It's 2 p.m. on a Thursday -- I work at 4 p.m. It's my friend's birthday and I know that all she really wants is that framed Mucha painting that is in the window of some vintage shop on South Lexington. The entire process of driving downtown, parking, buying the painting, and heading home should take no more than 15 minutes ... right?
Not today. Turns out my internal ETA measurements are set to 2011 downtown Asheville, North Carolina, standards. Instead, I sit in traffic for 20 minutes while watching hordes of people with Tops for Shoes bags and leftovers from Tupelo Honey stroll past my car. I miss a green light because a couple stops in the middle of the road to consult the Asheville Brewery Map, gesturing like conductors as they try to figure out if Jack of the Wood is the same thing as Green Man (it's not). All parking garages are full so I park in a customer-only lot whilst telling myself that now that the car situation is out of the way, it won't take long enough for anyone to give me a ticket.
Wrong again. I spend the next 10 minutes walk-jogging through clusters of like-dressed people who all keep staring up at nothing with that "I'm taking it all in" dopey face that tourists are prone to. A group of girls ranging from their 20s to 50s who are all wearing tacky crowns and sashes call out to me for directions, prefacing their inquiry with, "You look like you live here." Is that a compliment? What are they implying? Are they referring to the "Oh Christ, please, no" look I've most certainly been sporting since I left home? I don't know, but after a couple of exchanges, I hustle my way, finally, to the store -- and then spend another hour reliving the same hell to get back to my car and on my way to work.
There is a reason no sane person I know goes downtown anymore. In some ways, it feels like some distorted version of Disney World where the attractions are the Bohemia and Art Deco streets, and all the locals are caricatures for beer-sloshed out-of-towners to poke and prod. It's no secret that Asheville is a bubble of arts, liberalism, and hefty amounts of alcohol, but that shouldn't mean that we should turn our town into a tourist attraction either. Most of us moved here for freedom in a vibrant, accepting culture not to be a part of a show... right?
But that's just it. It turns out that with all this corporate money pouring in alongside rich entrepreneurs who are trying to make this city on every top 10 travel list in the world, the regular people, like myself, can no longer afford to live here -- unless we play along, i.e. work in the service industry.
So this becomes my existential crisis: How do I fight back against tourism when my job depends on tourists' satisfaction. The answer is sadly that I can't. As much as I hate the tourists who give me forlorn half-smiles as I tell them I am an aspiring author ("Oh, Richard, did you hear that our server is going to school for poetry? How quaint.") I know that as long as they find my artistic endeavors as charming as my good service, I might get a nice tip, which they will consider their act of charity for the day. It's also easier for me to do this because I had expected it anyway -- I am a college student and a poet, so it's kind of in the cards. But this city isn't all college students and arts degrees. Local newspapers and social spheres are finally taking note that people with doctorates are having to live out the same service industry jobs because it's just too damn expensive any other way.
Of course, I could delve into a whole separate discussion of job markets, but I think this topic is quite depressing enough. The hard fact is, no one can afford to live here anymore. The best example I have seen recently is a couple I knew decided to travel the country for about four months. Before they left, they lived in a turn-of-the-century home right near the outskirts of downtown that only cost them about $400 a month without utilities. As they came back to the city and looked for a place to rent for the same price (even with sharing the house with other people), they could not find anything below the $750-$800 bracket. I would love to say that this situation is an outlier, but it isn't. Ask anyone who has tried to move in the past year and they will tell you that prices have skyrocketed -- and not just for real estate.
The truth is, we are being pushed out. This city which gets its allure by the people who live here and cultivate a culture are being driven out by the people who are trying to sell it. Most of us can't afford to eat where we work if we were paying regular price. Most of us also can't pay rent unless we live off of generous tips from customers. Whether or not the people who are trying to make our city a commodity notice that we can only survive by being tip hoarders, they certainly aren't making it easier. Yes, they are bringing in jobs, but if their standards are raising the cost of living, then what's the point?
So the question is, what do we do now? If we get rid of all the tourism -- which means hotels, restaurants, breweries, etc., what jobs will be left? It's a nice thought that everything will go back to normal, but sadly, it's not the case. We've gone too deep and to backtrack means people who live here will lose jobs. We've raised the bar too high, and now we might not be able to pull it down again.
I know I'm not the first one to say any of this -- and I certainly will not be the last. We have four more hotels slated for the downtown area in 2016, which means more tourists, more expansions, and more service industry jobs. Who knows, maybe one day or another a recession will hit and a cleanse of tourism will begin with hopeful results. But I am not an economist; I can't predict those things.
I am a server, though, and, in some cases, an optimist. While I might want to scream at tourists as they take pictures of the "retro" shops downtown, at least I know that there is a culture behind it all that is still fighting to be alive, and in some ways the tourist industry is helping. If there is anything this town has been built on, it's dreamers, and the thing about dreamers is they have a lot of life in them. Whether in a service industry or not, people in this town are going to work for their goals, even if it's just a shot. Tourism might continue to grow, but if we are still fighting for what brought us all here in the first place, maybe we can find a light at the end of it all.