Tate Street: For rockers, hippies and the homeless… An oasis in a concrete desert
Tate Street rolls from the brown-field industrial zone of Lee Street past the stately brick edifices of UNCG towards the Market-Friendly thoroughfare, hitting a dip where diagonal parking lanes on either side of the street splay off in front of rows of shops at a jag in the road.
Call it a vortex. Call it an oasis.
Either way it’s a place where young people spill into the street on Friday nights, pack into unadorned venues to hear obscure bands, or lounge on the grass on lazy Sunday afternoons. It’s been that way for over three decades.
Tate Street, which in a proper sense constitutes only about one block from Walker Avenue to Spring Garden Street, has been a magnet for maverick musicians, writers, political activists, not to mention alcoholics and recreational drug users, since at least the late 1960s. Most of all it’s a strip that, despite the best efforts of its more upstanding guardians, has nourished the fine art of hanging out.
Everybody, it seems, has their own stories about Tate Street and their own reckoning of when the area’s golden age occurred.
Mike Duehring, a 25-year-old UNCG student with a ripped physique, a muscular jaw line and stringy brown hair buried under a farm cap, figures he got in on the end of a good run that lasted from the late ’60s to the mid ’90s. Others say the area was revitalized when Matt and Ann Russ opened Tate Street Coffee House in 1993.
‘“I was thirteen or fourteen when I started hanging out,’” Duehring says. ‘“Driving around town, there’s forty people hanging out doing nothing, sitting on the sidewalk and drinking beer. I thought, ‘This is where I want to be.””
Although he admits it may just be nostalgia, it seems like there was more happening when he was an adolescent. He strongly suspects a clampdown by the UNCG police, which opened a station at the corner of Tate and Spring Garden in the mid ’90s, to be the culprit.
‘“They made it a point to know everybody and flush everybody out,’” he says. ‘“I got arrested on Tate Street for eating a sandwich on the sidewalk. I was charged with loitering. This country is being turned into a police state: ‘drive between the lines, keep walking’….””
Many of the rough edges of Tate Street have been smoothed over since the late ’60s when a hidebound group of merchants reputedly tried to drive out the hippies, along with the spirit of free love, chemical adventure and political radicalism they represented.
These days, the various elements of Tate Street appear to have reached a comfortable accommodation. Tate Street Coffee House is the strip’s anchor: a hub of offbeat but respectable intellectualism; Gate City Noise showcases new music; New York Pizza doubles as a pizza joint and beer hall and provides its own live music; and a string of ethnic restaurants attracts a moderate-income clientele. The word on the street is that the more aggressive panhandlers have been banned from the area by the police, but the derelict and down on their luck can still get a free meal four times a week at St. Mary’s House and sit on the wall without being hassled by the authorities.
‘“It’s always had some different types of people: the motorcycle gangs, the hippies at one time, the people in black with the Dracula look, teenagers ‘— it’s been good,’” says Grant Snavely, whose father owned the building that now houses Tate Street Coffee for 40 years.
In the late ’60s, Tate Street’s merchants were not exactly welcoming to young people in the counterculture, but it was the only place they had in the sleepy, respectable Southern city that Greensboro was.
‘“These universities were oases for these kids from Lumberton and Sanford,’” says Matt Russ. ‘“They’d read about [San Francisco’s] Haight Street. Imagine you were yearning to link up with people of a like kind.’”
Many of the keepers of Tate Street’s lore point to Nashville country artist Emmylou Harris’ stint in Greensboro as a touchstone in the street’s creative development. Harris studied briefly at UNCG, and played at a small club on Tate Street called the Red Door.
Danny Flowers, a kid who grew up in Henderson and had come to Greensboro to study drafting at GTCC, found her singing there in 1967 and was soon playing harmonica with her.
‘“It was like the only spot in Greensboro where there was anything going on,’” he says. ‘“Emmy was the first person I heard and she was fantastic.’”
Asked if Tate Street could be considered a folk scene at that time, Flowers is blunt.
