Past Times

Raleigh’s Hillsborough Street was a different place back then

Hillsborough Square was popular with N.C. State students but not with neighbors.
Hillsborough Square was popular with N.C. State students but not with neighbors. Raleigh Times Photo

N.C. State University alumni traveling along Hillsborough Street can be forgiven if they feel like they’re in the wrong place. So much recent development might make the place seem unrecognizable. Tell that to students from the late 1970s and early 1980s. The hang-out back then was Hillsborough Square, a collection of bars and taverns popular with the kids, but not so much with nearby Cameron Park residents. In June 1980, the property was sold to the university, and establishments like Barry’s, Free Advice, and Edward’s Grocery found themselves homeless. In October 1980, N&O writer Rick Warner took one last look at the popular nightspot.

At the end of a warm October day, a dozen students mingle in front of Edward’s Grocery on Hillsborough Street, surveying the quiet scene across from the N.C. State campus.

“This place used to be wide open,” said Arlen Boyce, an NCSU junior, as he peered up the street at a row of boarded-up buildings. “The whole block was jammed with people every night. Let me tell you, it was wild and crazy.”

At Edward’s, they used to sell T-shirts that read: “I Party on the Block.” Now, laments manager Paul Swenson, “we’re thinking of a new one. It’s going to say, ‘I’m a Hillsborough Square Survivor.’”

Swenson speaks from experience. Just a few years ago, the strip of Hillsborough Street between Oberlin Road and Ferndell Lane was crammed with a half-dozen taverns that catered almost exclusively to the college crowd.

Barhopping students packed the sidewalks, sometimes spilling onto the street with their celebrations.

“The street would be lined with people. From Ed’s to Barry’s, it was one big human wall,” said Mike Twiss, an assistant manager at Ed’s.

When neighbors started to complain about excessive noise, litter and traffic, the scene began to change. Crazy Zack’s, one of the most popular taverns, shut down and moved to a larger locale near Meredith College.

Two more taverns, Barry’s and Free Advice, closed their doors in July after NCSU bought the property… .

“People didn’t come here to go to Edward’s Grocery or Crazy Zack’s or Free Advice,” said Swenson, a muscular ex-drummer who’s been working at Ed’s for three years. “They came because it was The Square. It was the place to be.”

Edward’s still draws plenty of customers, but even Swenson admits the old atmosphere is missing. Many State students now do their drinking elsewhere, in sparkling modern palaces like the new Crazy Zack’s and Tut’s on Western Boulevard.

“It’s nice here, but it’s just not the same,” said Eric Hammersand as he paused between pinball games at Crazy Zack’s last week.

Hammersand, a fifth-year student at NCSU, was one of thousands of students who cut their drinking teeth at the square. And like many of them, he talks about the good old days with a nostalgia usually reserved for old dogs and high school sweethearts.

“I’m in a fraternity and a bunch of us used to go down to Zack’s every Friday,” he recalled. “It was the kind of place where everybody knew everybody else. You couldn’t go five minutes without bumping into a friend.

“Here, you get a lot more out-of-towners,” he said. “People are more dressed up. They’re more conscious of the way they look and act. You’d never see this many people dressed up in the old Zack’s.”

Large parking lots and spacious interiors have reduced crowding problems at Tut’s and Crazy Zack’s, but some students question whether the new nightspots are any safer.

“You have to realize that a lot of people get drunk here, and then they have to drive home,” said State sophomore Michael Gibbons, washing down a bottle of beer at Crazy Zack’s.

“At least in the old days you could walk across the street and pass out or get somebody to help you to your room,” he said. “Now you have to drive back to campus. I’m not so sure that’s an improvement.” The N&O Oct. 20, 1980

At the time of the sale, university and city officials were divided on the state of the problem.

NCSU Chancellor Joab L. Thomas, whose house is located almost directly across Hillsborough Street from the square, said that Hillsborough Square “is really the front door, the main entrance to the university” and that it has been “something of an eyesore … a problem I’ve been seeking a solution to for some time.”

Thomas said he is bothered “only every night” by noise from the taverns. “I often have difficulty parking in my own driveway, and I almost daily pick up beer cans from my lawn.…”

Police Chief Frederick K. Heineman said he had mixed emotions about Hillsborough Square’s demise.

“As a former student myself … it’s sad to see a positive tradition, as far as students are concerned, come to an end,” Heineman said.

“But I’m delighted to see a negative tradition, from the community and police department’s point of view, come to an end. It will certainly make our job a lot easier….” The Raleigh Times June 26, 1980

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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