Monday, March 24, 2014

Asheville's Depression Debt Redemption

Asheville, NC is home to the 2nd largest number of Art Deco buildings in the nation. The historic Legal Building traces its roots back to 1909, when downtown Asheville was entering its building heyday.
Asheville's historic Legal Building

The Miami Beach of the Mountains, Asheville, NC is "the happiest city in America" according to Self Magazine. But it wasn't always so.

On November 20, 1930,
eight North Carolina banks failed, including Asheville's largest Central Bank and Trust. Thousands lost their life savings, including the city itself. With $8 million gone in a single day, projects halted, employees lost salaries, the budget was cut in half.


An independent audit of the city's finances found that officials used public funds to try to save the bank. Their efforts were not appreciated. "Even if the city's commissioners pursued the course they thought best," the New York Times reported, "as public officials they have destroyed themselves plunged the city headlong into debt, betrayed their trust and forfeited the right to their possessions."

The bankers as well as public officials took this loss of confidence rather hard. On February 17, 1931, the vice president of Central Bank, Arthur R. Rankin, shot himself to death. Later that week, a bank cashier attempted suicide by cutting his throat but survived. On February 23, four days after those involved were indicted for fraud and conspiracy, Asheville mayor Galatin Roberts went to the fourth floor bathroom of the Legal Building and shot himself in the temple. He left a note.

"My soul is sensitive and I am wounded unto death. God knows I did no wrong during my term in office. My hands are clean and my conscience is clear."

With the largest municipal debt per capita of any American city ever, Asheville experienced four decades of economic stagnation and population decline. Bankruptcy might have been easier, but the community refused. "We owe this money and we ought to pay it," Asheville city employee Weldon Weir
explained to New York Times. Each year as bonds were retired, the Asheville Citizen ran a headline "Bonds Cremated." The last payment was made in 1976.

Though it wasn't easy,
the experience is treated as a blessing.  In the go-go 1960s when other cities were destroying buildings to "modernize" (e.g, New York's Pennsylvania Station), depression-era debt payments forced Asheville's skyline to stay beautifully stuck in Art Deco 1930, "and is why our historic fabric was not bulldozed," writes

Today, with debts repaid and conscience cleared, North Carolina Governor Ashe's namesake town is a downright happy place to be.

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Flannery O'Connor

You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.