‘“No,’” he says. ‘“There was a handful of artists, but not what you’d call a scene. We both dropped out of school and went up to Virginia Beach, where there was more of a folk club scene. From there, she went to DC and I went to Nashville. It was a good hang, but I went on from there, always following the music.’”
Flowers is better known as a songwriter than an artist in his own right, although he recently performed in Oxford, Miss. with Harris. He is best known perhaps for penning ‘“Tulsa Time’” and ‘“Gulf Coast Highway,’” songs made popular by Eric Clapton and Nanci Griffith, respectively.
UNCG has long held a strong literary reputation, which gave Tate Street the kind of intellectual cast that attracted folk singers like Bruce Piephoff, an artist who spent a solid decade soaking up music on the street and later earned a master of fine arts in creative writing from the university. Piephoff, a sandy blond-haired troubadour who comports himself with a wry sense of humor and mild indignation, has since recorded nearly a dozen albums of original songs.
The towering figure of the neighborhood’s literary life was Randall Jarrell, an acclaimed poet and critic who was hired as an associate professor by what was then the Women’s College of UNC in 1947. He taught there until his death in 1965. Jarrell served as literary critic for The Nation magazine, won a National Book Award and helped promote the careers of poets Robert Lowell and William Carlos Williams. He died as a result of injuries sustained when he was struck by a car in Chapel Hill.
Another notable literary figure on the scene was (and is) Fred Chappell, the former North Carolina poet laureate under whom Piephoff studied the short story as a graduate student in the ’80s.
Piephoff had grown up in Greensboro and gravitated to Tate Street around 1970 after dropping out of UNC-Chapel Hill. By then the counterculture was in full flower and the action centered on ‘Hippie Hill,’ a grassy slope in front of the UNCG Music Building.
‘“I would hang out for ten years before I ever tried to go out and play,’” Piephoff says. ‘“It was a longer apprenticeship. Back then there was a lot of playing in kitchens, and sleeping on couches.’”
Jim Clark, who came to Greensboro in the late ’60s as a political organizer with the Quaker-affiliated American Friends Service Committee and now directs UNCG’s creative writing program, describes Hippie Hill as a place ‘“where people would gather in the evenings to play guitars and plot and talk.
‘“If you can believe it, on a Friday or Saturday night you could not move down the sidewalk because there would be sometimes hundreds of people. It was a center for music and literature, writers and artists. It was also a place where many of us gathered to deal with social issues.’”
Some of the merchants were so alarmed by the seemingly shiftless behavior of the hippies that they took extreme measures to drive them away.
‘“We would all hang out and play music on Hippie Hill. At one point the merchants planted thorn bushes so you couldn’t sit down without sticking yourself,’” recalls Piephoff.
‘“There was also this grocery store owner named Mr. Little who didn’t like hippies,’” he adds. ‘“I wasn’t there that day, but people told me he poured motor oil on the sidewalk to keep the hippies away.’”
Longhairs were not the only ones initially shunned by the merchants. Only three years earlier, Rev. Nelson Johnson, now pastor of Faith Community Church in Greensboro, participated in an interracial effort to desegregate the Apple Cellar, a popular student hangout in the basement of what is now the Boba House restaurant.
Johnson and five other activists who worked for a federal program called Youth Educational Services, descended the steps to the Apple Cellar and sat down at a table in December 1967.
‘“All the white men were arrested, but not the black men,’” Johnson says. ‘“They were trying to avoid the issue that they were not serving blacks. So we came outside and stood in front of the police car and we were arrested too.
‘“We were there two times. We went back again, and when we came out Klan people were on both sides of the exit and we walked through them to our car. But it did lead to a change. The matter of integration was just beginning to take form and there was still fairly strong resistance. Although the conceptual battle had been won, the actual integrating was store by store and place by place.’”
Twelve years later, Johnson, as a member of the communist Workers Viewpoint Organization, would organize an anti-Klan march that was attacked by Klansmen and Nazis at Morningside Homes. Five of Johnson’s comrades were killed in an incident that has had reverberating negative effects on Greensboro’s image through the years.
