March 16, 2011 04:11

Another Friday night in the big city

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The scene on McGee Street in downtown Greensboro on Friday night, heavy with police presence and on-duty cabs, belies the district's reputation as a wild and dangerous party scene.

photos by Devender Sellars

In the early morning hours of Thursday, Oct. 28, 2010, gunshots rang out in downtown Greensboro.

Quinton Dewayne Campbell of Winston-Salem, after leaving the nightclub then known as the N Club, fired his handgun on February One Place after an altercation inside the club spilled out into the street after last call. He shot four people.

Fortunately, nobody was killed — including Campbell, who was himself shot three times by Greensboro police Cpl. JM Atkins there on February One.

The incident sparked a wave of ordinances affecting downtown nightlife, labeling teenagers, loiterers and club owners as the culprits in what city leaders and some downtown property and business owners saw as a social scene gone awry.

District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny led the charge, calling for a “zero-tolerance” policy for “quality of life infractions” in our urban center. New ordinances, including an 11 p.m. curfew for teenagers in the district, were fast-tracked and passed. The idea of an entertainment license was floated, and there was discussion of ending the policy of free nighttime parking in city-owned parking decks because of a claim by Ed Wolverton, president of Downtown Greensboro Inc., that citizens were staging parking deck parties — essentially tailgating in the lots before hitting the clubs.

Evidence of these parking deck parties was anecdotal at best, and the problem with teenagers is neatly debunked by Greensboro Police Chief Ken Miller’s admission that, as of March 2, not a single citation for violation of the curfew has been issued since it went into effect on Jan. 1.

And then DGI brought in a group called the Responsible Hospitality Institute to create an assessment of our “hospitality zone,” which included, among other observations, that “Venues offer mostly DJ music, whereas live music is limited in supply” and that “recognition of local musicians in media… are some ways to enhance what exists.”

But as fun as it is to blame the media for downtown’s ails — the report also chastised the media for perpetuating negative stories about the district — we have to call them out: Each issue of YES! Weekly contains no less than six music stories tied to local bands and performances, along with comprehensive calendar listings for every club in the Triad.

And if they got these things wrong, there could be other bad information out here concerning downtown Greensboro.

So on Friday night we hit the streets, shoe-leather style: four reporters and photographers, to see for ourselves the state of Greensboro’s nightlife, with a particular eye on the issues of teenage troublemakers, parking-deck parties, loitering and the unruly mob that is said to spill onto Elm Street after the clubs let out at 2 a.m.

We spoke to cops, bar patrons, service industry workers and entertainers in every pocket of the Elm Street strip and its attendant cross streets. This is what we saw.

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South Elm Street, 10 p.m.

9:47 p.m., Washington Street parking deck — A walk through the parking deck on Washington Street reveals hundreds of empty parking spaces, but not a single partier — not even anyone drinking in a car, nor any evidence of partying like empty beer cans or cigarette butts. But as we reach the top level, a Lankford Security car approaches us and asks us what we’re doing. While the security guards decline to be interviewed, they do say that they had never seen a parking deck party.

9:50 p.m., downtown branch library, side parking lot — The kitchen-equipped Salvation Army NightWatch box truck is about to head out to its next stop.

Team leader Gary Neese says the truck was “mobbed” by homeless people, and by the time the four-person team had dispensed hot soup, coffee and toiletries practically everyone was gone. Neese prefers to have more volunteers so some can serve while others fellowship with the street people.

“It used to be pretty enjoyable,” he says.

“We’d go to all these places and find two and six [people]. You could pray and visit with them.”

Neese is ready to roll now. His driver is behind the wheel. A young man and woman, volunteers who look like they might be in their mid-twenties, are engaged in intent conversation with homeless people. Neese says the young man is talking about Jesus to a homeless man who professes to be Muslim.

Neese says they’ll stop at a bridge at Murrow Street and then head to the Freeman Mill Road bridge, where an encampment appears to have been recently cleared.

“They had run ’em off, I guess,” Neese says. “We stopped by there last week, and all their stuff was gone. So we’ll stop by there again tonight and see if we can find anyone.”

Neese summons the two young volunteers, and the truck rolls out.

The Muslim man disappears, and another pair of guys heads towards Festival Park. One of the guys, who wears a do-rag, says he’s a former boxer — “a knockout artist.”

10:15 p.m., North Davie Street, 200 block — Akanni Hayes, 17, and Chris Wilson, 19, are strolling past Center City Park and chatting pleasantly, making their way to the Depot to catch a bus.

Yes, Hayes confirms, he is subject to the under-18 curfew. Wilson stops to think for a moment and then remarks with a sense of relief that he is not affected.

In any case, the curfew doesn’t start for another 45 minutes. Hayes says that although he has been downtown at midnight in the past he has never been hassled by the police about it. That supports a previous statement by police Chief Ken Miller, who said he has instructed his officers to not ask for ID just because they think someone might be under 18, but rather to cite violations of the curfew if people are already engaged in illegal or disruptive activities.

