What’s the matter with Greenville?

Fifth Street in 2011 -Ryan Harper | The East Carolinian

Sometimes, when I am having a beer at Winslow’s, I like to wander away from the noise and activity of the bar. There, hanging on the walls in the back, are pictures of old Greenville. The sidewalks are filled with people strolling, cars line the streets, and signs overhang the bustling storefronts.

You won’t see that now. The streets of downtown Greenville are empty during the day, and when you peer in the windows, you are more likely to see a reflection than a person inside. Only at night does downtown come alive, and Fifth Street has become choked with pool halls and third-rate dance clubs, which cater to the nightlife. ECU is famous for its party scene because, in this town, there is little else to do.

Despite all of the approximately 27,000 students attending school here, Greenville doesn’t feel like a college town.  Where are the Hare Krishnas, the socialist bookshops, the kids playing guitar on the sidewalk, the eccentrics, the hipsters, the booming coffee shops, the radicals, the reactionaries … where is the weirdness and energy that makes college towns so special? How is it that this city, with a historic downtown located right on the edge of a huge university, cannot even sustain the simulacrum of college culture?  What’s the matter with Greenville?

Evans Street circa 1966. -ECU Digital Collections

We students are partly to blame. I am shocked at how many students have never seen the courthouse and do not know where Tipsy Teapot is. Do people no longer explore?  The first thing one ought to do on arriving in a new town is wander, discovering what a place has to offer. But maybe it is easier to drive to Greenville Boulevard rather than have to walk five hundred feet to Evans Street.

ECU has unwittingly played a part in downtown’s demise as well, by creating a complex of fast-food joints that divert business away from the sandwich shops and restaurants located along Fifth and Evans streets.

We all suffer from living in a town that is lethargic and boring. But no one suffers more than ECU, and it is unlikely that the university will be able to achieve its institutional or educational goals as long as downtown Greenville continues to fail.

The best students want to be in a place that is exciting and interesting. Even a rinky-dink college like UNC-Asheville has transformed itself into a top-flight school simply by offering a vibrant and stimulating downtown as a reason to go there. Greenville offers little more than football and dollar-draft nights, which can only draw students for whom tailgating and tail-chasing are the limits of their imagination.  And how can ECU retain its star faculty when Greenville cannot even offer an independent movie theater, a good music venue or even a good conversation?

It even affects athletics. ECU may show off its football stadium and become nostalgic about its tradition, but no amount of purple and gold can cover up the gray that is beneath. Recruiters at Chapel Hill, or Athens, Georgia, or Austin, Texas can offer the cities themselves: “Don’t you want to be here?” they ask.

More importantly, Greenville’s failing downtown compromises the very mission of the university. The college experience is about much more than taking classes and earning a degree; it is about opening eyes to the possibilities of culture, and transforming kids into literate, free-thinking adults. When a college freshman buys his first Tom Waits album, or first tastes ethnic food, or stumbles through his first conversation about philosophy, he is going through a rite of passage that students everywhere ought to have. This takes place as much outside of the classroom as within. But it requires the kind of place that encourages cultural growth. Greenville’s business district, which seems to be an endless strip of box stores and chain restaurants, virtually ensures that you will never see or taste anything that you haven’t seen or tasted before. As for personal growth, I am concerned that many students leave Greenville with little more than a diploma and a hangover.

The City of Greenville has made numerous efforts to inject life into its downtown, paying for the upkeep of facades and making grants to small businesses to encourage growth. But the city has proven limited in its ability to drive revitalization; it cannot do it alone. ECU is the only player with the funds and power to make a decisive difference in downtown’s fortunes. And if ECU is to ever accomplish its goals as a university, it must take dramatic steps to ensure downtown Greenville’s prosperity.

Perhaps ECU should help to subsidize downtown businesses. A portion of campus living fees could be set aside as only spendable in designated locations downtown, such as The Scullery or Cubbies. Does this sound strange? Then perhaps you ought to consider Pirate Bucks, which every student living on campus is required to buy with their meal plans. Pirate Bucks, which can only be spent at campus dining facilities, act as a subsidy to the various Subways and Chick-fil-A’s that permeate ECU.

Fast food on campus is convenient, for sure, but what are these restaurants bringing to the life of ECU students that merits the university effectively forcing students to buy there?  A Chick-fil-A sandwich purchased at the Croatan tastes the same as a sandwich from any of the other 1,600-odd Chick-fil-A franchises that dot the South. A student eating here is not creating any memories that are particular to ECU, much less Greenville. Besides, most of these campus fast-food joints can prosper without university support: their central location and brand recognition ensure their survival.

ECU should consider either eliminating Pirate Bucks, which artificially raises the price of campus meal plans and drives money to campus fast-food joints, or it should consider transforming them into a tool that encourages students to use and discover downtown Greenville. Even the businesses that are not designated as places where Pirate Bucks can be used would benefit. A student that goes to Courtside Café for an omelette will have to walk past the Scullery, Sojourner and Expressions. Who knows? They may decide to pop in after breakfast.

Another thing that ECU could do is open an upscale hotel near downtown.  Other universities have found these to be quite profitable, as a nice place for parents to stay when they visit their children and as a place for alumni when they return to watch football and relive their college days. These guests will expect to find nice restaurants and a quaint downtown or at least something more charming than Memorial Drive has to offer.

Finally, has ECU considered locating classes on Evans Street?  Even two or three classrooms used daily would bring several hundred students a week downtown, and the associated foot traffic would be a benefit to the shops, coffeehouses and restaurants in the area.  Lest students balk at the distance, let me remind you that Evans Street is closer than the Belk building or, God forbid, having to commute to West Campus. Renting space in these underused locations can hardly be more expensive than creating and maintaining new structures on campus.

Savannah College of Art and Design has used this model in its own efforts at city revitalization, purchasing and renovating historic buildings for the school’s use. These efforts have not only helped transform Savannah into a tourist destination, but also made SCAD an attractive college to students, despite the hefty tuition.

These moves would place ECU at the forefront of city revitalization and draw national attention to the university. More importantly, they would help turn Greenville into the kind of place it needs to be. The kind of place where we want to be.

This writer can be contacted atopinion@theeastcarolinian.com

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