Three brothers, the Apples, owned a cluster of restaurants, says Amelia Leung, who purchased their building with her husband Robert in 1971. The Leung’s arrival on the scene signaled a new era of acceptance on Tate Street and ushered in a more hospitable climate for musicians.
‘“I don’t think they liked the hippies,’” Amelia Leung says of the Apples, ‘“and they had problems with people in the neighborhood. They had a lot of vandalism. How can you build a clientele when you don’t even like your customers?’”
As a young woman, Leung had worked as a registered nurse in London in the mid ’60s, when she was exposed to the ‘Swinging London’ revolution of miniskirts and rock music. Her husband-to-be was from a Chinese family of restaurateurs in Greensboro known for the Lotus House, a restaurant that opened downtown in 1920. After years of courtship, the couple eloped to Reno, Nev., but relocated to Greensboro when her husband’s family acquiesced to the marriage.
She got along easily with the new Tate Street crowd.
‘“I never judged anybody,’” she says. ‘“I don’t care whether you are an executive or street people, as long as you do not offend anyone. I did not ever have to have a baseball bat.’”
She and her husband opened the Hong Kong House, which served traditional Chinese food, hamburgers and macrobiotic vegetarian food ‘— a menu suited to the varied tastes of her clientele ‘— until the restaurant closed in September 1999.
Leung fell in with the musicians almost by accident through an employee from New York, Aliza Gottlieb, who, with her husband, opened a coffee house in the old Apple Cellar.
Leung met Larry Jacobs, Gottlieb’s husband, one day when he was working behind the grill at Friday’s, a beer and burgers joint where Subway is now located. Jacobs mentioned that his wife was looking for work, and she told him to send her over. Gottlieb and Jacobs asked her if they could open a coffee house in the basement and she agreed to give it a try. Aliza’s CafÃ© opened in about 1972, Leung says.
The first performer was a local musician named Billy Hops, who got paid by passing the hat, according to Leung. Over the years the stage of Aliza’s CafÃ© ‘— later renamed the Nightshade CafÃ© after Gottlieb and Jacobs went into business for themselves ‘— was home to scores of unique folk and blues acts. Bob Margolin, a Muddy Waters sideman, always packed the place. Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band, the Sentinel Boys, the Tornados, Hell Hole and John Hammond are a few of the other acts that passed through.
‘“We couldn’t really afford to pay the musicians so we cooked for them,’” Leung says.
When Bruce Piephoff studied creative writing in the early ’80s under Fred Chappell, he paid thirty dollars a week for a room in a boarding house at the corner of Spring Garden and Tate. With little income, he would take out the trash at the Hong Kong House in exchange for a meal.
The Hong Kong House also attracted musicians because the Leungs rented an upstairs shop to guitar maker Keith Roscoe. The culinary tastes of the musicians who hung around the shop helped shape the restaurant’s menu.
‘“Some of the musicians always wanted the same thing: a hamburger with onions, mushrooms and green peppers, so I called that the ‘Guitar Shop Special,”” Leung says.
‘“Amelia was the mayor of Tate Street,’” says Bill Kennedy, a longtime Greensboro music promoter and publisher.
The folkies shared the street with bikers, whom Piephoff remembers riding their choppers onto the patio at the Bell Stone Fox, a bar one door down from what is now New York Pizza that is now unoccupied. There was frequent foot traffic between Aliza’s and the Bell Stone Fox, but no one interviewed remembers any of the bands that played at the latter venue, other than that they were unremarkable Southern rock cover bands.
The bikers remain a mysterious entity. Their presence is no longer evident, and no one currently hanging out on the street seems to have first-hand experience with their scene.
‘“This is Red Devils territory now,’” says Doc (last name withheld), a Tate Street fixture who wears a black leather vest and smokes a pipe. ‘“In the late seventies-early eighties the Gypsies controlled it.’”
Piephoff’s song ‘“Old Crow’” chronicles the days when Aliza’s CafÃ© was in its prime: ‘“There was music from Root Boy, the Sentinel Boys too/ And there was some jazz-grass, some jazz, some Langston and some brew/ And there was a lady dressed in white wearin’ a shell/ With a rose in her hat and some stories to tell/ So we walked on the street by the Bell Stone crowd/ And we swam like fish when things got too proud and wild.’”
