Follow the history of Asheville’s urban trail

Flat Iron Sculpture

This giant iron by Reed Todd is a replica of one used by a local laundry. | Photo by @downtownasheville

While walking in downtown Asheville, have you ever noticed a bronze statue of a cat? Or a sculpted top hat and cane affixed to a bench? You might be tickled to learn that there are 30 of these intriguing sculptures scattered across downtown over the course of 1.7 miles — including everything from a giant flat iron to a swinging bell to a bronze version of Thomas Wolfe’s shoesand they’re all part of Asheville’s historic Urban Trail.

While each of these special sculptures represent a slice of history in their own right, today we’re charting how the Urban Trail came to exist in the first place, and how the trail continues to evolve to reflect a more inclusive, contemporary history of Asheville.

Wall St. Cat

One of these 3 cats was stolen in 2018 + recently replaced by the City. | Photo by @karenthib

The beginning

The Urban Trail initially took shape in 1989 when city staff + residents came together to rejuvenate a downtown that had been long deserted. The goal of the 30 works of public art? To commemorate Asheville’s history, culture and architecture, while inviting more growth and new activity to the spaces.

The trail is divided into 5 historic periods that have corresponding symbols:

  • A feather for the Gilded Age (1880-1930)
  • A horseshoe for the Frontier Period (1784-1880)
  • The city building for the “Era of Civic Pride” (late 1800s)
  • An angel for the impact of Thomas Wolfe on downtown (1900-1938)
  • The eagle, representing the age of “cultural diversity” (mid to late 1900s)
Urban Trail Map Asheville

The Urban Trail takes ~2 hours to walk. | Screen grab courtesy of Explore Asheville

Spearheaded by the Asheville Downtown Association, the trail took 10 years to complete. Much of the project was funded by individual donors who purchased commemorative bricks to support its creation, which can be seen downtown between the site of the Vance Monument and Pack Fountain. The final piece of art, named Walk Into History, was installed in May 2002.

ProTip: For folks who want to learn more, check out the short documentary “Walk into History,” which was produced by local filmmaker + historian Erin Derham.

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The 18-minute film “Walking Into History” highlights stories from the folks who created the urban trail. | Screen grab from Vimeo

The Urban Trail in the modern day

Today, the trail has adapted to the digital age. In 2017, it launched an interactive website, map + audio tour that allows folks to experience it with their smartphones, or even from the comfort of their homes. And just yesterday (June 29), the City had a special ceremony that rededicated + recontextualized 3 of the trail’s newly updated stations:

  • The Shopping Daze marker, recently reinstalled following the Haywood Streetscape Project, added a plaque that honors the contributions of Jewish merchants.
  • The Cat Walk received a recast bronze statue after 1 of the 3 cats was stolen.
  • The Grove’s Vision marker was also reinstalled following recent downtown construction, and now includes solar lighting for viewing at night.

At the rededication ceremony, Mayor Esther Manheimer also acknowledged that our contemporary history sits “on land once stolen from the Cherokee” and her intention to “reach all the way back to where we started in the area.”

Members of the City’s Public Art and Cultural Commission have also shared that they are reckoning with the way Black Asheville’s history has been recast (and often erased) in the Urban Trail’s narrative. Moving forward, PACC hopes to use City funding to recontextualize even more of these pieces in order to help tell more of the full, inclusive history of Asheville. In the meantime, PACC also encourages folks to check out the James Vester Miller Historic Walking Trail for additional historical context.

When you go:

Get a description of each stop and an audio tour here. Download the map here, or pick up a copy at the Asheville Chamber (36 Montford Ave.) or some local businesses, including Malaprop’s Bookstore + Cafe (55 Haywood St.).

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