Asheville vs. Morgantown: Why the difference?

In case it wasn't clear from the last post, there are three stand-out reasons to go to Asheville (in any season, really): the food, the beer, and the art. Thanks to the clean water flowing down from the mountains, there are two dozen breweries located there now, from local places with fairly small operations to the new east coast facility that Sierra Nevada just opened outside of town. Their tap room was packed at 3:30 on a Friday. We wondered who exactly this crowd was. Locals? Tourists? Despite being huge and obviously commercial, the space was nicely done, with a large stage out back for music. 

Everywhere we went, there was evidence of artistic influence--clearly there are many, many creative types there. Above is a letterpress shop owned by a former Bostonian in the River Arts District, where lots of artists working in various media make and sell their wares.  A painter we met told us artists began relocating there several years back when rent got too high in other parts of the city.

I loved the illustrations on the posters  below, as well as the lovely stick art surrounding the door of the shop above.

Downtown Asheville has its own art scene, such as the art gallery located in the old Woolworth's building, known as  Woolworth Walk. To be featured there, artists must live within a certain geographic area (I think 25 miles from the city?) and are selected by jury.

I went on this trip with the idea that I would try to discern what it is that this town has that others don't (ahem, Morgantown). In the back of my mind was the question--can we do it too? Is there some recipe we can follow to create our own version of Asheville? By the time we got to West Asheville, I began to think no. I'd already seen so much, and this part of town only had more. Murals, organic ice cream shops, cute boutiques. A honey shop, for heaven's sake.

If ever a place made me want to own my own food establishment, it was Biscuit Head. I love biscuits in a huge way, and theirs are huge, delicious, flaky--divine really.

And what did they do to top off with these perfect biscuits the size of a cat's head? They made their own inventive jams and butters. There must have been at least 30 spreads to choose from, from classics like raspberry jam to unique blends like amaretto peach. Seriously. Heaven.

The level of creativity, of entrepreneurship--it so vastly exceeds what we have going on in Morgantown right now, that I'm not sure it's possible to create that type of scene here any time soon. 

Having made my way through Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel this month, I'm sensitive to how geography and both environmental and economic resources influence what happens in a place. Both Morgantown and Asheville are located in the mountains, have rivers running through and a fairly hilly topography, and are surrounded by relatively poor, rural areas. And of course the natural question is, why there and not here? What about that town allows artists and small independently-owned businesses to flourish while only a few seem to do really well here?

In addition to a larger population, one thing that Asheville has had both historically and in recent years is a serious influx of cash from investors and entrepreneurs. This is something that West Virginia has historically lacked, and that continues to this day. While there is quite a bit of growth and development happening in Morgantown right now, it doesn't have the same artistic flavor. Personally I think there's a real lack of appreciation for aesthetics in this town, and while we have more local restaurants and businesses than a lot of other West Virginia towns, only a few seem to genuinely thrive. And so in addition to a relative lack of resources, I think there may not be the interest here in creating such a place--at least not in the numbers needed to really make it happen.

Asheville's newspaper has done a series of articles about how the city has changed over the years. One interesting point they made is that while Asheville has experienced tremendous growth and is now a national tourist destination, it's become difficult for those holding the service jobs that cater to tourists to actually afford to live there. Or to make a real living on the wages they're paid. This is the kind of fact that brings me back to reality. Yes, that town looks amazing and inspiring and is so much fun to visit. But the homes are pricey and out of reach for many (not to mention we were told most good ones get swiped up before they even hit the market).

And with this, the lesson I've learned many times before rears its head again: every place has its positives and negatives. Not to mention the corresponding gem: Wherever you are, there you will be. (I try to keep this one in mind when I get off track thinking if only I lived __, my life would be so much more exciting!) As my friend said to me on our run this weekend, sometimes it seems really good to live in a place where everything isn't already perfect--because there your efforts can really make a difference. What do you think? Are we justifying here or speaking truth?