Tate Street has a reputation, deserved or not, as a haven for drug users and alcoholics, but many of its residents view the substance abuse as a manageable problem.
‘“Tate Street’s the city and the real world,’” says Rev. Charlie Hawes, the Episcopal pastor of St. Mary’s House on Walker Avenue. ‘“After ten o’clock at night I don’t think there’s anything you can’t buy here. A couple years ago we had a bad scene with this kid that got high and was trying to molest people. I’m sure you’d find that in the suburbs.’”
Tate Street has also been a center of political activism since the late ’60s, an aspect people tend to overlook when they talk about its bohemian status, says Jim Clark, the director of UNCG’s creative writing program.
‘“When you look at Tate Street, people tend to look at the counterculture in cultural terms, but it was also a political center,’” he says.
In the early ’70s, Clark opened the Center for Social Change across the street from St. Mary’s House.
‘“For years I ran a house across from St. Mary’s that was a community center where we had a free kitchen and an organic garden,’” Clark says. ‘“When there were outbreaks of hepatitis we’d treat that. For a while it was a sanctuary. If people were wanted by the FBI we’d arrange legal representation for them.’”
As a Quaker, Clark’s religious training stressed opposition to all wars, and he counseled young people on how to avoid military service during the late stages of the Vietnam war through the Center. The Center also led voter registration drives, published an underground newspaper called the Greensboro Sun, and launched a public access cable television channel.
‘“One of the concerns we had and continue to have is the need for a police review board,’” Clark says. ‘“At that time there were a lot of conflicts between the Tate Street community and the Greensboro Police Department.’”
During the early ’80s, when the Reagan administration was waging a covert war against the socialist government of Nicaragua, St. Mary’s House served as a meeting place for left-wing Episcopalians and two Maoist communist factions that were organizing against US military intervention, says Rev. Charlie Hawes, the church’s current pastor. Through the years, members of the church have also organized against anti-black and anti-Appalachian discrimination, demanded services for people suffering from HIV and AIDS, and provided space for groups that feed hungry people.
Hawes had been run out of a parish in Smithfield for his radicalism and had run an anti-poverty program in Johnston and Lee counties before the congregation called him to be the pastor of St. Mary’s. During a visit to Tate Street, before he took the job, he walked into Friar’s Cellar ‘— now the Tate Street Coffee House ‘— and knew he was home.
‘“I drank a bad cup of coffee at Friar’s Cellar,’” he says. ‘“It was a dirty store ‘— my God! The place was full of street people, poets, academics and students. It was wonderful. It was the most catholic assortment of people I’d ever met in North Carolina.’”
In that stew of humanity he saw a vision of the ideal church.
‘“My understanding of Jesus is that he was trying to break down religious and economic walls between people to create a radically inclusive community that was threatening to the powers that were,’” Hawes says. ‘“It’s really easy to put together the kind of Christian community that we ought to have on a place like Tate Street. I see Christianity as countercultural.’”
The proprietor of Friar’s Cellar, Dave Jackson, is fondly remembered by many of Tate Street’s regulars. To Richard Currier, a 1984 UNCG graduate who has spent the last eight years riding around the Southeast on a bicycle selling soft drinks, Jackson was both a fearsome and reassuring presence.
‘“I always felt like I was the Southern kid and he represented the industrial complexity, like I always had to cower in his shadow,’” Currier says. ‘“He was pretty straight up with the kids. Kids always want to believe that the world is secure, and he had that assertive personality. He was like everybody’s uncle or grandfather.’”
Currier, a clean-shaven man with a mullet haircut who wears a suit and tie and a construction hat, landed back on Tate Street after years of bumming around the South and waging a legal battle with the state of South Carolina over access to its university campus. He can be seen tooling around the area on a silver spray-painted bicycle outfitted with bins for collecting scrap metal.
