I moved to Asheville for college thinking I’d found a home. But between an impossible job market, a lack of amenities and a city filled with too many ghosts, it’s time to go.
Above: Skyline of Asheville. Photo by Bill Rhodes.
“Why are you leaving Asheville?”
It’s a short question, and the responses depend on my mood. When writing this column, I had a lot of questions for myself — is it too personal to write about my misadventures in dating? Will readers understand my complaints about a lack of racial and ethnic diversity? Am I going to get sad when I’m writing this?
The answers vary. I’ve not found it too personal to write about my love life for other publications, so I’ll include it here —although that’s not the only or main reason I’m leaving town. There will inevitably be people who respond to my criticisms of Asheville’s de facto segregation with jokes about it being “full of diverse white folks”, but that’s to be expected. And as far as the way writing about leaving (and, you know, actually leaving) will make me feel–well, I’m still not quite sure of that yet.
I moved to Asheville in August 2009 as an 18-year-old freshman at UNCA. I chose the school for a lot of reasons–I knew I could get in, knew they had a decent Mass Communication program, but, most importantly, I knew that it was where I could see myself. I was deep in the throes of my youthful flower-child phase and, from my first visit to the town about six months prior to moving here, knew that it was where I would find my people, man. I don’t include this to make fun of myself or anyone else who chase such dreams. I only include it to illustrate who I was and who I’ve become, which are interwoven with my need to leave.
In the five years since I began at UNCA, I have had every single experience I hoped for in college, and dozens more I never knew I would have. I fell in love for the first time that first year in school, and “lost my virginity” to that person. I experienced heartbreak, mental illness, and true friendship in my first couple of years. I learned intimately the ways I (mis)handle stress and confrontation, as well as the ways I (mis)handle intoxication. I grew up. I moved into my first, second, third and fourth apartments. I lived with a ghost. I worked full-time over summers for the first time in my life. I experimented with drugs, with my sexuality, and with outdoor activities. I literally ate, prayed and loved my way through the past five years. And I’ll be blunt: it’s been fucking exhausting.
There are numerous and more specific reasons I also cite when people casually ask me why I’m moving home to Charlotte following my graduation in August.
Bluntly, finding and keeping work in this town is more trouble than it’s worth. During the past three years I’ve worked as a cashier in fast food and retail chains, a delivery driver, a nanny, a farm hand, a marketing assistant, an Art History clerk, a research assistant, a content writer, a cocktail waitress and, most recently, an audiobook production assistant — and those are only the paid positions.
Some of those jobs were temporary, like the research assistant and clerk positions through UNCA, and the farming stint. Some were impossible to deal with (I worked at McDonalds on Merrimon for three weeks and had to quit to save my sanity).
Others I quit because I needed to focus on school, but not a single one of them paid me more than $10 an hour. Many, like the freelancing and delivery driving, had “unique” pay structures that rarely pay enough for the amount of labor they require. Between my mixed bag of jobs and the rent prices I’ve watched rise steadily since I moved out of the dorms in 2011, working enough to cover rent and, you know, gas and groceries was damn near impossible even when I wasn’t supporting myself through school semesters.
Other times, I’ll joke that Asheville is “too full of the ghosts of my exes” and that it’s become unbearable to be constantly inundated with information about the sex and love lives of former lovers in a constant circle. Between a string of bad breakups and dating in a relatively small community, feathers are bound to be ruffled — but regularly hearing through the grapevine that someone I broke up with two years ago is dating someone I was once interested in gets tiresome. It’s more of a shitty afterthought, but these breakups pushed me into some of the hardest times I faced in school and work, and to fights with mental illness. Fairly or not; it’s not fun being regularly reminded of some of the worst feelings one has ever felt — and being social in Asheville in the past few years has resulted in that far more often than is comfortable.
The fact my communities (school, queer) are too insular and filled with romantic drama is regularly decried. Complaining is one thing — experiencing the regular upheaval that comes with that fact is quite another.
Also, part of me feels like I’ve outgrown Asheville. When I came here, I was more than ready to leave the comparably-conservative confines of the Southeastern banking capital to which I was born. I was (and remain) too free-spirited to fit in a city like Charlotte.
But, being raised in a city had certain perks, like the ability to go to the Greek market when I want to buy four-pound cans of dolmas in bulk, or to get a cup of coffee and an eclair at 3 a.m., or see Bollywood films at the discount theater. The list is endless, but the gist remains the same: I was raised with the amenities of a larger city, and when my only options are the post-bar crowd at 51 Grill and the peanut galleries at Waffle House and Denny’s when I want food in the middle of the night, it’s easy to miss them. In some ways, Asheville’s still not grown up yet.
There are other ways I’ve “outgrown” Asheville that have nothing to do with size, and are more a combination of all of the above, as well as my need to seek opportunity.
Frankly, I see few opportunities for journalistic success here — we have one newspaper run by a major news corporation (though, to be fair, the Charlotte Observer is owned by a similarly large monolith), and an “alternative” weekly that tries to crush unions and bury stories about slumlords. A few community papers round out the news scene, as well as some feature rags masquerading as alternative papers, but that’s about it. All-in-all, Asheville’s news scene has little to offer someone with my foreign interests, background, or radical views. I’ve already freelanced for online and outside publications from Asheville, but in an industry where networking is everything, I can’t do that very well in a city this size, and paying the rent while I built up that network would be nigh-impossible anyway.
Asheville, the truth is: we had a great love affair, but it’s time to move on. And following my last day of classes on August 1, that’s exactly what we’re doing.
Noor Al-Sibai is a blogger/journalist hybrid leaving Asheville for the greener pastures of Charlotte, and, later, Washington, D.C. She is overly fond of pizza, Beyonce and destroying patriarchy.