I recently spent a few days in Asheville, North Carolina. I had a chance to stay there on my way up from Florida to Ohio, stopping here and there to do an open mic, a booksigning or wax poetic to the gathered masses. I had the luxury of staying with friends who could show me all the better sights of a city I had been through many times but had never had a chance to explore. I was anxious, excited and nearly salivating over my good fortune and impending visit.
Each time through Asheville, we thought of moving. Every single time. Once, after a summer visit when the temperature never ventured above eighty degrees, after my wife remarked how downtown was like a small Philadelphia, I started looking for a teaching assignment there. I was told, over and over, the only way to get one was to know someone on the inside and then wait for a teacher to retire or, more likely considering how little teachers get paid in North Carolina, die. If I didn’t want to wait for a teacher to die on his own, I could actively create the vacancy. That has actually happened there. Either way, it didn’t seem a good career move.
Ashville is an oasis of liberal thought and action in a sea of social conservatism. Billy Graham was close by. Frequently one would find Falwell too. (Where he is now is a matter of debate.) One would also find the Earthhaven Ecovillage. Amid the many communes one cannot help but notice the many survivalist, neo-nationalist and right-wing religious orthodoxist groups. A friendly mix.
This time, there was something different. Coming into town from the south, about four in the afternoon, we sat on Interstate 26 nearly an hour to move fewer than ten miles. In Asheville? In Asheville.
Apparently I would have greater time to enjoy the pleasantly curving, gently sloping, tree-shaded streets as I would be spending quite a bit of time on them sitting still.
On a Friday evening, at the circular park central to downtown, across, on one side, from Malaprops, one of the most lauded independent booksellers in the US, and, on the other, a store devoted to Tibetan and Buddhist art and artifacts, I had the opportunity to attend a drum circle.
I had attended these in many towns but none were like this. At Fort Lauderdale’s South Beach one would find a dozen drummers, half a dozen belly dancers and, perhaps, nearly one hundred people. Not bad for a county population of 1.5 million. In Gainesville, Florida, college town and home to U of F, the community plaza might have two dozen drummers, a few dozen dancers and two hundred or so attendees. Not bad for a county population of 240 thousand. Of course, during the summer, you can hear a pin drop. I actually did this. Stood in the Gainesville Downtown Plaza and dropped a pin. Clank.
But Asheville is another story. The population of the county is slightly over 222 thousand. The downtown common, concave, deep, ringed by combination steps and seats, wide and inviting and green at the center, was full. Fitting another person in would have taken a pry bar or tackle and hoist.
I stopped counting the drummers at fifty. Dancers I stopped counting at one hundred. This did not begin to account for the number of people there sitting, talking, moving, swaying, singing and enjoying themselves in the summer night while, elsewhere downtown, a stage was set with constant live music while residents shopped at stalls along the plaza. People milled on the streets, at outdoor cafes, on benches. No part of downtown was not full of life.
Back to Asheville. Amid the hippies and hipsters one passes downtown, one must also deal with one of the largest per capita homeless populations in the United States. While I watched the drummers, while I walked downtown, I was accosted, and I use that word in its literal sense, multiple times by people cursing me because I did not give them money. Street musicians in New York and Philly and New Orleans play and if you toss them coins, well and good. In Asheville, if you don’t toss them a coin, expect the music to stop and the epithets to begin. That is the best you can hope for. You might find yourself with a new companion whom you have to pay to repel.
At charity events I often talk or read poetry to patrons until they pay me, pay the charity, to have me leave them alone. It works beautifully. But patrons expect to have their pockets lightened at charity events and I bath. This is very different than what I encountered in Asheville.
I asked about it. My Asheville friends told me one of the state institutions was nearby. When being mentally ill was, shall we say ‘decriminalised,’ the patrons of that state’s institutions were let out with no place to go. Asheville was where many ended up. Many. It seemed like all of them. With a mild climate and the blessing of proximity as well as tourism, Asheville seemed a natural choice even for those non compos mentis.
Perhaps this is not the cause of the relatively high crime in Asheville, but it can’t have helped. Asheville’s rate for violent and non-violent crime is quite a bit above the national average. And, still people move there in increasingly alarming numbers.
The Asheville Citizen-Times ran an editorial cartoon that depicted a company specializing in tours of Asheville dedicated to showing tourists all the places tourists ought not see if one hopes for repeat business and word-of-mouth advertising. It starts off on Merriman Street. I have walked alone in Liberty City, I’ve worked in Overtown and lived in the inner city of Detroit but I won’t walk alone on Merriman. I’m nuts but not quite that nuts.
The message is plain: The tour is to convince us Asheville is terrible. Horrible. Contemptible at nearly every level. “You don’t want to move here. Move someplace else. Someplace nice. Really. We truly care about you and your happiness so move to Florida instead.”
So, if you were planning a move to Asheville, if you were in contemplation of a relocation, here is an idea: move to Palm Bay instead.
Don’t think South Florida. The population here is remarkably different, diverse, from all around the world, but English speaking, able and willing to work together to make new projects happen, happen now, happen smoothly and still preserve the natural glory that is the place we live. The environment for creativity is accepting and open.
The environment as a whole is much different than South Florida as well. Not like any other part of Florida, the temperature never gets too high as the ocean air travels over the Indian River and brings a constant pleasant breeze. Nearly never into the forties in the winter nights, barely out of the eighties in the height of summer days and always cooling at with the evening, you will find the desire to sit outside watching the manatees and dolphins a real distraction. But you can handle it, right?
Of course there is one other distraction that is an accepted part of life here. Once every other month or so, nearly the entire population gathers outside, sometimes during the day, sometimes at night, to watch the bright exclamation point of fire leap into the sky as NASA launches a shuttle or satellite. Everybody looks up and the whole world seems to pause for a while. Work stops and everyone understands.
