Asheville’s River Arts District

A mural-filled wall

photography by: Omri Westmark

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Nestled along the French Broad River, which is among the world's oldest rivers, the River Arts District in Asheville NC is home to a thriving community of artists. A decrepit industrial zone up until the 1970's, the area's incredibly affordable and large spaces soon became a magnet for local artists who flocked here in droves. Over time, the neighborhood became far more than simply a cluster of workshops, boasting an ample dining scene steeped in greenery and street-art.

A Brief History

Amid the late 19th century’s economic boom, thousands of miles of railroad tracks were laid all across the United States. Thanks to their key-location next to a massive trading route, Asheville’s tracts of land along the French Broad River were bestowed in the 1880’s with an extensive railroad network that spanned across the riverbank. With freight trains regularly frequent the area, it soon became a major industrial powerhouse, attracting dozens of factories that sprung up like mushrooms after rain.


Following a massive flood in 1916, the railroads as well as multiple other buildings were heavily damaged, triggering a mass-exodus of industries to other parts of the city. Additional floods in the following decades ultimately sealed the district’s fate, as during the 1940’s and 1950’s, most of its factories and facilities were abandoned, with the mighty river becoming an informal dumping site.


It wasn’t until the 1970’s when the neighborhood began its rebirth, as artists, designers and other creators moved in. Enticed by the area’s exceedingly cheap rentals, local artists filled the abandoned buildings with studios and galleries. The full-scale renaissance culminated a decade later when prominent home-design firms, including ceramics, lumber and clay stores, opened their branch at this part of town.


In recent years, the area was rebranded as “River Arts District” (or simply RAD), rapidly evolving into far more than merely an agglomeration of art studios. As of today, the district is home to more than 200 artists spreading across 23 buildings, which also accommodate a plethora of restaurants, bars, cafés and even a theater. To make things even better, the adjacent French Broad River was recently rehabilitated, and as such, is teeming with fish and bathers alike. The district’s facelift also included a verdant riverfront esplanade that provides a charming glimpse of the ancient river for those who wish to stay dry.

Notable Places

Stretching across a 2-kilometer-long strip (1.24 miles) of land along the French Broad River, RAD is home to myriads of design firms and art studios, specializing in anywhere from painting and pottery to sculpting with metal, cold wax, paper and fiber. The district is bisected by a series of regional railroad tracks, with buildings located on both sides. While the neighborhood is awash with things to see and do, apparently some places stand out more than others.


Formerly a Standard Oil Co’s distribution facility, the Curve Studios encompass three buildings and a garden, where visitors are greeted by a gate fashioned from colorful chairs. Built in 1916, the 3 brick-covered edifices host twelve artists, including Cassie Butcher who is renowned for her abstract ceramic figurines, somewhat reminiscent of the Russian Matryoshka doll. The sculptures vary both in size and color patterns, yet feature the same shape.


One of RAD’s oldest buildings, the Cotton Mill Studios as their name suggests were a two-story fabric factory where cotton, wool and other fibers were processed. The mill was constructed in 1887 and after decades of operation closed its door in the mid 1950’s due to growing competition.  It took no less than forty years until the building was repurposed in 1993, when a group of designers, artists and musicians transformed its 8,000 square feet into a buzzy workspace.


Throughout its short history as an art center, the building underwent two arson attacks that left it heavily damaged. While both arson cases were never solved, the mill managed to recover, becoming once again the home of multiple artists, including a couple of fashion designers and sewists who revive the place’s legacy of textile arts. The Studio’s Guitar Bar, located at the ground floor, serves a venue for live performances.


Ensconced in an adjacent verdant field is the RiverLink Labyrinth. Modeled after the famous labyrinth which is embedded to the Chartres Cathedral’s floor in France, the stone structure was created in 2010 as a place for meditation and conflict resolution. According to its creators, people who cross it must focus solely on their breath as they make their way inwards, to the center.


Yet another nearby landmark, the Asheville Silo, better known as the Good Vibes Silo, is a former grain-storage facility, whose outer walls are covered with changing graffitied slogan by the renowned muralist Ian Wilkinson. Amongst Wilkson’s mottos were “Stay Weird”, “Good Vibes” and more recently, “Stay Home”, as a reference to the Covid-19 pandemic.


Over a mile away, the district’s southern tip offers visitors a movie theater, a skatepark and a winery, just to name a few. Nevertheless, this part’s crown jewel is undoubtedly the Riverview Station. Dating back to as early as 1900, the building was originally part of the Hans-Rees Tannery. After being converted into a multi-use complex for creators in 1996, it housed art studios, classes for adult art, an antique shop and even a dog training facility. Curiously, the eatery at the station’s neighboring building, the 12 Bones Smokehouse, was visited 3 times by the former US president, Barack Obama.


Since 1994, the art studios throughout the district open their doors to visitors as part of an annual event called “Studio Stroll”, taking place each November. In case you plan to visit the neighborhood in any other date, River Arts District’s website has additional details regarding the availability of RAD’s numerous creators.