Why I left Asheville

by Matthew Mulder August 6, 2014

For over a decade my family tried to make our lives in Asheville. But by this year, we simply couldn’t make it here anymore.

Above: Downtown Asheville at night. Photo by Bill Rhodes.

A few weeks ago, we ran a column by Noor Al-Sibai, a young journalist and writer who’d planned to make her life in Asheville, about why she was instead leaving for elsewhere. This piece, on a similar theme, is by Matthew Mulder, a writer and professional graphic designer who lived in Asheville for over a decade until this year, when he and his family left for the Midwest. These stories are an important part of understanding what people in our city are facing. -DF

Why do I collect these things? These tidbits? These news clippings?

2001. A newspaper reports that North Carolina lost 57,000 jobs in the last few years, making it the second highest state to experience joblessness.

2005. Another newspaper states that almost half of North Carolina households are unable to be “self-sufficient”. Households with two children need to earn almost $45,000 annually to be self-sufficient in urban settings like Asheville.

2011. Mountain Xpress shares findings that more than twenty percent of Asheville area residents have difficulty feeding themselves — making Asheville the seventh worst urban setting in matters of hunger in the country.

The next year the Asheville Citizen-Times reports that one in four residents require food assistance — moving Asheville to third worst metro area for food hardship.

More notes from 2011. Housing costs in Greenville, S.C. are 26 percent less than Asheville. Housing costs in Charlotte are 19 percent less than Asheville. Housing costs in Knoxville, Tenn. are 16 percent less than Asheville. Utilities cost 20 percent less in Greenville compared to Asheville, 19 percent less in Charlotte and 16 percent less in Knoxville. Healthcare costs and grocery costs are less in these surrounding cities. Why is the cost of living so high in Asheville? Why have city council and local government officials been entirely impotent to address these four key issues?

During twelve and a half years of living in Asheville, I never earned what would be considered a self-sufficient annual income. Except once. For three months. It was a job opportunity I could not refuse. After working nearly a decade for a non-profit organization, the opportunity to earn a self-sufficient wage at a downtown Asheville company was too good to pass up. Before I accepted this job, I confessed to my wife, “If this job doesn’t work out, we will have to sell our house and leave Asheville.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because not a lot of companies in this area are hiring professional graphic designers,” I told her. “That is the impression I get from other designers. Those who are successful in Asheville have moved here from California or New York City and have brought their client list with them.”

The downtown job was great. I took the bus each morning and got to the office early. I left the office late after a long, fulfilling day. It was nice — at least for two months. Then the entire team was laid off and we all spent the next month scrambling for employment options. Apparently the same challenges that face households in Western North Carolina also affect business owners.

By some standards, you might say that, of the employees who got laid off, I was one of the fortunate ones. I found a job in a matter of days. Sure, it was a substantial decrease in wages. But it was better than nothing, right? And sure, it was not in Asheville. In fact, it was almost 70 miles away — in South Carolina. But a job is a job and a guy’s got to take care of his family, right? Things would turn around. Maybe I had been wrong. Maybe in a few months I would be able to secure a full-time professional job in the Asheville area. I am sure there are a lot of people in Asheville who have told themselves the same thing.

But there are only so many days and months a guy can live squatting in his own home. Furniture sold to pay healthcare or some other bills. Music collection sold to Horizon Records and other places to pay for transportation costs to drive to the job site as well as other automotive needs. Books from personal library sold to Downtown Books and News and Mr. K’s to purchase groceries at Amazing Savings. Soon there is very little to sell or trade. Even trips to metal recycling yield little more than the price of coffee at World Coffee. Decisions are made to cancel newspaper and magazine subscriptions. Netflix is cancelled. All ancillary expenses end.

How many nights can a father endure watching all his young children sleep on a single mattress? A thought occurs about the youngest child. For half the child’s life, sleeping on the same mattress as siblings is the only experience of their life. This is normal to the child who knows nothing of the idea of sleeping in an individual room with one’s own bed. And not having to share it with siblings.

How many nights can a husband sleep on a futon with his wife in the living room? One of the two bedrooms required renovations and the other was for the children. But the repairs to the second bedroom would require more work and money. So, it sat useless and the only place to sleep was the living room. And the reality of the phrase house-poor became a nagging reminder every time the family returned home.

How long can a family live out of suitcases and travel bags? Once the house was put on the market, everyone lived as if in a moment’s notice they would all have to leave to allow a showing. All essentials for everyday life fit in small backpack or carry-on luggage. For the first few showings, it was exciting. But after months dragged on into a year, the minimalist existence became strained and everyone began asking, “What will the new house will look like?” Or “When we get to our new home, will I be able to unpack for good?” Or “When you get a new job and we have a new house, may we have goats?”

I used to think I was the only one in Asheville asking these questions, but I found out I was not alone. There are many asking these questions, enduring these challenges and hoping for a better situation, a decent job with a living wage — something to allow them to provide a self-sufficient home for their family.

Some cannot make it. They abandon their family and find work elsewhere. The worst thing to happen to a marriage is a financial crisis. Some seek further education and return to school for a career change. Some take low-wage jobs in the service industry cooking meals, waiting tables, cleaning hotel rooms or anything legal in order to earn less than $30,000 annually.

This is not solely the trials of unskilled laborers or blue collar workers. Late last year, WCQS aired an interview with Chris Gable — school teacher at Asheville Middle School. Educated, professional, master’s degree, ten years of experience — Mr. Gable earns less than a self-sufficient salary to make it in Asheville.

My wife and I heard the broadcast. The radio on the kitchen shelf of our small home crackled with the interview. It was Thanksgiving week. I was preparing for a long hour and a half drive to the office. She was preparing breakfast for the children who would be awake within an hour. We stared at each other. The same thought crossed our minds. If he can’t make it in Asheville — to borrow a line from James McMurtry — “we can’t make it here anymore.”

2014. I quit Asheville.

Through the rear view mirror of a beat-up Chevy, I saw the mountains of Western North Carolina burn under a late afternoon sun. From the windshield I saw the road before us and watched the landscape slowly flatten until I reached the prairie.

Matthew Mulder is a graphic designer and bibliophile. He blogs at coffeehousejunkie.net

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