History: Street was more than Raleigh's main drag

Staff WriterJuly 28, 2006 

— For most of the past 200 years, anyone in Raleigh with something to buy, sell, show off, gawk at, protest or celebrate did it on Fayetteville Street -- four of the most notable blocks in North Carolina. It started as a muddy pathway lined with saloons and cockfight rings, and grew to a street of bankers and fat cat lawyers. Its history passes from Civil War to civil rights. Rebel soldiers tramped past Fayetteville Street storefronts in defeat, one day ahead of Gen. Sherman and Reconstruction. A century later, black college students sat down behind those storefronts demanding service from the segregated lunch counters.

This week, Raleigh celebrates the street's newest chapter, when it opens to cars for the first time since 1977.

No one expects a magic return to Fayetteville Street before the suburbs redrew the American map. The most enthusiastic downtown backers know young boys will never gawk at electric trains in the Hudson Belk window or watch a cowboy triple-feature at the Ambassador Theater.

This era of Fayetteville Street is aimed at a different generation that demands luxury condominiums and wireless cafes.

But, as asphalt is spread and bricks laid, it is worth remembering who walked on them yesterday.

"It was always lively and thriving," said Raymond Beck, site manager and historian at the state Capitol. "You had vaudeville shows. There were jewelry shops ... The Sir Walter Hotel was known as the third house of the legislature and you had smoke-filled rooms, literally."

So much is gone -- burned or bulldozed.

In 1880, Fayetteville Street hosted seven newspapers, most of them long-forgotten. The Hayseeder. The Blasting Powder. The Negro Expositor.

The trades merchants plied there scarcely exist in Raleigh today, let alone the buildings. Fayetteville Street had two cigar-makers, two candy-makers and an oyster company.

A generation of boys grew up on westerns at the The Grand Theater, the Superba or the Alamo.

Shoppers eyed clothes at Boylan-Pearce or Taylor's, family-owned stores with staff that remembered names and tastes.

"The stores had individuality," said Elizabeth Cofield, 86, who spent 40 years as a professor and dean at Shaw University. "People there would know you."

A Raleigh native could name every shop from Morgan to Davie street, said G. Wesley Williams, who led the city's Merchants Bureau for decades. McClellan's. Jean's. The Boon-Isley drug store.

"That's where all the girls hung out," said Everette Jones, now 83. "That's where you'd find your dates."

By the 1950s, Fayetteville Street took its first hit from Cameron Village, when shopping centers were foreign and new. It took another from North Hills Mall in 1966 and a fatal shot from Crabtree Valley Mall in 1972.

Shortly afterward, The Raleigh Times described the street as a "wide waste of concrete," and it dispatched a reporter to describe the nighttime scene. "It's a checkered group totally different from the office workers who walk those streets by day," said the Times' dispatch. "Some are there to panhandle or harass others. Some appear to be prostitutes or homosexuals, claiming a narrow edge of the world left them by a retreating straight society."

But in its earlier history, Fayetteville Street presented a scruffier image -- more Huck Finn than Norman Rockwell.

There were cockfights at Casso's Inn, the tavern where President Andrew Johnson was born.

In 1903, a crowd was so incensed at having missed a hanging that they chanted on Fayetteville Street until the dead man was paraded past them in his coffin.

During Prohibition, bootleggers passed bottles of "CCC" -- Craven County corn.

"It was more rough and tumble," Beck said.

Fayetteville Street has always been the place for spectacle.

Elephants paraded along it in 1898 on their way to the circus. A high-wire artist once crossed the rooftops, and the crowds paid to see a man buried alive as a carny stunt beneath the Fayetteville Street dirt.

Lafayette passed through.

So did Jefferson Davis, in a coffin bound for Virginia, four years after his death in New Orleans.

So did Carry Nation on her crusade for temperance, and she complained that a Fayetteville Street tavern was hanging a picture of a "perfectly nude female."

Few streets in North Carolina have gotten so much attention, or been the subject of so many schemes.

Once the shoppers fled for the malls, downtown merchants suggested covering it over with grass, or installing a moving sidewalk, or piping in soft, inviting music.

Paving Fayetteville Street for a pedestrian mall eventually won out, and the promises of bustling crowds soon faded.

A beach music festival drew 20,000 people in 1986, but a couple dancing on a blanket summed up the public's appreciation.

"The only other time I've been downtown is for a DUI," said the man at the time. "That was our first date."

No one knows which period of Fay- etteville Street's history will repeat itself after this $9.3 million makeover -- the lively years or the "wide waste of concrete."

Fifty years from now, maybe Raleigh will recall buying coffee at Port City Java for $1.89.

Maybe they will think fondly of beer specials at The Capital Room when the Canes made their 2006 run for the Stanley Cup.

More likely, they will remember the hopeful sound of jackhammers carving out Fayetteville Street's next chapter.

Staff writer Josh Shaffer can be reached at 829-4818 or jshaffer@newsobserver.com.

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