by Eric Ginsburg
You don’t know what the Cascade Saloon is unless you follow Greensboro city politics or you’re a centenarian.
The empty, sort of disheveled building wedged between two train tracks in downtown hasn’t been home to the Cascade Saloon for almost 100 years, but the building fronting South Elm Street still bears the name of the long-gone black business.
The city’s been trying to figure something out for the property for a long time now, and even after finally taking it over and then handing it off to Preservation Greensboro, progress on the building is moving about as painfully slowly as a call to your health insurance provider.
Earlier this month the Greensboro City Council approved a $300,000 urban development investment grant for the Cascade, contingent on an investment of almost $3 million and six jobs being created. But the most interesting aspects of the Cascade are still historical.
This might be the most badass building in Greensboro.
Constructed around 1893, it started out as a liquor store and a grocery, though this is back before supermarkets so picture something more akin to “Oregon Trail” than Harris Teeter. By 1902, a dry goods store and a milliner (someone who makes or sells hats) moved in. Then about five years later, a black-owned “eating house” operated out of the space, and there may have been a roller skating rink on the second floor (records conflict a little on this point, just adding to the lore).
The Cascade played host to several other businesses, including a cigar company, and Wiley Weaver’s eatery turned into Cascade Billiard Parlor. It changed hands to a white owner but still served black clientele — remember, this is during the height of Jim Crow around 1920 — as the Cascade Pool Room, and was apparently the only black-oriented business on downtown’s main street at the time.
The building could accommodate five storefronts, and one of the business’ general manager’s in 1908 was named Zebulon. (Coming soon to a list of trending baby names near you!)
Besides, of course, the segregation aspect, a modern version of the Cascade Saloon would be a damn hipster haven. A liquor store, boutique cigar and hat companies, a grocery, a friggin’ roller rink and a black bar/restaurant/pool hall? Sign me the f*** up.
For a while around the 1940s, a few Greeks ran a café there. Later the building housed furniture companies, salvage businesses and “rail-based businesses,” but in the late ’70s, a guy whose last name is literally “Strange” ran a newspaper out of it for a brief time.
So damn cool.
The former Cascade Saloon has been vacant since before my parents started dating, sitting there and rotting on downtown’s doorstep since 1980. Now, the Cascade is destined to become the headquarters of a construction company.
That’s a lot less exciting than the Cascade’s former lives. Downtown residents are pining for a grocery store, one of the building’s longest uses. I wish it would continue its legacy as a home for those who are excluded from the rest of downtown, but when I picture a black owned and oriented bar, restaurant or pool hall in the prominent structure, I immediately imagine the campaign to close it as soon as the smallest scuffle spilled into the street.
Today there are a couple black-owned businesses downtown, and certainly black nightlife venues in the city as a whole. But as the city’s core changes, black-oriented spaces where people can relax and knock a few back are mostly missing from the map. The closest we come is Churchill’s on Elm.
I miss Minj Grille, and the more recent Harlem Express, two black restaurants that should’ve been able to stick around a few blocks north of the Cascade. I only went to Lotus nightclub once, and while I dislike clubs, I kinda loved this one. I never went inside the N Club (unless you count my shifts as a valet out front), back before the biz purposefully started catering to white people, but it represented something, too.
But in a strange way, I’m more nostalgic for the Cascade Saloon and the attendant businesses around it than any of these.
I’m likely romanticizing what the Cascade embodied and meant to its patrons (aligning it too much with the working-class romanticism of shows like “Peaky Blinders” or characters like Common’s Elam Ferguson in “Hell on Wheels” in my mind). Maybe it was always unremarkable, a sort of dive that nobody truly loved, but some tolerated as good enough on occasion. But it represents, at least in my head, an unparalleled outlet for culture, a refuge for the persecuted in the eye of a storm, a place for working people looking to unwind and connect, to revel in each other.
When the new tenant moves in, we’ll probably stop calling the structure the Cascade Saloon. And that means we lose something. Then again, the only way to meaningfully preserve any vestige of what the drink house used to be is to restore and reoccupy the building, one way or another, to maintain the shell. Otherwise the bricks will crumble and the building will descend to dust just like more recent examples of black nightlife downtown, lost to the annals of history.
Thanks to Preservation Greensboro and its executive director Benjamin Briggs for help with the history of the Cascade Saloon.