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Artistka, 10:30 p.m.

10:30 p.m., South Elm Street — Center City Bar & Grille preps for karaoke and a live hip-hop performance, Red June wraps up its set at the Green Bean and a four-piece jazz combo plays for the dinner crowd at Palmetto’s. Outside of Gray’s Tavern, which has no live music tonight, doorman Nick Tyrance addresses the difference between live bands and DJs.

“A DJ is playing a record of someone I’d like to hear, as opposed to someone who has put in the time to learn a craft, to learn to do something that I can’t, but that I enjoy.”

Down the street at Artistika, college students dance to DJ music while green and red laser dots swirl around the room. DJ L in Japanese issues a soliloquy in the back of the club defending his art and this place.

“It’s a money thing,” he says. “You’re paying a band a lot more money. A DJ is cheaper, and a band is not gonna play for three hours straight.

“Downtown Greensboro bars and clubs have the position to be pioneers, to dictate what happens down here. We are part of an area that has the numbers but lacks the challenge. People are hungry — why do you think First Fridays do so well? Artistika is doing their part, the Green Bean too. But how about everyone else?”

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Artistka, 10:30 p.m.

10:45-11 p.m., around downtown — At Greene Street Club, Ed E. Ruger and the Iconoclast Crew are hosting a beat battle. Up and around on Summit Avenue, the Florida State-Virginia Tech game is on the overhead screen at the Flatiron, and Led Zeppelin plays on the jukebox.

“I haven’t seen any 18 year olds,” bartender Melanie Wallace says. “This is not their hangout.”

Yes, the Flat is a bit of an outlier — both geographically and atmospherically — in this survey. Walking back to the South Elm corridor involves a trek across something of a dead zone: The Summit Station Eatery is closed by now; Center City Park closes at midnight, but isn’t too popular a spot in this cold weather.

Two men sit and converse outside the office of the Greensboro Inn — signs of life in what is otherwise a desolate stretch as the outdoor swimming pool projects a turquoise light in a noir-ish mise-en-scene.

11:16 p.m., West Market Street, 200 block — Two police units are on the scene and a huddle of cops are chatting. The focus of their attention is quickly apparent: a green Nissan Sentra GXE with a ridiculous spoiler that is parked in the street and pointed in a westbound direction. Inconveniently, this portion of West Market Street is one-way and eastbound.

Officer W. Napper, a bicycle cop assigned to the Center City Resource Team, says the police found an open container in the car and ended up making a DWI arrest.

“Another typical Friday night,” he says.

That the city’s major event tonight — the ACC Tournament — is happening at the coliseum on High Point Road and that most of the college students are out of town for spring break is unlikely to dampen the party, Napper predicts.

“If anything, it’s a little more busy,” he says.

“It looks like the bars are pretty full. It doesn’t really get started until 1:30.”

Detective MP Brown, who typically works robbery detail but is helping out downtown tonight, observes that while the air is a bit chilly, the wind isn’t as bad as it has been.

“Never too cold to club,” he says.

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Churchills, 11:20 p.m.

11:21 p.m., Churchill’s — Sweet Daddy and the Sophisticated Blues play a strong set of R&B standards as patrons smoke cigars in the only drinking establishment that can legally allow them. Working the door is Eddie Lohrman, who says the bar has live music “all week long.”

Server Christy Troutman, 23, says things have gotten better since the 11 p.m. curfew for teenagers was instilled.

“They used to do a teen night at Inferno [across the street] and it was a mess,” she said. “Cars pulling up, you got these 16-year-olds in spandex shorts and hoochie tops. I like the more adult atmosphere around town now.”

11:40 p.m., Center City Park — The park is closed, with chains roping off the pathways. There once was an office building here, back when there were no dance clubs around here and the only game in town was the Rhinoceros Club, Ritchy’s and Twiggy’s, all since closed. In 2001, walking this part of Elm Street at night was creepy, the streets deserted like an apocalyptic vision.

11:56 p.m., Inferno — Submission to a full pat down, including torso and legs, is the condition of entry. “You know what night it is, don’t you?” the security guard asks. No, not really. “It’s gay night.” Okay, sure. A flight of steps delivers one into a subterranean refuge — a pleasurable Hades whose gaudy décor features hot colors.

A scrum of security guards at the doorway makes it somewhat challenging to get past. The party hasn’t really gotten started yet. More or less like a high-school dance, there are same-sex couples — ladies dressed in flannel shirts, aviator glasses and ball caps; dudes with white blousy tops, upturned collars and sagging, tight pants; even a guy sporting a Little Richard-style pompadour, nerd glasses and a blue jean jacket — surveilling the raised dance floor in the center of the room where a few intrepid clubbers are making moves.

Later, female patrons dressed in spandex will take to the stripper poles at the end of the room near the bar. They’ll hop on, wrap their legs around the poles, lean back and slide down head first, landing gently on hunched shoulders.

