In Every Direction

I come to you this week from outside of the 423.  My bride and I needed a break and since she was indifferent to my initial suggestion for a day-trip to the Lost Sea, we had to look elsewhere. In a stroke of perfect timing one of our favorite bands in the world, Junip, happened to be in North America and happened to be within driving distance, so here we are in the beautiful burg of Asheville, NC.

Love me some Jose Gonzalez
This is my first visit to Asheville, although I’ve wanted to visit for some time. Over the years I have heard and read comparisons about this place and our city, but I can’t really see it to be honest. Having been here for a day, I wouldn’t hazard to attempt a full-on comparison/contrast between the two but it’s nice here.

The initial approach to a building, a city or any other place is a very important experience to me, and one that I try to pay special attention to. The approach into Asheville is fairly unremarkable. The procession into the city doesn’t do justice to what seems to be a pretty cool downtown. My approach to Asheville brought to mind my first approach to the city of Chattanooga. (Note: This story will confirm what many of you may have long suspected, that I am an idiot of the highest order).

The year was 19 and 99, and I was on my was to the Scenic City for a job interview with the Chattanooga Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency Frankly, I didn’t know much about Chattanooga other than the fact that some work had been done downtown and on the riverfront. A friend of mine had mentioned that there were several decent hotels near the riverfront and suggested I stay there. So with no idea of where I was going I set off in search of the river (Of course, this was back in the day before widespread use of navigation devices, peer rated hotel reviews and online booking).

That day I had to wait until late afternoon to leave Awbun, and as such didn’t arrive in Chattanooga until well after dark. As I passed through the ridge cut and saw the city before me, I knew that I had arrived.  Continuing along I-24, my first impression of the city was that it was a bit sketchy. To be fair, that stretch of interstate as it passes through the city is not particularly scenic. When I saw exit 178 Market St/Downtown I thought it was all figured out. However, as I exited and turned north on Market I immediately got the impression that I was going the wrong way. There wasn’t a soul to be seen and the surroundings looked ill maintained and inhospitable. Before I reached Main Street I pulled a u-turn in Market and headed back to the interstate. Of course we all know, that had I been a bit more intrepid and proceeded another block I would have come to the Choo-Choo and picked up on the cues of streetscape and public realm improvements.

Back on the interstate, I figured that US-27 north would be the next most likely route to the riverfront. Making the turn north I was impressed by the industrial complexes to both sides of the highway that quickly gave way to a more panoramic view of downtown proper. At first glance it was apparent that downtown Chattanooga was a very well-scaled place and my spirits were buoyed. I opted not to take any of the exits into downtown because at this point I still had no idea where the river was.

Once you can actually see the river, it’s too late to make an exit on its southern side- so I made my way north. From this point all you have to do is exit onto Manufacturers Road and head east and south. At the time that didn’t appear to be a good option. The name of the road made it sound like it led to an industrial area of town and I couldn’t actually see a physical connection. So, my strategy was to take the next exit and see if I could find a way to navigate back south and east. After about 30 minutes of wandering in Red Bank I decided to abandon my quest for the river and head back to a hotel near the interstate. I settled for an overnight stay at what once was the Days Inn at 20th and Market.

C.Rushing Slept Here
As you may have guessed, the story has a happy ending. I had a decent night’s sleep, a good interview, and got the job. Of course, those events changed my life and led to me meeting my wife, settling down, having children, making great friends, developing professionally and all of the other blessings I have experienced over the past dozen years.

Now don’t be the jackass that’s going post comments on how I could have a) stopped and asked for directions, b) dropped $3 to buy a map, or c) spent a little more time driving around downtown. We know this. The point of this story is that first impressions are important. The gateways into our city and between our districts make important statements about how the community envisions itself, what our aspirations are, and what our common values are.

What do the gateways into downtown say about us in 2011? At Exit 178 off of I-24 we have a car dealership, Welcome Liquors, a few dilapidated buildings and a semi-shady Kanku’s.  At exit 1C off of US-27 we encounter a movie theatre loading dock, the loading dock of the John Ross Building and the ass-end of Applebee’s dumpster before arriving at the architectural marvel that is Chili’s. Each of these design elements was rationalized in isolation, but in concert and context they present a less than appealing face for our community. The good news is that both of those conditions can be influenced and impacted as we move forward with the development of our city- we just have to design like give a damn.

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