Asheville, Off the Tech Hub Grid

by havoc

Software developers often find themselves considering a short list of west coast “tech hub” cities when they think about where to live. As Richard Florida points out, “the world is flat” theories are at least partially wrong; industries tend to concentrate in certain cities, where people can find each other, hire talent, network, and launch companies. This could not be more true in the software world.

Last summer I posted about moving to Asheville, NC.  There’s not much tech industry here, and that sucks. In fact, there aren’t a lot of jobs at all, in any field.

In every other way, though, it’s wonderful, and ought to be on your list of places to visit (or even consider living). If you’d like to stay on the Eastern side of the US, restricting yourself to only tech hub cities leaves few options. If you can figure out how to work outside an industry hub, your choices expand.

West coast and Northeastern US residents often haven’t heard of Asheville. Let me tell you why you should have a look. (Hey, if I convince enough people, we can get a tech industry going!)

View of Cataloochee area in Great Smoky Mountains

Less than an hour west, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Disclaimer

I’m not trying to argue which is the “best” city. Obviously: your happiness has more to do with friends and family, fulfilling work, and attitude than with location. And the best location has to do with what you like and best fit for you. There’s no beach near Asheville, if you’re a beach person, for example. Anyway don’t get defensive!

I thought I’d write something up because: Asheville isn’t as widely-known as it ought to be, it’s amazingly hard to find useful discussion of places to live, plus you might want to check the city out as a vacation spot.

The Quick Bullet List

Pros:

  • Located in a mountain valley at 2400ft, surrounded by national forest and parkland. Natural beauty visible from downtown. Outdoor recreation everywhere.
  • Economy powered by tourism attracts a vibrant artistic/creative class, leading to food, shopping, cultural events, and other city amenities you’d expect from a much larger city.
  • Typical commute into center of downtown during “rush hour” takes 5-10 minutes.
  • Milder summers than lower-elevation southern cities, milder winters than northeastern cities. Has four distinct seasons, with nice leaves in fall, a few good snowfalls in winter, typically 75-80 degrees in summer.
  • Much cheaper than big cities.
  • There isn’t the same “cramped condo near city stuff or big house out in boring suburbs” tradeoff you’d find in most big cities. You can live near downtown, and also near outdoor recreation, and have a spacious house, all for a reasonable price. In a big city you need a lot of cash to have space and be close to city amenities.
  • Airport is large enough to have regular flights to the hubs, but small enough that you can go from car to gate in under 10 minutes. Quick parking and total lack of lines more than compensates for lack of nonstops. (I rarely got a nonstop from say Boston Logan, anyhow.)
  • On the East coast. This may be a pro or a con for you. It’s a pro for us since we’re closer to family, and I like my mountains on a smaller scale, Appalachian-style.

Cons:

  • No tech industry. The economy is tourism-based. (It is entrepreneurial, but the entrepreneurs are creating food, hotels, art, etc. rather than high tech products. Starting a business may be your best bet for work, in fact.)
  • Public transportation isn’t good. The condo-in-city-with-no-car lifestyle doesn’t work well here. Though you don’t have to drive far or deal with much traffic, you have to drive at least sometimes.
  • There’s a school of thought on message boards comparing Asheville to non-cities; common points made include: there are lots of people with “hippie” clothes and tattoos, lots of traffic, crime, and stuff is too expensive. If you are comparing to any large city, I doubt you’ll take these criticisms seriously. However, yes, Asheville is a (small) city and has city things (on a small scale).
  • If progressive bumper stickers, everything-organic vegans, art installations, and things along those lines annoy you, you’ll be annoyed.
  • It’s small enough that some may find it claustrophobic.

Mountain State Fair

Comparable Cities

Here are some of the more-similar places you might compare Asheville to, to give a sense of how they differ. I won’t try to make a comprehensive list; just trying to locate Asheville among its peers.

