Bele Chere, the street festival that began in Asheville during a time of Detroit-level urban blight and downtown deterioration (otherwise known as the 70s) is now coming to an end, due to the city ceasing funding the increasingly revenue-neutral and somewhat now-superfluous event.
It began during my still-under-driving-age year of turning 15 in 1979. Therefore, without a way to get to the big city, and later a lack of desire to drive anywhere at all, I don’t think I ever saw much of Bele Chere during its 35 year existence. I may have gone a few times as a semi-local when the kids were small, but other than participating in a few event-themed 5K races, the one real involvement with the festival circa 1989 when I was a paid vendor.
Back then, the booth fee was around $500 and I sold caricatures. Unfortunately, unlike having an inventory of goods that can sell as fast as customers demand, I could only draw so many people at one time, no matter how many (or few) showed up to partake in this service/art form. At $6 each, I would need to convince about 83.333333333 people to have one done before breaking even on the booth fee alone. Therefore, I split the cost of the booth (I only needed room for an easel and two chairs anyway) with my friend Don, who enterprisingly sought to capture the zeitgeist and had several current pop culture phrases (what future generations would refer to as “memes”) printed up on T-shirts to peddle on his half of the booth. I believe he did a pretty good business selling the “I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up!” white on black designs.
After the three (very long and hot) days, I think I had made a pretty good profit, surpassing the booth fee and markers, pad and tent, etc. costs and then some. There was some hassle with not being able to park anywhere near my booth space and having to drag all that stuff up a bunch of winding stairs and steep mountain roads every day by foot (or leaving it behind to be upturned and vandalized at night) that kind of stuck in my craw and prevented me from working with the festival again. So, I never did become a Bele Chere vendor at any other time after that one experience. I believe the booth fees went up so dramatically over the years, that there would have been no way to make a profit with such a business model anyway.
Once I started doing a weekly cartoon about Asheville and Asheville-related things, I kind of had to address the Bele Chere festival each year. By this time, the festival had outlived the original need for it. The downtown of Asheville had now become a vibrant, booming and hip place to be. The boarded-up, seedy city center that once needed an injection of life was long gone. Eateries, pubs, coffee houses, art galleries, touristy shops and performance spaces were doing a booming business downtown all year round now. Except for when Bele Chere would happen. Now that influx of out-of-town vendors and unruly, sometimes inebriated crowds (along with an influx of professional street-preaching instigators to mock them) would turn up and crowd out the market and space to the downtown business owners who now felt the festival was something to endure, rather than embrace each year.
There were also now a number of festivals that proliferated all year long, that were much more inclusive of and embraced by the locals than Bele Chere. B.C. was now seen as an outsider festival for outsider vendors to sell to outsider participants. Even local bands were being booked less often for the musical acts and local brewers (which were also proliferating) were often overlooked for larger, corporate sponsors.
So, the focus of the cartoons took on a more adversarial tone, to reflect the feelings of most of the Asheville (and surrounding) community towards the fest. Making fun of both the crowds and the local business reaction to it, as well as the apocalyptic aftermath of the yearly tempest, was the gist of many of the cartoons.
In the end, the “Beautiful Living” festival accomplished (or at least became irrelevant because of) what it set out to do and for that, the community should look fondly on its 3.5 decade run, even if the last few legs of the race were like running in a sweater in July.