The booths are reserved although it’s not clear for whom because they’re vacant at the moment. A woman dressed in a black leotard, heels and feather mask makes the rounds. “Do you have VIP?” she asks. The patrons demur and drift away.

“Thank you, babe,” she says. Jessica Blue, the event’s promoter, says this is the only LGBT nightclub event in Greensboro on Friday. She expects up to 400 people over the course of the night, and says it will be the largest single crowd downtown. The 2 a.m. exodus when establishments are required to quit serving alcohol doesn’t strike her as a public safety challenge.

“You’ll have last call at 1:45,” Blue says.

“It’s not like there’s a big influx of people. It’s never really a problem.”

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Venue, 12 a.m.

12 a.m., club report — Some 300 partiers gather under the heat lamps at Heaven rooftop club, engage in VIP bottle service in the cabanas and dance to a DJ in an enclosed and elevated booth. At Venue, a furry-booted go-go dancer shakes what she’s got for the hundred or so gathered there. Another couple hundred socialize in the Green Burro, the former Ritchy’s, as a DJ spins in a small dance floor. Less than half of the pool tables at Longshanks are in use. The Boiler Room has them two-deep at the bar and yet another DJ. M’Coul’s is dead, but it smells like coffee. Natty Greene’s has a solidly male crowd at both the upstairs and downstairs bars, probably because of the televised basketball tournaments. The Pour House plays jukebox music for 150 or so drinking patrons. Gray’s Tavern has been at maximum capacity most of the night.

12:46 a.m., Allure Night Life — Outside the club, manager Grady Green goes on record as firmly in the pro-curfew camp.

“Under 18 should not be down here,” he says. “We won’t know whether it’s working until summer. The kids are in school right now.”

He’s somewhat skeptical about enforcement.

“You ask them for their ID,” Green says.

“All they gotta say is they don’t have IDs.”

Inside, Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” is playing on the sound system. Go-go dancers in matching white outfits are doing their thing, one in a cage at the back of the room, another in a corner platform near the hall. The latter dancer has the attention of a goateed dude who appears utterly transfixed with a distant look in his eyes. A heavyset guy who has been flashing cash is distributing shots to friends in small plastic cups.

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Gray's Tavern, 1:30 a.m.

1:15 a.m.; McGee and Greene streets — A young man in his twenties approaches a police officer on a Segway and makes a strange request.

“I’ve had like three beers,” he says. “Is there any way you can give me a breathalyzer so I can see if I can drive home?” The officer demurs, saying, “I can’t give you a field sobriety test and tell you you’re okay to drive. I only arrest people.”

The young man decides to let his friend, who says he’s had nothing to drink all night, drive home.

1:39 a.m., South Elm Street, 100 block — At the epicenter of Greensboro’s downtown nightlife corridor, a spare-changer with a silent partner approaches a passerby. Using the hard-sell approach, he says he’s from DC and needs two bucks to pay for a bus ticket. No dice. He stalks off, and the two look for another target.

The staff at Allure is rolling up the red carpet that has lain on the sidewalk throughout the evening like a tawdry come-on. A small knot of patrons throngs the sidewalks, temporarily impeding pedestrian traffic, and then disperses.

A black unmarked police van is parked on the sidewalk in front of First Citizens Bank and pointed so that the driver has a direct view of Allure, along with Much/Level 2/Heaven.

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McGee Street, 2 a.m.

2:30 a.m., outside of Inferno — The police van has moved in front of the Kress building, where club-goers are trickling out onto the sidewalk, lighting up cigarettes and heading for the parking garages. A couple taxicabs, one whose front passenger window is framed with duct tape, idle on South Elm Street. Across the street, a broken brown glass bottle strews the sidewalk near Allure — a rare and isolated indicator of disorder, not to mention a potential hazard for a passerby wearing open-toed shoes.

Police on bicycles and Segways and in cars appear to materialize out of nowhere.

Appraising the scene, Officer TZ Moore is relaxed enough to banter with a couple reporters while constantly scanning the length of street. He concurs that everything appears to be under control.

“I betcha Chapel Hill’s off the hook,” Moore says.

The officer rates the LGBT crowd a pretty easy one too deal with.

“Friday night is alternative-lifestyle night,” he says. “They typically aren’t out looking for trouble.”

A couple other officers join the conversation. There’s some talk about gun control in relation to a shooting last October at South Elm Street and February One Place, and an officer says he takes a sidearm with him wherever he goes, even to church. Mention is made of the teenagers affected by the curfew, which was approved by city council following concerns about the November shooting, and an unnamed officer says in the summer parents drop their children off on South Elm Street at 9 or 10. He says one of his colleagues took some heat for talking to the media about the shooting, and he won’t make that mistake.

On the whole, the officers seem to see the lively nightlife on South Elm Street as more of a positive than a negative.

“I think Action Greensboro has done a heck of a job,” Moore says. “When I started in ’01, this was a ghost town.”

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Outside Inferno, 2:30 a.m.

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McGee Street, 2 a.m.

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