  • Chapel Hill / Carrboro, NC, another small east-coast place with good amenities and low costs. Chapel Hill proper is much smaller than Asheville, but it has easy access to the larger Raleigh-Durham. Unlike Asheville, there’s a tech industry here. You’ll do more driving and see more sprawl in the Triangle than in Asheville, and you won’t have the 15-minute access to parks and forests. You’ll be hotter in the summer, too. In short, no mountains, but a lot more local economic opportunity. I’ll lump Raleigh-Durham itself into this bullet point.
  • Northampton, MA is a little college town in the mountains that has a similar “feel” to Asheville in some ways. It is a tenth the size, though.
  • Athens, GA is a larger southern college town, still smaller than Asheville. Unlike Chapel Hill, Northampton, and Athens, Asheville is not a college town; it’s a tourist town. But Asheville has some of the same creative-class feel you’d find in a college town.
  • Boulder, CO is half the size of Asheville. It’s far colder (the Rockies are much higher mountains!) and far more expensive. But it has a thriving tech community, great amenities, and better skiing.
  • Portland, OR is about four times the size of Asheville, with great public transportation, food, beer, and a lot more tech stuff going on.
  • Austin, TX is about eight times the size, but it’s a pretty inexpensive place to live with lots of great amenities and of course a tech community. It feels like a big city, though it’s smaller than the Northeastern cities.
  • Nashville, TN and Knoxville, TN are west of Asheville on the other side of the mountains. I haven’t spent much time in these cities but people say good things.
  • Charleston, SC might be the beach equivalent of Asheville, similar in scale, also a tourist town, about 4.5 hours southeast.
  • Greenville, SC is an hour south of Asheville, just below the mountains, and worth a visit. It has a nice downtown with a lot of effort behind it, including a lovely park around a natural waterfall.

Asheville deserves its spot in this book, it’s a yuppie/progressive/etc. kind of city. If you can’t handle it when people talk about sustainable, organic, crafting, etc. then you can’t handle Asheville.

(If it isn’t clear, I’m describing only one aspect of Asheville from a yuppie kind of perspective, because that’s what I know. There’s a lot of poverty here, too, and the city looks pretty different from that standpoint. And of course there’s a “tourists and yuppies go home!” point of view to be found.)

Getting Oriented

You have the bullet points, now here’s some detail.

Asheville is a small city in Western North Carolina (“WNC”), about 80,000 people in city limits, 400,000 in the statistical area.  In any direction you look, there’s a mountain vista Eastern-style: covered in green, 4,000-6,000 foot peaks, rather than the 10,000-20,000 feet out west. Asheville itself is in a valley, around 2,100 feet, but there’s a 2,600 foot mountain ridge running straight into the middle of town. You’ll see this mountain, rather than the downtown skyline, anytime you’re south of it.

Asheville has a tourism-based economy. As the largest city in the immediate area, it’s also the home of a regional hospital, the largest employer in town.

The city is surrounded by areas that aren’t open to development; Pisgah National Forest, Biltmore Estate, and  Blue Ridge Parkway, are some of the larger ones. Past Pisgah to the West, there’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

If you’re used to a larger city with actual traffic, understand the scale of Asheville. Driving from one side of the city to the other takes around 15 minutes.

My family’s approach to Asheville is to live in the city for daily proximity to what it offers, and then drive 15 minutes out to do outdoor stuff. Another approach is to live outside the city (cheaper) and either save money on housing or spend your money on having some land. I’ll focus on the in-city option because there are lots of places you could live in the country, this post is about the city of Asheville. Another option, btw, is to live in one of the charming smaller towns in the area, such as Hendersonville or Waynesville.

Biltmore House

Vanderbilt's house

History

In the 1890s,  George Washington Vanderbilt II decided to live like European nobility and built what remains the largest house in the United States here in Asheville. Today it’s a tourist attraction, with the house, a winery, restaurants, hiking trails, a resort hotel, and so on. (If you live here, you can get a cheap annual pass to visit the estate unlimited times, treating it as a giant city park.)

Asheville was a resort town in the last big credit bubble, in the 1920s. Downtown is packed with fabulous Art Deco buildings, and a number of neighborhoods are full of houses built in the 20s. It was a Great Gatsby kind of place (midway through the Great Depression, F. Scott Fitzgerald showed up and drank himself to death).  Post-1929, the city went into stasis for fifty years; they didn’t even have enough money to tear down or renovate the old 20s stuff — historic preservation through poverty.


asheville downtown from the southwest

Aerial photo of downtown Asheville in Fall

Downtown

Twenty years ago Asheville’s downtown was a wasteland (you’ve probably visited many cities that are still this way). All the great old 20s architecture boarded up and empty. Now, when I walk out of my office downtown on Friday or Saturday night the place is just swarming with people. There are an outrageous number of bars, restaurants, and coffee shops, with heavy competition pushing quality up. There are loads of art galleries. There are clothing boutiques and gift shops and a place that sells 900 beers. A great thing about downtown Asheville (and one reason it’s a tourist destination) is that most of the businesses are local and unique.

Chimney Rock State Park

less than an hour south, Chimney Rock State Park

Outdoors

For those who’ve been to Western Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire, the overall feel of Western North Carolina is similar to those mountain areas. The Berkshires are lower-altitude than the WNC mountains, but they’re also farther north, so their climate comes out colder.

East coast mountains are green and different in scale from those out West.

I don’t ski, and by all accounts it’s far inferior in the East. However, we have great whitewater, backpacking, mountain and road biking, trail running, leaf peeping, camping, fishing, and so on and so forth. You could spend years and never run out of new trails, rivers, and waterfalls.

