As French Broad Rises Above its Banks, History and Memory Weigh on the River Arts District

May 30, 2018

EDITOR'S NOTE: The audio version of this story includes incorrect information about the frequency of flooding of the French Broad River. The river has crested above 10 feet during seven of the past 15 years, drawn from National Weather Service data.

Around 11am Wednesday, Pattiy Torno stood on the steel mesh deck of the open gallery and meeting space at 14 Riverside Drive, looked out over the brush at the rising tan-brown waters of the French Broad River and sighed.

“If the river gets to 11 feet, I’m moving my stuff. It’s that simple,” she said. “I have a storage locker about two blocks away specifically for this purpose.”

Officials closed Riverside Drive Wednesday morning at the edge of water overflowing the banks of the French Broad River.
Credit Matt Peiken | BPR News

For nearly 30 years, Torno has owned the Curve Studios in the River Arts District, where a dozen ceramics, jewelry and textile artists make and sell their work. Curve and the space at 14 Riverside are among the buildings on lower ground in Asheville’s River Arts District.

By mid-morning, city officials closed Lyman Street just west of Riverside, where water had already choked off access to Riverview Station and 310 Art Gallery, among other spaces. The river’s level rose from just over 4 feet Monday to just below 10 feet on Wednesday, and people who study the river expect the French Broad to rise with more rain on the way.

Torno spent part of her morning on the phone with artists renting spaces at Curve.

“That was the question one of them emailed me this morning, it was like: ‘At what point do we start moving our stuff?’ And I was like, ‘That’s your call,’” she said. “I mean, all of us have to make that choice.”

Several Curve artists seemed unconcerned Wednesday morning, making work as usual, in quiet and calm beneath soft rock music on the radio.

Maria Andrade Troya has made pottery from Curve for 10 years. With flood waters about a hundred yards from her studio, she spent the morning making mugs, planters and bottles for oil and vinegar.

“I can stay at home and just fret all day or I can be here and kinda be ready,” Troya said. “I have a pair of boots in my car if I need to start moving things and unplug my kiln and start pulling it apart. I’m just ready.”

At 14 Riverside, Hayden Wilson of the North Carolina Glass Center led a small team gamely installing a show scheduled to open there Saturday.

“We’re on pedestals, so maybe the pedestals will get a little wet. Hopefully what’s on top won’t,” he said. “But we’re not going to have any artwork or anything in here until we see the waters kinda go down.”

Torno remembers all too well September of 2004, when floods from Hurricanes Frances and Ivan caught her and every other Curve artist by surprise. Torno and others spent the next two months cleaning up Curve.

“We got a call on Monday night saying the French Broad River is going to crest above 10½ feet and I said “Yeah, so?” I didn’t know what that meant,” she said. “That will not ever happen again.”

In addition to renting a storage locker on higher ground just in case of flooding, Torno no longer allows artists to live on the first floors of Curve. She also rents to businesses that don’t rely on larger, heavy machinery, so tenants can move more quickly.

“Ten- or 11-foot floods happen . . . and that is just part of the landscape. You just work around it,” she said. “I don’t know how well I work around it psychologically. I’m stressed.”