City planners and Raleigh council members who approved lining the main street in North Carolina’s capital with beer joints and other alcohol vendors apparently had no knowledge of Raleigh’s history or understanding of the predictable outcome of their decisions.
Anyone living in Raleigh in the 1970s and ’80s should remember that the cluster of beer parlors and “clubs” on Hillsborough Street created the same kind of problems now ruining the ambiance of downtown.
News stories reported on the complaints that resulted when mostly N.C. State University students urinated, defecated and vomited on the bushes in residents’ yards and on the sidewalks after overindulging in the beer joints.
It has always been easy to attract crowds to, in the words of a classic country song, “the places where the wine and liquor flow” and “honkytonk angels” are readily available.
Megabars such as The Long Branch and the Crabtree Lounge and more upscale clubs such as Bowties in the North Raleigh Hilton achieved iconic status in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Owners of those businesses and the officials who granted permission for them to operate had the good sense and the good judgment to keep them at a respectable equidistance between suburbia and the State Capitol.
No one was foolish enough to believe that a bunch of rowdy and boozy partygoers swigging alcohol and clogging sidewalks as loud, late-night music blasted from the innards of dozens of bars would be a good thing for main street.
The businesses now on Fayetteville Street – and their patrons – are no different from those of a decade or a generation ago. Their presence, despite the hoity toity and sometimes foreign-sounding names on their doors, does not convey sophistication, urbanity or even good taste. A drunk puking or urinating on the sidewalk does not contribute to the revitalization of anyplace, much less the capital of a state.
Those of us whose memories reach back to a time before the cultural chaos known as the ’60s can remember when Raleigh’s nightlife provided a rich mixture of choices, none of which resulted in bodily fluids left on sidewalks.
The alcohol-free Brooks Recreation Center provided bowling and skating, and on weekends after 10, the skate rink was converted into a dance floor with a DJ to play the top tunes of the day. The YWCA also sponsored a weekend dance, open to sober, nonsmoking young men seeking female companionship.
Johnny’s Drive-In on what is now Capital Boulevard and Finch’s Drive-In on Hillsborough Street attracted huge numbers of young people who socialized in the large parking areas.
For an older crowd, Johnny’s Super Club, next door to the drive-in, provided dining, live music, beer and the ingredients for mixed drinks, but the patrons had to bring their own spirits.
Country music star Homer Briarhopper offered a generally orderly evening of weekend entertainment at his club, east of Raleigh near the Neuse River.
Fayetteville Street was a brightly lit boulevard of shops and stores and theaters. The downtown had six movie houses, some quite grand, that provided movies and live shows.
The times then were gentler, but if one were determined to savor the wild side of life, there were places to go:
The County Line, as the name implies, was a notorious joint that straddled the boundary between Wake and Johnston counties on old Garner Road. At the County Line, one expected to get cut, shot or at least to lose a tooth or two before an evening was over.
At the Wagon Wheel, just west of Garner, patrons generally expected to have to fight their way out of the place or “yellow out and run.”
A mile west of the Wagon Wheel was Pierce’s, a den of inequity if there ever were one. The owner, Ole Man Pierce as he was known, kept order of a sort by wearing a sawed-off shotgun slung over his right shoulder on a wide leather strap. Fist fights, knife fights and even gunfights were permitted at Pierce’s – outdoors where they caused no property damage.
Scattered throughout what is now known as the Triangle were dozens of places similar to these. Most people knew they existed, but no one, certainly not planning board or city council members, thought they had a role in revitalizing the downtown area of the state capital.
It’s a truism, but it bears repeating: If one does not remember history, one is doomed to repeat it.
Grady Jefferys is a former writer and editor for The News and Observer and WRAL-TV.