It’s that time again–Asheville’s biggest party of the year, and one of the biggest outdoor festivals in the Southeast: Bele Chere. Asheville’s been throwing this shindig for 30 years, believe it or not, and folks are still packing the place to wander the streets, eat strange foods, and gawk at others.
I remember the first Bele Chere three decades ago, and if memory serves, it took place a little later in the year–maybe September? Haywood Street was closed to traffic and there were a few booths near Pack Memorial Library (it had recently moved from its original location on Pack Square), and one stage featuring a bluegrass band. We wandered around for a few minutes, but there was nothing much to see or do. What I really remember? On the way downtown, we stopped at Wendy’s (there was only one then, on Patton Ave.) and tried their new chili for the first time.
Fast forward 30 years, and Bele Chere has become a massive free-for-all of street vendors, artists, crafters, hucksters, informational pitchers, meat-on-sticks, deep-fried-candy-bars, sponsors, fight-to-legalize-hempsters, mendhi painters, locals, tourists, sunburns, late-summer-downpours, brewers, local restaurants, funnel cakes, sunburns, panting dogs, crying children, men-in-dresses, aging hippies, blaring music, armadas of port-a-johns, kiddy rides, semi-naked teen girls, dancing, drumming, grooving, tattoos, piercings, pay-to-park, blocked streets, sell-your-mama-for-a-seat-in-the-shade kind of festival. And those are just the highlights!
For some, it’s a wide-open-anything-goes kind of weekend in late July. For others, it’s a huge hassle that renders downtown Asheville impassable for three days. The city always declares each Bele Chere more successful than the previous one, and supposedly it attracts about 350,000 people to town each summer. There are a lot of local businesses that shut down for the duration, preferring to lose potential cash flow rather than face the hoardes and their endless search for bathrooms because 1) they’re too desperate to wait or 2) they’re not desperate enough to use the portable facilities that have been festering in the sun all day.
I work downtown, right in the heart of Bele Chere, and though I still enjoy parts of it, it’s definitely lost some of its luster for me after all these years. Getting to work on the opening Friday is an exercise in futility. For example: yesterday, I had to back halfway down a city street and take a weird route through an alley and a parking lot, then rely on a (surly) volunteer to hold up a yellow caution tape barrier and direct me through a crowd of vendors and on-lookers to access my building. Leaving required the same process in reverse, but at least I could drive the normal direction and not worry as much about backing over anyone (or their handwoven hemp-and-crystal dog collar booth).
Oh, well. If you’re an Ashevillain, you know you’re here to stay. And whether you love it or hate, it looks like Bele Chere is here to stay, too.