by John Boyle, Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times
- Once a 6-foot bench, it now barely seats one
- Parks department says new bench is meant for art display, not sitting
- Business owners say people have complained about homeless, panhandlers
ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- It is one tiny bench.
"I don't really like it, dude," Ricky Boings, a self-described homeless man, said flatly Friday afternoon as he stood beside a bench barely big enough for one person and a bronze sculpture of an apple basket. "It used to be a whole lot bigger, and we could all sit on it."
That might be the point.
After two decades, the "Marketplace" station of the Urban Trail in downtown Asheville is getting an overhaul. And it's partly, if not mostly, because that 6-foot park bench had become a congregating spot for the homeless.
"The bench had become a gathering place for large groups of people, resulting in putting the sculpture at risk to damage," Debbie Ivester, assistant director of the Asheville Parks and Recreation Department, said via email. "After assessing it with the Public Art & Cultural Commission and the Urban Trail Committee, the decision is to redesign Station 15 so it does not use the bench as its base. We have shortened the bench to serve as a temporary artwork base rather than a bench to sit on and to protect the artwork until the permanent work is complete."
Boings and other homeless people say that stinks.
"I think it's because of the homeless," Wanda Maynor, a homeless woman, said Friday. "I'm still going to sit on the curb. We're going to come to this location because it's beautiful."
Danny Scully, co-owner of Scully's Bar & Grille, said numerous restaurants and businesses in the area complained about the large gatherings of homeless people around the bench.
"It's been a huge problem for the eight years I've been here," he said. "They play music, they have dogs that bark, there's panhandling - it's just constant. They go in the stores to use the bathrooms. If I walk by there, I'd be like, 'I don't want to go eat there.'"
The Urban Trail is a walking tour of downtown featuring artwork and historical markers. The Marketplace stop honors the farmers market that was in the area until 1978.
Marketplace was installed in 1993, according to Grace Pless, a member of the Urban Trail Committee who's been involved with the project since 1989. The gathering of homeless people there has been a topic of discussion since about 2000, she said.
"I think it's been a real difficulty, but we have said all of these years, 'It's there for all people to enjoy,' and we have ignored the complaints," Pless said. "But it seems to have come to a head where we needed to redo the station."
The station will still include the bonnet and apple basket sculpture but will have a new display base, Ivester said.
"We are in the early stage of preparing for new design," she said. "A call for artists will be issued at a later date to develop the artwork."
Former University of North Carolina-Asheville sculptor and professor Dan Millspaugh directed the creation of the original artwork, Pless said. About five years ago, the basket of apples was stolen, and new art was created by UNCA professor David Tillinghast.
Maynor was skeptical of the argument that the sturdy bronze artwork could be damaged.
"How you going to damage that?" she said, tapping the metal.