Can midnight café society survive progress?

by Brian Clarey

After midnight on Greensboro’s Elm Street the shoulders are crammed with parked cars and circulation on the sidewalks flows like a tap has just been turned on. Outside Rocco Scarfone’s Much Restaurant & Bar, a sharp squad of door personnel maintain the velvet ropes, which in this case are not actually velvet but still do their job demarcating the difference between patron and passer-by. It’s an interesting setting for a city council meeting, with the Triad’s late night club crew jostling for sidewalk motility, restaurant tables and bar space; two queues for entry into Scarfone’s other downtown boom room, the N Club, spread in either direction from the entrance like the legs of a ready and willing partner. It was all Robbie Perkins’ idea. The at-large Greensboro city councilman floated it at a July 16 meeting during a debate about Scarfone’s desire to keep his sidewalk tables at Much open until last call instead of 10 p.m., as the current ordinance allows. Perkins proposed this field trip so that city council might be made aware of exactly what goes down on our streets after midnight. It’s not like the old days, when Mayor Keith Holliday could be seen all over the district on any given weekend, taking pride in his knowledge about and participation in the downtown resurgence that gripped Elm Street and its environs over the last five years. “When we first started down here,” my friend Playa tells me, “nobody thought the N Club would last.” Playa’s a relic from 1999, when he started working for Joey Medaloni, then owner of the N Club, when Much was just a twitch in the young bar owner’s shorts. Playa was one of a fiercely loyal crew that Medaloni cultivated, trained and kept together until July 2006, when he sold the N Club, and eventually Much and its rooftop nightclub Heaven, to Scarfone, a displaced Brooklynite with a string of business interests that include a limousine service and a stint as president of the defunct Greensboro Generals hockey team. Scarfone’s out there on the sidewalks tonight like he always is, running the loop that connects his clubs, a circuit of back stairwells and side doors, his biceps veined and pumped at the short cuffs of his shiny black shirt. Perkins is out there, too, at the head of a scrum that includes Downtown Greensboro Inc. President Ed Wolverton, Assistant City Manager for Economic Development Jim Westmoreland, his 17 year-old son Jimmy, Rhinoceros Times Editor John Hammer and 99 Blocks Editor Bill Hancock. Not exactly a circus, but I own the midnight beat and here is where I need to be. Scarfone’s tables are unique, Wolverton is saying, because they are on the public sidewalk, unlike the outdoor tables at, say, Churchill’s and Fincastle’s, which sit inside a private property line As cars roll down the strip, powerful sub woofers rattling the night, Perkins leads the posse away from the real action, down near the corner of Elm and McGee, a strong intersection anchored by Natty Greene’s brewpub, the Green Bean coffeehouse and a trio of nightspots — M’Coul’s, Longshanks and the Green Burro — stacked like parfait off the corner. “We’re kind of in an emerging stage of downtown,” Perkins says. “The first stage is kind of entertainment. Then you get residents. But at some point the corporate world will come in.” He gestures to the parking lot across the street, a city-owned tract, and a guy like Perkins, who has made much of his money in real estate development, can’t help but build a castle in the air when he looks at it. There are plans for this lot, as there is anticipation of the Mellow Mushroom coming together a click or so down the road. “It’s a great low-end restaurant,” Perkins says, “but we’re gonna hear a lot more parking complaints down there.” The night is still young, the bars open and booming. Perkins has a ride-around scheduled with downtown police until last call. He bends down, picks a promotional card off the sidewalk, absently slips it into his pocket. “I think what everybody is concerned about is what happens at 2:30 when they dump everybody back on the streets,” Wolverton says. I meet Playa for a drink at the bar. “They’re not gonna like it,” he says. There’s extra cops on tonight, about 10 of them, and they cluster around the hot spot that was once known as the Medaloni District. One line for the N Club stretches all the way to Market Street, right past Scarfone’s café tables in front of Much. Jen Ferrell takes a drink and watches the promenade, a pageant of short hemlines, distressed jeans, shaved chests and open-toed heels. “This is the best people watching in Greensboro,” she says as the crowd filters past. A security guard in a Smokey the Bear hat monitors pedestrian traffic at the crucial bottleneck, where the N Club line brushes tangentially against the questionable sidewalk café, forcing pedestrians onto a protected portion of the street. Traffic nudges along, idling engines and the subwoofer shake serenading the night. “You can take away the tables and chairs,” Ferrell says, “and it’s not gonna change anything.” At 2:30 a.m., at-large Council Member Sandra Anderson Groat leans into the bricks at the corner of Elm and Market, her eyes wide behind fashionable glasses. It looks like a street festival out here, with bodies moving indiscriminately across intersections, cars choking the thoroughfare. And you get the idea that Groat really didn’t know how many people take to the downtown streets on a Saturday night. Minutes ago a scuffle broke out in front of the N Club, and she’s been riding around the district in a GPD patrol car for the last two hours, witnessing the sort of petty malefaction that comes to every urban center in the hours past midnight but is invisible to the folks who insist on going to bed at a respectable hour each night: Public intoxication, DWI, vandalism, minor assaults and petty theft. This, to me, is a more important issue than the presence of café tables on our city sidewalks, and one that makes strange bedfellows. On this issue I am in agreement with District 5 Council Member Trudy Wade, who opined on July 16 that the district needs more cops at night and less restriction of local business. I also tell Hammer that I begrudgingly accept his thesis posited in a September 2006 column that one violent episode in downtown Greensboro could knock out the whole business structure, though I disagree with his assertion that police should shake down those suspected of “vagrancy and loitering.” There’s enough real riff-raff down there to keep the cops occupied until sunrise, and it happens every Saturday night.

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