rosetta's also opens on Sundays for Community Cauldrons, a pay-by-donation soup dinner where all funds go towards various local projects.

Also downtown, the vibrant Be Loved House has open doors 5 days a week, Monday through Friday, for those seeking warmth, community and food. Be Loved may look small but is a sharing powerhouse: in 2012, they shared 4,700 pounds of gleaned produce from the farmers market, and their clothing closet accepts and distributes a steady stream of recycled goods.

Every fall, Hickory Nut Forest Eco-Community open their revitalized orchard to the public at Applefest. Guests can enjoy cider and apple-bobbing, and take home as many bushels as they can carry (there's a suggested donation of $3 per carload).

A longstanding all-purpose resource is Asheville LETS, short for Local Exchange Trading System, an innovative community-run project operating since 2006. This network hosts an online barter system where participants can trade goods and services, and instead of using dollars, they trade in "LETS". After attending an orientation, you can trade anything from holistic treatments, to garden help, to childcare. LETS also hosts various potlucks and community events through the year, including a seed swap in the spring. Truly a community-building project, folks who start trading on LETS often end up friends and continue swapping off the grid of the network.

For bike aficionados, the non-profit Asheville Bike ReCyclery has raw materials and volunteer mechanics available to teach building and repair for your two-wheeler, and are open for afternoon hours on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Free event space is always challenging to come by, so Firestorm Cafe and Books, a nearly five year old worker-owned cooperative, is an invaluable resource, hosting a constant rotation of workshops, meetings, film nights, and music events. The newly renovated space also includes free computer/internet terminals, mostly organic affordable cafe fare, and a fabulous selection of independent books and zines. Other favorite hangouts for bibliophiles include the Battery Park Book Exchange, a lounge with shelves of used books and comfortable nooks. If you feel like splurging while you browse, you can sip champagne (and even bring your dog). A few blocks away, the laid-back Downtown Books and News is an excellent spot for trading previously-loved books, and they take kindly to extended browsing.


Firestorm Cafe and Books recent renovation was community-powered Photo credit: Firestorm Cafe.

If you're on the lookout for free events, Asheville has plenty of offerings. In the warm months, every Friday evening is a drum circle in Pritchard Park which is an amusing blend of hippies, tourists and children, and can be heard blocks away (to the enjoyment or consternation of passerby). Downtown After 5 is a Friday night free street party in the summer months. Every September is LAAFF, the Lexington Avenue Arts and Fun Festival, a free alternative arts event that keeps Asheville's freak flag flying high. This ever-expanding festival sponsored by Arts2People includes live music, a fabulous children's arts area, and bicycle jousting. Several locations host free outdoor films in the summer, including Cinebarre, the Wedge building, and Carrier Park (online schedules can usually be found in May).

All summer long, Montford Park Players present Shakespeare in the Park, with several different productions each summer. Bring wine and a picnic, and your own chairs or blankets. Although the productions are free, donations are welcome and the hat is passed at intermission. Shindig on the Green, Saturday nights in the summertime, is a Appalachian music event with a stage show and informal jam sessions (bring an instrument!) and dancing.

Many resources in Asheville mean that trips to the mall can become a thing of the past. The Really Really Free Market has evolved into a monthly happening in Asheville, usually on a Saturday late in the month, at Aston Park. Bring your unneeded goods and go home with a new-to-you treasure. The Asheville Freecycle listserv is active and well-moderated resource. UNC-Asheville and Warren Wilson College both have Free Stores that often open to the public at the end of the school year.

The Really Really Free Market is a monthly outdoor exchange gathering. Photo credit: Really Really Free Market.

The Asheville Storytelling Circle, an organization of professional and amateur story-swappers, has a meeting/story circle on the third Monday of each month, except for August and December. Anam Cara Theater Collective hosts Tales and Ales, a free storytelling evening on the first Friday of every month. If you'd like to shake a leg, Tomato Cocina Latina holds a weekly salsa night Saturdays at 10:30 pm. Asheville International Folk Dancers hosts a free Tuesday evening class/dance at Harvest House where dances from all over the world, especially Balkan line dances, are shared. For those who'd like to get in shape before hitting the dance floor, try a free weekly fitness class at Aston Park (Yoga on Mondays at 6:00 p.m and Tai Chi on Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m in warm months). Donation-based yoga studios are popping up in town, include Asheville Community Yoga in North Asheville, and Asheville Yoga Center in Montford.

All-ages classes of many sorts can be found through the hub of Freeskool Asheville, a "teaching and learning network organized by and for the community". Recent offerings have included fermentation workshops and improv classes.

Salvemaking workshop conducted through Freeskool Asheville. Photo credit: Freeskool Asheville.

One of the joys of living in Asheville is discovering your favorite outdoor destinations. There are plenty of opportunities in town, from the always-free Botanical Gardens at UNCA, the North Carolina Arboretum, with free admission on Tuesdays, and the lovely Bent Creek Area, whose trails alongside the creek and Lake Powhatan are popular with hikers and mountain bikers. The trails at Warren Wilson College along the Swannanoa River have some great spots for cooling off in the water. No one can truly call themselves an Ashevillian until they have tubed the French Broad River in July (BYO-tube and floatable refreshments, and put in at Hominy Creek Park).

The Botanical Gardens at Asheville is a sanctuary for Southern Appalachian plants. Photo credit: Kingary.

If you venture a bit further from the city, mountain paradise can be found in any direction. Drive north or south on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and stop at a different place each time. If you bring a picnic, no money need be spent. Favorite swimming holes, mushroom hunting and berry picking spots are tightly guarded secrets, where part of the enjoyment is in the discovery (but you can get a head start at the Asheville Mushroom Club or swimmingholes.org).

Asheville is replete with shared resources for families and children. Childcare and homeschooling cooperatives abound in various neighborhoods around town. Cafes with kid-friendly areas include The Tree House, The Hop, West End Bakery, and Hi 5 Cafe. A summer favorite for the young ones is Splashville, a free wading fountain downtown in Pack Square. For those who'd prefer not to shell out big bucks for holiday gifts for children, a well-organized and free toy swap is held every year. The venue often rotates, but an online search for "Winter Toy Swap" should bring results. The best place for up-to-date information about all of these resources is the Asheville Mamas listserv. Asheville Family Resource also has a monthly newsletter with extensive information on events. Several bulletin boards around town are useful, including those at the Littlest Birds clothing store and public libraries.

Enjoying Splashville in Pack Square. Photo credit: Jana Martin.

Kids will also enjoy time at Asheville Arts Museum and the Colburn Science Museum in Pack Place downtown (free admission for all first Wednesday of every month, 3-5pm).

The health and wellness community of Asheville has much to offer. The Sassafras Community Health Collective offers sliding scale herbal consultations and publishes a free health care resource guide which can be found at Firestorm Asheville. People's Acupuncture of Asheville provides affordable sliding scale acupuncture at their Grove Street location. The Asheville Radical Mental Health Collective meets weekly (no charge) on Tuesdays from 4:30-6:30pm at Downtown Market. Open Umbrella Collective offers free services to individuals across the spectrum of pregnancy, according to their mission, including free/sliding scale doula services. For those without insurance, ABCCM has a free clinic, and Integrative Family Medicine operates an extremely low-cost accessible monthly plan for basic health care needs.

Fledgling projects are constantly set in motion, and if you have some energy to help build the sharing community, your participation is invaluable. New initiatives include an Asheville Tool Library, in the beginning stages of organization. Plug in here. An initiative for yardsharing seems to be gaining traction, more information here.

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