What else do you get? Homes. Your pick, as a matter of fact. So many are standing empty, built just before and during the spike in purchases and high real estate prices that you can have your pick and nearly name your price. A new one? No problem. Land? Sure. Condo? You got it. By the ocean? Absolutely. On the river? Of course. Commune? We have ’em. Want to start a new one? Go for it.
Looking to start a farm? You have people ready and willing to buy the produce of your labour. Make it organic and you’ll never have to sit behind a desk again unless that’s where you are comfy counting cash.
You see, we need cool people. We have drummers, dancers, artists and writers but we need more. We need that growth in the arts and creative elements of the population that will make creativity and a colorful life not only acceptable but an expected, welcomed part of the everyday here in Brevard County. And You can help make that happen.
Sure, we have drumming. We even meet downtown to drum and dance but the park is small, semi-circular at the point of a flatiron where two streets converge to form a ‘Y’ but there is little room. The drummers and dancers spill onto the street. Of course, this is in downtown Melbourne, just on the outside fringe of Palm Bay.
With more people like you, more people who would have moved to Asheville before discovering the horrible truth of it, we could move the drumming slightly south, to Palm Bay, to the beach, to one of the many river parks, to where drumming would not mean pausing to dodge a Dodge.
We have a downtown area. Of course, it used to have more buildings in it before four hurricanes in one year took many of them to Mexico. Now, the rents are low and the city is not only asking for people to bring in creative business, it is go so far as helping foot the bill with loans, incubator projects, assistance with equipment, business plans and advertising. The City of Palm Bay wants you and is willing to lend you the cash to set up shop.
Music is everywhere here. Jazz, Bluegrass and Rock fill the parks on weekends with bands and jams hosted by clubs, colleges and the city of Palm Bay. Renaissance and medieval music ensembles, theatre guilds (even the world-renown F.I.T., an engineering school, has a theatre guild) and writers’ clubs mix and match for a vibrant community of word and sound. We might be the only people to have that. Where else can you go to a coffeehouse and find the first violinist for the local symphony and the president of the ACLU in one New-world Beat Tribal-Fusion band? World’s fastest banjoist? Yes sir. How about Punk Eco-Ska? We got that, too. Here. Palm Bay.
And as for communities of faith, those are many and varied as well. Sure, there are churches of differing types and sizes from Apostolic to Zion, but there is also Unity, United and Universal. Temples? Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, sumptuous synagogues to homey chabads. We have mosques and ashrams. UU? You bet. (And the Unitarian Universalist Minister Ann Fuller kicks ass!)
Buddhism? Looking for Zen, Shin, Forth Wave, Engaged? Sure. We have a Thai temple and monastery open full time to the community complete with classes, meditation hall and monthly festivals. Asatru and Alexandrian? It’s here. Looking for Bacchus in Brevard? He’s here too. Wicca? We got it. North European, East Asian, West African and South American. You’ll find it in Palm Bay. If it exists, it is here. If it doesn’t exist, it might be here anyway.
Recreation? If you are into Kayaking, boating, cycling or walking, you have it day or night, year in and year out. You can’t drive down any of the main streets on any morning or afternoon without seeing volleyball, soccer or kickball. Into watching but not getting your hands dirty? We have soccer and baseball teams. Spend an evening watching the roller derby as the derby girls of the Harbor City Nautigals beat the crap out of the Bellevue Betties or the Space Coast Slashers.
If you are into classes, the community centers have them in spades ranging from acrobatics to Zumba. Martial arts are all over and include tai chi, chi kung, kung fu, Japanese sword, archery and Brazilian Capoaeira. We have kick boxing and Jiu Jitsu. I have not seen Krav Maga and Hisardut, but, really, it’s only a matter of time.
If you are into skateboarding, you found a great place. With plenty of outdoor skateparks and new indoor parks as well, skating is big and, if you are into streetsurfing, you’ll find the best in equipment and shops available all around.
Into the salty sea? If you are into the ocean in any way – surfing, skimming or wakeboarding – you haven’t just found a great place, you found THE place. The area Between Cocoa Beach and Sabeastian Inlet, of which Palm Bay is smack in the center, is year-round Surf-Heaven. There is a reason Ron Jons is in Cocoa Beach, after all, and Sebastian Inlet is home to several national surfing events every year and is well known to have the best surfing on the east coast.
Walk the beach any early morning and see people surf-fishing or running. Walk it in the evening in the summer and you may spot sea turtles coming up to nest or heading back out to the sea in the predawn.
Enjoy being a political thorn in the establishment’s side? There is an active growing progressive movement all though our county. One can be a part of the Space Coast Progressive Alliance, Patriots for Peace, Vets for Peace or any of the many groups which, amazingly, actually work in concert toward well-defined goals. When is the last time you saw that?
What don’t we have? A bus tour to take you to the slums. We have a slum. It’s nicer than most of the places I have lived, but, by comparison, it is a slum. I drive through it in two minutes. I walk through it in ten.
Why no bus tour? Who needs it? Asheville does. Horrible place. Terrible. Don’t go there.
Come here. If you are a lefty, liberal, centrist and/or an eco-nut. If you are a tree-hugging dirt-worshiper. If you would rather drum than eat, garden than shop, walk than drive, dance than fight, sing than shout, we want you. If you’d rather wear tie dye than a silk tie, we want you. If you’d rather eat tabouli than a Big Mac and have acupuncture than surgery, massage than drugs, we want you. The City of Palm Bay wants you. The City of Palm Bay needs you. I know I do.