The Disappearing City: Surviving UNCG’s summer break

by Matt Goldman

A casual stroll across campus makes the difference immediately apparent and striking.

Bike racks, normally filled to capacity, are almost empty. You can count the number of students mingling in the campus quad on one hand.

A girl chats on her cell phone outside of the Moore Nursing Building; her voice carries 50 feet. A couple of guys throw a tennis ball near the entrance of the science building. There aren’t enough people to be bothered.

The East end of Spring Garden Street – typically a nightmare to drive at certain parts of the day – is now fairly manageable at any given time. Parking spots are easier to find; there seem to be more construction workers than coeds and the heat and humidity grows more oppressive by the day.

Summertime has returned to Greensboro and the 200-acre campus of UNCG, buzzing with activity less than two months ago, has now been transformed into a virtual ghost town.

Greensboro is home to four colleges and universities other than UNCG, including Bennett College, NC A&T University, Guilford College and Greensboro College that together enroll more than 26,000 students, enough to confer on the city the status of “college town.” With over 16,000 students, UNCG has naturally become the area’s most prominent institution. When the spring semester ends, a mass exodus occurs when its undergrads return home, leaving a formidable dent in the city’s overall head count. As a result, summertime in Greensboro means a substantial drop in clientele for some local business owners, chiefly those located on Tate Street.

There is a long-standing symbiosis between the college and Tate Street and this fact is made particularly apparent with the arrival of the summer. Located directly below UNCG’s campus, it’s got all the necessary components for keeping college students entertained – food, coffee, clothes and, of course, booze. During the late ’60s and early ’70s it was dubbed the “Hippie Hill” of Greensboro and has seen its fair share of trendy restaurants and shops come and go.

New York Pizza arrived in 1977 on the Corner of Tate and Walker, and has remained a staple of the UNCG and Greensboro culture ever since. More than most places on the block, they’ve grown used to the natural ebb and flow of a business that relies almost entirely on its college clientele.

“Tate Street lives and breathes by UNCG students,” said bartender Mark Voerman. “Any place that opens in the springtime is lucky if they make it through the summer.”

Voerman knows what he’s talking about, as he’s spent a fair share of summers in the Triad. Originally from New York, he moved to Greensboro eight years ago (notably, he’s also a Tate Street Resident) and has been working behind the bar at NYP for two years now. He’s tall and thin with red hair and a short-cropped beard and has a knack for small talk – a crucial skill for a good bartender.

“It’s like night and day [after students leave], very different, especially at lunchtime,” he says. “At, night business is still pretty steady but can also be hit or miss.”

While he does like to stay busy as it makes his shift go faster, Voerman has come to appreciate the opportunity the downtime provides him to help get to know those oh-so-important regulars who help keep the place afloat during the slow months.

“It’s nice to be able to give them some extra attention for once,” he says.

It’s a Tuesday during lunchtime in NYP and just as Voerman described it, they’re not exactly slammed. A table of six sits at one of the booths and a few regulars line the bar. The larger party turns out to be a group of UNCG summer school students and faculty taking a lunch break. They’re all part of the theater department and are putting together their summer program.

They echo sentiments similar to those of Voerman’s except with a slightly more academic slant, less motivated by business on Tate.

“I like the smaller classes and the attention and focus that summer school can provide,” said Senior Katie Pelkey, who will graduate in December. She and three other students are accompanied by two faculty members who all nod in collective affirmation. The whole table also agrees that it’s nice when Tate Street isn’t as busy since there are significantly more parking spaces and therefore less opportunity for campus police to write tickets.

If the pizza and beer business loses patronage during the summer time, the coffee industry feels its repercussions tenfold, especially Tate Street Coffee which has been providing caffeine to hung over, bleary-eyed college kids for nearly 15 years. Unlike other local, independent coffee shops such as Elm Street’s Green Bean, their livelihood is almost entirely reliant on the university population.

“I’d say we have about a seventy percent drop-off once everyone leaves,” says Brandon Cardinal, the shop’s assistant manager. He’s working behind the counter on this day, but still has ample time for a conversation. “Much of the Green Bean’s foot traffic is business people and professionals. We’ve got almost all students here.”

