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Tate Street may lose its unofficial sheriff

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by Ian McDowell

University Laundry off the corner of Tate Street and Walker Avenue in Greensboro is in trouble. That’s not surprising. Businesses fail in College Hill all the time. In the decades I’ve lived there, they’ve come and gone for the usual reasons: undercapitalization, ignorance of the market and the necessity of opening in the early fall rather than winter or summer or, with restaurants and clubs, what Anthony Bourdain calls “Cokehead Management Syndrome.” But University Laundry isn’t in trouble for the usual reasons, and the question of why they’re having difficulty is less important here than what might happen if they go away. Their closing will have greater ramifications than my no longer having a laundromat in easy walking distance.

For over a decade now, some of us who live and work here have grappled with the problems caused by the more aggressive panhandlers, not all of whom are homeless and several of whom are convicted felons who can clear hundreds of dollars a day by harassing gullible students for change (when not breaking into parked cars or local apartments). The owners of Tate Street Coffee and Sisters have done much to keep their side of the street free from these, putting the cops on speed-dial and getting restraining orders against one panhandler-turned-stalker who followed a female employee home and harassed her so badly she left town (the event that first brought my attention to the severity of the problem). But nobody ever made much of a positive impact on what happened at the corner of Tate and Walker, or in the alley and parking deck near that intersection.

That changed in April 2009, when Jim Villano and his partner Karen Mensel opened University Laundry at 949 Walker Ave. From the start, Jim took a proactive approach to policing the sidewalk in front of his establishment, the parking deck beside it and the alley and parking lot across the street. Besides having the cops, many of whom he knew personally and regularly socialized with, on speed dial, he’d get in the faces of those who resisted his first, always polite, request to move on. On one night, a Mike Tyson lookalike smoking crack in the parking deck pulled a knife on him, but then fled when Jim just smiled and whipped out his collapsible baton. As the football players he coaches can testify, Jim may be of average stature, but he’s very tough.

But even tough guys can be laid low by double pneumonia, and Jim just spent three weeks in the hospital, where a (fortunately benign) mass was removed from one lung. Now he has four big scars and firsthand knowledge of just how badly pneumonia can kick your ass, something he says he never realized before. But he’s back on his feet and on the job.

How much longer he stays there remains in question. While he was in ICU, the arbitration between his business and the contractor he’d hired to remodel the premises came to a conclusion. Jim’s thoughts on the subject are blunt and would require a longer and more journalistic piece than this, but his partner Karen puts it succinctly.

“We sued each other for breach of contract. We didn’t make our last payment because we feel the contractor didn’t do all work they’d promised and that we’d contracted for. We went into arbitration and the arbitrator recently sided with the contractor. We now have to come up with $25,000 or we’re out.”

Locals are concerned what might happen. “There’s a reason we call Jim the Sherriff of Tate Street” says David Mader, a veteran of the war in Iraq and a student and line cook who lives at the end of Tate Street. “He’s a hardass and we appreciate him for it. He’s also an unofficial community leader. It didn’t really matter what business he opened here, because any run by him would have had a positive impact. If he goes away, this corner may revert to what it used to be. I hate that notion.”

Sarah Jedrey, who has worked at Addams Bookstore and Coffeeology, agrees. “When I was here in 2005, there were so many vagrants bothering students. Since I came back last summer, I can’t remember me or anyone else being accosted. I really attribute the reduction in vagrants, panhandlers and crackheads to Jim’s active policing.”

Tate Street Coffee owner Matt Russ, who in the past has expressed dissatisfaction with the way some business owners on the other side have dealt (or not) with the panhandling problem, has praise for Jim. “He’s one of the few vendors who understands the ramifications of these guys hanging out in front of our stores and scaring off customers.”

His employee Matt Grady elaborates. “Since Jim opened University Laundry, there’s been a dramatic decrease in aggressive panhandling on this block. I can buy take-out Chinese without being hit on by three or four crackheads.”

Russ’s competitor Kyle Regan, who co-owns Coffeeology on the other side of the street, seconds all this. “It seems like people have been able to walk around Tate Street a lot more freely since Jim showed up. When we first opened, he brought a couple of UNCG officers down here and let me know who to call if we had a problem. I’ve only had to do that a couple of times. I’ll probably have to do it a lot more if he closes shop.”

So what can people do to help? Karen Mensel says they are soliciting donations and considering fundraising options, and that more information will be available on their Facebook page HERE. “In the meantime,” she says “just come in and do your laundry or drop off a load and let us do it for you.”

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