When it’s nice out we go hike up a mountain or something on a moment’s notice. It’s not a trip you have to plan, it’s just as convenient as going to a movie.

Weather

You can’t beat Asheville’s climate while still having seasons.

North Carolina isn’t in the same heat league as Georgia or Texas, even in Raleigh/Durham. Western North Carolina moderates things further because of the altitude; Asheville is around 2400 feet. Spring and Fall are mostly perfect in the 60s and 70s, Summer tends to be 70s to 80s. 2009 had zero days above 90, though in most years there would be a few. On a 90-degree day, a short drive up a mountain can take 30 degrees off, plus offer a scenic picnic.

In the winter it snows a few times, so it feels like winter. Snow doesn’t stay on the ground for a couple months the way it does in the Northeast; within a few days there will be highs enough above freezing to melt snow. Asheville mostly lacks bitterly cold days, not venturing too far below freezing.

Some won’t like rain and humidity, but they are about average compared to the United States as a whole; while say Seattle (in winter) or Miami (in summer) are well above average. In the mountains, it often rains in short bursts, as wet air from the coast slows down.

asheville city from afar

Downtown, below it the mountain dividing downtown from South Asheville

Neighborhoods

You can split the city up into two broad categories. North, Center, and West are older areas with many houses from the 20s (and 40s,50s,60s; pretty much none from the 30s). These neighborhoods tend to be an older style with sidewalks, etc. For the most part these neighborhoods are in the city school district. East and South are newer areas and have sprawl tendencies (gated communities, box stores). These areas are in the county school district. In all directions things eventually fade into a more living-in-the-country feel. Of the older areas, West Asheville has had less gentrification and remodeling, so it’s cheaper. The old houses in the west often have no more than two bedrooms, while many old houses in northern and central neighborhoods have been redone and expanded. There’s a fair bit of new construction mixed into the older neighborhoods, as well.

Here’s a map of neighborhood names (only useful if you’re looking for a place to live).

International-style house in our neighborhood, set up for Halloween

Food and Beer

Asheville has an outrageous number of bars and restaurants for its size, thanks to tourist traffic. It’s competitive enough that many of them are very good, and often not even expensive. While the town has Friday’s and Chilis and so on, we haven’t been to those places since moving here: they are more expensive than the twice-as-good unique local places.

Food here tends to be honest, simple, and fresh, rather than showy fine dining or molecular gastronomy. Local ingredients are more common than exotica.

Craft breweries are big. Typically, restaurants have several of the local beers available.

I’d say the “restaurant rotation” near my office downtown beats the one near my old office on Boylston Street in Boston.

There are quite a few farmer’s markets that set up temporarily, in-season we visit a couple of them regularly. Plus the permanent WNC Farmer’s Market. There are four different “crunchy/organic” grocery stores, including Whole Foods, Fresh Market, the regional Earth Fare chain (my favorite), and the French Broad Food Coop. We have regular grocery stores as well, of course.

The quality food options are way ahead of those in most similarly-sized cities, they tend to be relatively cheap compared to large cities, and as always in Asheville, you can get there in less than 15 minutes.

Drinking a beer, watching the weather

Beer with a view

Tourist Attractions

Lots of people have written tourist guides for the area, here are some:

I’d tend to do some shopping/eating/drinking downtown in between visiting the surrounding mountains for your choice of outdoor adventures. There are some great hotels and spas though if you aren’t up for anything active.

But it’s in the South!

Lots of people just can’t handle the south. You’re being silly, people. Also, there’s a good chance you’re basing this on Atlanta. Livability-wise, Atlanta is a sprawl nightmare with superheated summers. Give the rest of the region a chance.

Asheville isn’t very “Southern” in the stereotypical way; lots of people relocated here from other parts of the country, and those who are from the South are often fleeing small towns where they didn’t fit in. Like Chapel Hill, Asheville is a little “blue” island in a red state.

That said, there’s plenty of Western North Carolina tradition in the area, including friendly people, good food, and all the rest.

An Incredible Value

Asheville excels in livability, with a bit less excitement than a condo near downtown in a large city, but far more excitement and convenience than a typical large city suburb. You get easy-to-visit-daily convenient access to both downtown amenities and outdoor recreation, which means in practice taking advantage of all those things.

When I lived in a Chicago apartment, I did city things but rarely left the city; when I lived in the suburbs of Boston, I rarely went into the city (and the suburbs are a wasteland!). In a typical Asheville week, we’ll do some stuff outdoors, and we’ll go downtown, because it’s all less than 15 minutes away.

Purple Aster

Town Mountain Road, just north of downtown

My Twitter account is @havocp.
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