Tate Street Coffee’s laid-back, casual ambience is intensified with the arrival of summertime. The slow ceiling fans and dawdling jazz music complement the humidity which has begun to bear down on the region. The absence of that standard coffee shop chatter obviously contributes as well. Like Voerman at New York Pizza, Cardinal doesn’t mind this temporary departure from the norm – as long as it’s just temporary.

“It’s like a different job. Sometimes I feel like I’m moonlighting,” he says. “It’s actually nice to have some down time, but I definitely wouldn’t want it like this all year around.”

Two doors down from the coffee shop, the employees of Sisters have a slightly different perspective. The small clothing and accessory boutique has been open for 10 years so they are no strangers to the way Tate Street functions. Nevertheless, summer doesn’t necessarily mean a drop in sales for Sisters – it’s more of a shift in customers’ buying habits.

“At the beginning of the semester we tend to see kids coming in to buy accessories for their dorm rooms like tapestries,” says Becky Patterson, the shop’s owner since 1997. “During the summer it’s more about sunglasses and toe rings.”

Patterson is joined by manager Allison Sidders and store employee Ashley Panzera, a rising UNCG senior who opted not to take summer school this year due to rising tuition. The three ladies are genuinely friendly and after a few minutes it’s apparent they have a lot of pride for their business as well as for Tate Street.

“Another reason why we’re not as affected by departing UNCG kids is thanks to the locals who leave Greensboro to go to school but come back to us visit after their spring semester,” Patterson says.

She also draws on the cathartic value that Sisters often provides for glum summer school students.

“A lot of them are bummed out about having to go to summer school, so they come in and buy things to ease their pain a bit,” said Patterson. “Not surprisingly sales also tend to come later in the day during the summer season.”

Patterson helps to shed some light on how close knit the Tate Street community is. She’s not the first person to mention the sudden passing away of longtime Tate Street fixture, Sam the Can Man, but she definitely provides the most poignant anecdote about him. Sam was an 80-year-old retiree who would often walk up and down Tate Street collecting cans for some extra money. Many, including Patterson, noted Sam’s innocuous but somewhat mysterious presence.

“He loved to talk about two things: cans and the weather,” she says, “so it was kind of hard to get a feel for who he actually was. But I do recall watching him warmly hug this big dog. I don’t think he got much affection.”

R. Grant Snavely could be referred to as the Grandfather of Tate Street. His shop, The Corner, which he bought from his father Hugh in 1971, has held strong since the 1950s when it first opened as a soda shop. It now sells greeting cards, flowers, posters and a variety of other knickknacks. Snavely speaks softly and perpetuates most effectively that “small town” feel which Tate Street and Greensboro as a whole have become known for. It seems like he knows everyone who walks through the door. A man comes in to buy two Cokes. He banters with the customer as though they’ve been friends for years.

“You have a two-dollar bill?” he asks. “If you don’t have a two-dollar bill it’s gonna cost you four.” The two share a laugh. The man leaves and store is once again quiet. It’s been slow today.

According to Snavely, 75 percent of his business comes from college students. But he’s unfazed. There is no one else on that block who better understands Tate Street.

“I’ve seen hundreds of stores come and go [due to the drop in summertime business].

I don’t understand how two sandwich shops right next to each other have been able to stay open,” he says, referring to Subway and Jimmy John’s across the street.

But it’s more about tradition than acquiring capital for places like Snavely’s as well as New York Pizza and the coffee shop. They’ve become such steadfast parts of the culture, both local and collegiate, that a few months of slower business is hardly an issue.

The same goes for the neighborhood bar, Old Town Draught House. Located on Spring Garden Street, smack dab in the middle of campus, Old Town loses 35 percent of their business. Like New York Pizza they stay afloat thanks to devout regulars, however they also rely heavily on their own loyal employees.

“A lot of the staff comes in for lunch and especially at night for drinks,” says Sage Hanna, a daytime bartender who also maintains the uncanny ability to make you want to buy a beer.

It feels sleepy and comfortable in Old Town. Johnny Cash is on the jukebox covering the Bob Dylan number “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and the cooks look bored standing behind the line waiting for an order to come in.

Hanna chats away with a couple of her regulars before she gives them their change and they walk out the door. She then draws on a clichéd, albeit appropriate, TV show reference.

“These days it really is like ‘everybody knows your name.'”

Just another summer afternoon in Greensboro’s university district.