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Downtown Asheville's resident group DARN beautifies urban neighborhood

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12/6/2011 - Downtown Asheville's resident group DARN beautifies urban neighborhood
by Barbara Blake - Asheville Citizen Times

ASHEVILLE --

DARN is kind of a funny name for a serious organization, but what counts is the impact it has on downtown Asheville.

DARN stands for Downtown Asheville Residential Neighbors, and it's just what it says: a group of more than 100 households whose residents inhabit the lofts, condos, apartments and other housing units scattered through the central business district.

But they don't just live there. They get out on the streets of downtown and plant flowers in pots to brighten the sidewalks, keep Pritchard Park overflowing with bushes and colorful blooms, advocate for cleaner streets and public spaces, monitor community service projects, raise money for local charities and generally act as a voice for the urban neighborhood they all call home.

"We think we contribute to making downtown a better place for residents, but also for visitors and people who work downtown," said Trina Mullen, who is co-chair of DARN this year along with Larry Holt.

"And one of the things we do all the time is see people with those downtown maps, turning them upside down and all around, and we always stop and say, 'Hi, I live downtown, can I help?'" Mullen said.

DARN is more than just a group of neighbors who share a ZIP code. Much of the quality of life enjoyed by all comers to downtown is a result of the members' efforts that extend beyond the pretty flowers and birdhouses that grace Pritchard Park and into the halls of justice and government.

If you're grateful that you can take your kids to Pritchard Park or any other park in the city and know that they won't be exposed to cigarette smoke, you can thank DARN for helping push that city ordinance through.

If you see trash and cigarette butts being picked up on downtown streets or in the park, it's likely being done by downtown panhandlers or misbehavers who were sentenced in the city's monthly Nuisance Court, another initiative pushed by DARN members to make downtown more beautiful while giving offenders an opportunity to provide a service instead of paying a fine or going to jail.

 Maybe you dropped in on a fascinating presentation last year at Diana Wortham Theater focusing on the visionaries who helped shape downtown into the vibrant urban hub it is today -- part of a series co-sponsored by DARN called "Better Know Downtown."

DARN still growing

 DARN began in 2005 when downtown resident Mary Ann West put a tiny ad in a local newspaper saying, "Do you live downtown? Want to meet your neighbors?" and inviting anyone interested to attend a morning coffee in the condo she shares with her husband, Steve West.

Six years later, after that first meeting with a couple of dozen curious urbanites, DARN has members from every condo and apartment building downtown, and the numbers keep growing as more residents seek out new addresses in the heart of the city.

Holt, retired deputy director of the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville and a longtime devotee of urban living, said there are 429 residential housing units downtown -- not including the Battery Park, Vanderbilt and Altamont nonprofit housing developments.

Of those 429, he said, 394 are owner-occupied or owned by individuals or families, not corporations.

"And the total tax value of those residential units -- and this is hot off the press -- is $157,310,900," Holt said.

Holt said one of the DARN initiatives he's most proud of is the Nuisance Court, which "has given the police some recourse to inappropriate behaviors downtown" with those charged with panhandling, vagrancy, drunk and disorderly behavior or other more minor infractions.

Since the monthly court session began 18 months ago, the value of the community service work mandated by the court is more than $40,000 in savings in terms of wh at would have been paid to city employees to do the same work, Holt said.

And the knowledge that minor infractions will -- unlike in the past -- be punished through Nuisance Court has served to significantly reduce misbehaviors in the center city, Holt said, noting a drastic reduction in panhandling as one example.

'Silent, powerful force'

Mullen said DARN holds two business meetings each year, puts out a quarterly newsletter and keeps members informed about topics relating to downtown, including political forums and the recent debate over downtown food trucks, for example.

The organization also holds quarterly social events -- but each has a charitable component.

"We've had parties where we bought home goods for homeless women who have just gotten housing; this summer we brought gifts for MANNA FoodBank's backpack program," Mullen said.

"At one party we brought hats and gloves and warm outerwear for the people at the Haywood Street Congregation, and at another we brought art supplies for middle school kids who wanted to take art classes but couldn't afford the supplies," she said. "We try to always pick something where we can have a little bit of impact."

One of the most visible impacts DARN has had is in Pritchard Park. Aside from the benches, funded by the city, everything in the park has been donated by DARN members and downtown business owners, from the flowers in planters to the colorful birdhouses to the bushes and other foliage that casts a colorful glow throughout the urban park.

Most mornings in warm weather, you'll find Mary Ann West dead-heading petunias or watering pots of pansies in the park. While Mullen, Holt and others help raise money for the plantings in cooperation with Asheville GreenWorks, West is the hard-core laborer, often spreading mulch or picking weeds as dawn breaks.

"This is my first garden -- I've never had a garden before," West said recently, gazing around the park filled with people enjoying the serenity of the park and the changing of the leaves.

She taught herself about gardening, largely through the Keeping America Beautiful organization, and a saying from that group stuck with her: "Beauty is a silent but powerful force."

"When a place is beautiful," she said, "it raises the behavior level of the people within it. And now random people come up and help -- people are invested now. I'll be in the park sometimes, and somebody will walk past me and say, 'I planted that bush,' and it makes me smile."

The DARN members aren't elitist about their special neighborhood, including Pritchard Park.

"There are several homeless people who help us on a regular basis -- they help water, plant, pick up trash. They're volunteers just like we are," Mullen said.

"There are some unsavory groups, but mostly they're transients just passing through. The locals are invested in downtown, just like we are," she said. "We don't have any homeless issues in the park -- this park is just as much theirs as anybody else's."

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