State Street Fest seeks to revive tradition and community
“We want the whole Greensboro community to come out for food, beer, music, shopping and fun,” said Mark Gibb about the upcoming State Street Festival, which will be celebrated from 2 to 7 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 14 in the historic retail district bounded by 2101 N. Elm St. and 2101 N. Church St. “We want them to see everything State Street has been and is becoming again.”
In 2017, Gibb relocated Gibb’s Hundred Brewing Company from Lewis Street downtown to 504 State St. Soon after the move, his new neighbors told him stories of the street festivals once held in the former mill village, and how those annual celebrations dwindled in the 1960s, were revived in the 1980s, but died out again by the end of the 20th century.
Gibb’s Hundred Brewing Company is working with Dancing Dogs Yoga Greensboro, State Street Jewelers, and Wonderland Bookshop to bring the festival back. Sponsoring businesses include A to Zen Massage, Yoga & Wellness; Alliance Properties; Amy Heywood Art; Be Kind Kids; Cafe Pasta; eBike Central; Kara Cox Interiors; Nailed It DIY Studio; Second to Nature Boutique; Shenanigans; and Triad Local First.
“We really like the vibe of State Street,” said Amy Lamb, who with her sister Beth Berger owns Wonderland Bookshop at 409 State St.
“We really like the sense of community,” added Berger, comparing its feel to that of a European village.
Catering to children and young adults, Wonderland is carrying on the tradition of the late lamented B. Dolphin Ltd., which Mimi Levin opened in 1983 at 211-A State St. (now the site of State Street Jewelers), and where the Pulitzer-nominated writer Kelly Link worked in the early 1990s.
“We’re thrilled to be filling the emptiness since that beloved Greensboro institution closed,” Lamb said. “Customers whose parents took them there are now bringing their children and grandchildren here.”
The oldest business on the strip is Café Pasta, opened by restaurateurs Ray and Joe Essa in 1984. That was the year after developers John Harmon and Lynn White revitalized several blocks of the street into a boutique shopping district with brick sidewalks and French-styled buildings sporting striped canvas awnings. With this makeover, State Street became the choice lunch and dinner district for nearby Irving Park, and now-gone specialty shops such as Mark Holder Jeweler and Pewter Place brought customers from as far away as Danville.
“Since 9/11, we’ve had to cater to the economy,” Café Pasta’s Ray Essa told the News & Record in 2012. “[That] kind of weeded out mom-and-pops, [which] need to keep creative to stay in business.”
That same year, Alliance Commercial Properties began a new wave of redevelopment, transforming it into a mixture of retail and office space.
The changes since its 1980s revitalization are not the first time State Street has been utterly transformed.
“I’ve seen it change so many different ways over the years,” said Tavane Taylor, owner of Eclectic by Nature at 414 State St.
Taylor’s shop, which specializes in earth spirituality products and has been at three earlier locations in the neighborhood, now occupies a historic former house, one of the first 20th-century urban residences built on what had previously been farmland.
“Before the mills came, this area was a pig farm,” Taylor said. “Then it was a mill village, and this house, one of the first ones built, was where people in the other houses came to pay rent.”
From before the first world war until after the second, it was McAdoo Heights, a residential and commercial district for workers at Cone’s Revolution, White Oak and Proximity plants.
Many guidebooks and other sources over the years have described “the Heights” as “the town within the city,” although nobody seems to know who it was named after. (A cursory Googling finds articles and blogs suggesting different candidates, each with comments from readers claiming it was called McAdoo Heights well before whatever McAdoo the article suggested as its founder moved here.)
An A&P grocery store was built at 401 State St. in 1931 and closed in 1949. That same year, the Star Theater, a 300-seat second-run movie house specializing in double-features and B-Westerns, opened at 501 State St. It closed in 1958, but reopened in 1969 as an adults-only establishment, signaling the street’s transformation into a red-light district.
In Greensboro, as across the nation, retail shopping was moving away from downtowns, even this mini-downtown two miles away from the main one. Friendly Center was built in 1957 and Four Seasons Mall in 1974. While its neighboring businesses moved or closed, the Star thrived in the 1970s, adding a second screen by the end of the decade, but closed in 1983, as the adults-only entertainment industry transitioned to home video.
Taylor said that the various businesses preceding hers in the former mill house reflect just a few of the changes the street has undergone.
“This was a beauty parlor back in the day, and then My Secret Garden for 20 years. And then there was that period of time where this was where all the Irving Park ladies would lunch. Then this was where Kneaded Energy was established, and they were here for a long time before moving.”
Calling State Street “this fabulous hodgepodge,” Taylor described it as a mixture of “a little bit of Santa Monica, a little bit of downtown Savannah, and a little New England village. I’ve seen it change in so many different ways over the years, and it just always seems to reinvent itself and bounce back. It’s one of Greensboro’s hidden gems.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.