by Brian Clarey
In Eric Ginsburg’s cover story this week, Block by Block, the author bemoans the pace of change in downtown Greensboro, which he perceives as too slow.
I can understand that — for someone his age, a couple of years can seem like a lifetime. And I too feel like I’ve been looking at the scaffolding on the Southeastern Building, the fenced-off site for the performing arts center and Roy Carroll’s dirt pit since I was a much younger man.
But really, when I actually was a much younger man, downtown Greensboro was one of the saddest business districts I’d ever encountered in my life.
I got here 15 years ago, at the age 30, and I had never seen such wasted potential as I did in the sprawl, dilapidated buildings and outdated storefronts — there was once an appliance store on South Elm Street, as if anyone would ever buy a washing machine from a mom-and-pop concern, even way back in the year 2000.
I worked in the building that once stood on the corner that now holds Center City Park back in 2001, not too long after Pete Schroth took a chance on the Green Bean, the only cultural light in the blighted corner of Hamburger Square besides the Paisley Pineapple and the upstairs Sofa Bar in a building that once caught fire twice in the same night. It became Natty Greene’s not too long afterwards.
The stretch of South Elm Street known as the Medaloni District, a string of clubs overseen by nightlife doyenne Joey Medaloni, presented the only action after dark on the main strip, and the Rhinoceros Club gave life to what is now a quieter stretch of Greene Street. The old Rhinoceros Times faithfully documented the scene with party pics that, to look at them now — the fashions, the hairdos, the pervading mood of optimism — seem almost charmingly provincial.
Erik Beerbower and a crew of young artists intended to turn what is now the Railyard and South End into an Arts & Antiques District, a burst of optimism before the closing of Jules Antiques. It was but one of a dozen ideas swirling around the potential of downtown Greensboro.
There was talk back then of digging a waterfront, building a baseball stadium, attracting a grocery store, allowing hot-dog vendors to operate on the sidewalks past 9 p.m. Mayor Keith Holliday finally pushed that last one through after realizing in 2004, following the opening of Natty’s, that there were more people on the streets of downtown at night than there were during daylight hours.
I thought that was the tipping point, way back in my early thirties, which would finally bring some life into that sprawling wasteland. And in some ways it was. Downtown today is unrecognizable from that pupal stage I encountered when I first got here, and in a couple more years it will have moved even further away from those quiet days in the city.
I’m more patient now that I was then. But still, it’s not happening fast enough for me either.