Friday, June 20, 2014

Downtown After 5 in Asheville exists became of a humble farmer who shared his stories

June 20, 2014 - Annual honoring of the unknown farmer responsible for Downtown After 5 series

Asheville's Downtown After 5 concert series has grown extremely popular and is celebrating its 26th year this summer. Ask someone how it all got started and you'll probably get some answer about how much time and sweat a certain few volunteers put into making it happen. And that's true. And I'm thankful for their hard work to helping it grow. But, if you ask how it all began, you get a blank stare. Newcomers to Asheville - and some not so new residents - possess not a clue about its humble beginnings.

It was the summer of 1987 and we had a booth set up for Bele Chere on Lexington Avenue. (Bele Chere - now defunct - was Asheville's huge summer party that pretty much closed all of the downtown streets.) We were giving away balloons, hoping to attract customers to our booth so we could promote Asheville's first arts and news independent publication, our new baby and business. It was called Out 'n About. We had only been publishing for 3 months, beginning in April 1987. Bele Chere hadn't been taking place that long and still had a homey feel. No rules and regulations about how booths had to look. You paid your fee; you got your space. We set up a very home-spun wooden stand that would not have won any best decorated awards, and commenced to doing our thing.

An older gentleman wearing overalls and a baseball cap, sweat pouring down his neck, approached us with a small cardboard table and a box. He asked if we minded if he sat in the shade of our booth, set his table up, put out voter registration cards and try and get people signed up to vote. Sure. Why not? He was doing a great thing. We were shocked when he told us how many people had turned him away. We were the last booth he was going to ask before heading on back to the house.

Maybe they were afraid of how he looked. His overalls were a bit dirty, his face aged with lines earned from years of working mountain fields, growing and harvesting tobacco. He had a long, scraggly beard, his white mustache stained from his enjoying his own hand-rolled, homegrown tobacco. And he did have a bit of an odor about him. But, hey, it was July. We were all sweating and not smelling our Sunday best. He was just the kind of character we liked. We knew he'd have some good stories to share.

And, share he did. He talked about Friday nights down at the end of the street where we sat. There's a big parking lot there (where Downtown After 5 now takes place) and it once was home to the Lexington Avenue Farmers Market. According to our new friend, people would come from all over the mountains to buy and sell their goods. But, mostly, they were there for the fun that started happening about the time the sun went down. Goods sold, bellies full, it was time for a pickin', a dancin' and a visitin'. Folks would stay until the wee hours of the morning, say their good-byes and see you next week.

What a wonderful picture he created for me. Community farmers, musicians and just the average people coming together to celebrate their culture and simply enjoy one another's company. So after Bele Chere was over, I wrote a column describing what I had learned that weekend. I talked about how Bele Chere was great, but the City could only put on an event that closed so many downtown streets once a year. But why not shut down one area each Friday and bring back some of the life and community my farmer friend had described? Downtown Asheville was definitely not the hustle and bustle it is today and any event to get people downtown seemed like a grand idea to me. It would need to be on a different street each week, so as to let people know that there were more businesses open than they perhaps realized.

The Downtown Commission had just formed that year and the new leader called and said, "loved your column, now put your actions with your words and let's get something going next year. How about calling it Downtown After 5? Hopefully, we'll get some workers to stay and some others to come down and join in on the fun. I'll worry about the money, the rules and regulations and beer permits. I need you and Alphie to book the local bands and publicize the event as much as you can." So we spent that year readying for the next summer, never doubting for a moment it wouldn't happen. We didn't have all that much money allotted for paying the musicians. It was all a labor of love and a vision of what could come to be.

And, happen it did. Not too many people came out that first year, but we were pleased anyone attended at all. I think we capped out that summer at maybe around 200 people. The first concerts happened in places like on top of the Wall St.or Rankin Ave. parking deck. There was one in an enclosed private parking area over on Broadway which fit about 50 cars at the most. And there was one in front of the downtown library that almost didn't happen. The rain poured. People ran for cover under awnings. And just when it looked like we'd have to call it off, the skies cleared and the party started right back up.

We were able to do one every Friday during the summer months and I do miss the intimate locations of those first events. Our hands on involvement from that first year changed to simply promoting the event and helping make it as popular as possible. A group of very dedicated volunteers came on board and the event finally changed to once a month because it was growing, and the logistics for once a week were just too much.

So, we have what we have today. Downtown After 5 attracts thousands of people. There are two bands at each event, one lesser known local band and a better known band, sometimes local. Not always. It's serendipity that it takes place at the old Lexington Avenue Farmer's Market location. My farmer friend would be happy. Every one that I go to, I make a secret toast to him and thank him for sharing his story. Because without that story and his dedication to getting people to vote, Downtown After 5 would not be what it is today.

Learn more about Downtown After 5 here: http://www.ashevilledowntown.org/