‘“Life has beaten me down in the last couple years,’” he says. ‘“Ever since nine-eleven, I’ve become disillusioned with the American dream. The time comes when you’ve got to get out of here and immerse yourself in the scenes.’”
Friar’s Cellar was a grocery store, but it also sold wine and coffee. Matt Russ, a student who attended UNCG in the early 1980s, bought his first six pack there from Jackson. In 1993, Matt and his wife Ann would open Tate Street Coffee House in the same storefront, and in 2000 they would buy the building from Hugh Snavely.
In any bohemian enclave it’s often the street people who bind the community together by providing a common reference point for those tied down with more restrictive occupations and work schedules.
Terry Berry was such a figure for Tate Street.
‘“He was really smart but he chose to live on the street,’” says Piephoff. ‘“You would always see him carrying around a set of golf clubs. I was with my son talking to him, when he pulled out one of his clubs, teed off and hit a golf ball across the street.’”
Hawes adds: ‘“He came to our church. We sometimes thought he was the test God was sending us because he never bothered to bathe and he sometimes soiled himself. But his prayers for the homeless were sometimes eloquent. Terry ran for mayor of Greensboro two or three times. I would have chose him over anyone that was running.’”
Berry died a few years back and his ashes are now scattered in the backyard of St. Mary’s House.
Today, one of the area’s most renowned characters is Harry Perkins, aka Electro, a blues player who often lives on the street. Electro, who is reportedly staying with his mother out of town at the moment, is the object of affection by some and annoyance by others. Unconfirmed stories have him jamming with the Allman Brothers and being scooped up by folk singer John Prine, who was cruising the town in a limo after a performance, to pursue a night of riotous living.
‘“Electro rescued some kids out of the sewer one time,’” says Duehring, the UNCG student. ‘“He heard, ‘Help, help, help’ coming from a manhole. He thought he was going crazy. He tilted up the cover and found them. They’d been crawling through the sewer system from UNCG.’”
Electro is a holdover of the folk and blues scene that nurtured artists like Piephoff. But by 1980, punk and its alternative rock offshoots had changed the paradigm. A handful of short-lived clubs sprang up that showcased national touring acts, but much of the scene shifted to underground venues and house parties scattered around the city.
‘“There were a lot of people that played the blues, but I didn’t know any of them,’” says Chris Clodfelter, an apparel screen printer by trade who attended UNCG in the early ’80s and now performs in a band call the Scholarships. ‘“For us, it was about handing someone an instrument they’d never played, and six months later they’d play a house party and it would be packed.’”
REM played to enthusiastic crowds at Friday’s in the early to mid ’80s, leaving a mark on the local scene.
‘“They were just this little band from Athens, but you could tell something was going on,’” Clodfelter says. ‘“They were touching on something that was different. It was stuff like that coming through that inspired a lot of local bands.’”
Punk and alternative bands played places like the Edge at the corner of Tate and Spring Garden, the Turtle at Aycock and Lee, and the Trim Shop. One of the most notorious was the Miracle House of Rock. A former church turned into an unlicensed rock club, its sign featured the word ‘God’ crossed out with red spray paint and replaced with the word ‘Rock.’
‘“It got shut down,’” Clodfelter says. ‘“It got accused of sacrificing a goat on stage. Which was not true. But there was a lot of crazy sh*t. The city wanted to know what the hell was going on. [The people who frequented the club] had a chainsaw and they sawed a van in half and hung it from a crane.’”
After the Miracle House closed, other clubs sprang up elsewhere like beads of mercury dispersing at the end of a stick.
Doc is probably right when he says the names and faces have changed but Tate Street itself is the same as it ever was. It’s still a creative, tolerant and eccentric place. Musicians can still be found on Hippie Hill, idling the hours away and entertaining each other.
For Piephoff, Tate Street remains a refuge in a city that he sees as still saddled with repressive characteristics.
‘“It’s a Southern city with a lot of racism, prejudice and hating people with long hair ‘— you know, people putting people down. There’s a lot of tension around here, and Tate Street was an oasis from that.’”
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