Wandering Billy

Hamming it Up

Going Hollywood, a birthday bash and new life for urban spaces

By Billy Eye

“I never worry about diets. The only carrots that interest me are the number you get in a diamond.” — Mae West

This summer marks my 50th year in show business. No, almost really.

It all began back when I was 12 years old, after I noticed that the back porch at 1200 Hill Street looked an awful lot like a stage. So I rounded up the neighborhood kids, including Trudy and Ann Warren who lived there, and put on a play using a parody of Dragnet from Cracked magazine for a script. Within days, we were invited out to channel 48’s studio off Wendover to videotape our sophomoric shenanigans for a segment on that station’s afternoon cartoon-fest, The Kiddie Scene with Mr. Green, introduced as “The Hill Street Moppets.” The only thing I remember about the program was they played the song “Yakety Sax” incessantly and broadcast those dreadful Mighty Hercules animated shorts (“Herc! Herc!”).

Actually, I got my start a few years earlier, when I wrote and starred in the fifth grade play at Irving Park Elementary. I was “The Flying Nut.” But, TV baby, that was the big time, with our skit screened at least a dozen times on Channel 48. Later this year, you can catch me portraying a sleazy music company executive in a motion picture shot here in Greensboro, directed by Maurice Hicks, entitled Rap & Rhyme. I’ve seen a rough cut and, if I say so myself it’s amazing . . . stay tuned.

***

Attended a gala luncheon at the Greensboro Country Club celebrating recently retired businesswoman and lumber magnate Marion Hubbard’s 90th birthday thrown by her daughters Libby and Ada. There must have been at least 150 of her closest friends there, if the fire marshall had shown up they’d have shut the place down.

The food was wonderful, the cake divine. I’m guessing half the residents of Well-Spring were present. I saw a lot of familiar faces and was lucky to be introduced to a few new folks, as well. By coincidence, I sat next to a couple I’d never met, Joel Funderburk and his lovely wife Norma.

“Funderburk,” I said shaking hands. “That name sounds really familiar!” Duh, that’s because our February 2018 issue featured the ultramodern home on Cornwallis that Joel designed and built in the 1970s, adjacent to Medford Lake, where the couple lived for 40 years. I had just read Nancy Oakley’s story literally the night before, while researching another subject, but I never made the connection (typical!). Not only that, O.Henry magazine scribe Susan Kelly’s mother was also at the table.

Joel and I traded stories about Old Greensboro, about Otto Zenke and why there are log cabins in Pinecroft, but when Norma asked if young people today know what Hamburger Square is, I was very excited to tell her about the meeting I attended the day before.

You see, big changes are afoot around Hamburger Square.

For the uninitiated, the corner of South Elm and McGee earned the moniker “Hamburger Square” back in the 1930s when there were diners on three of the four corners — California Sandwich, where Natty Greene’s is today; Jim’s Lunch, now Two Brothers Brewing; and Sunrise Lunch, currently home to Just Be. Within steps there were a half dozen other restaurants, including New York Lunch, the Hotel Clegg’s Coffee Shop in the newly remodeled Christman-Cascade Building  alongside the tracks on South Elm. While they all served hamburgers, California Sandwich and Jim’s (both remained in business for more than 40 years) were distinguished for their longstanding rivalry over who made the best hot dogs, which admittedly doesn’t shed a lot of clarity about why the area was called “Hamburger Square.” Nevertheless, the corner has remained remarkably intact for nearly a century now, and in my not-so-humble opinion, downtown’s crown jewel.

The renovation of Hamburger Square is Greensboro Beautiful’s 50th anniversary project, spearheaded by April Harris, David Craft and Randall Romie. Kitty Robinson was in attendance, Greensboro Beautiful’s first coordinator, back when the group was formalized in 1968. Before that, Kitty and her compadres had been undertaking beautification projects around town under the name City Beautiful, for example the green space along Cone Boulevard and dogwood trails. “Before, the money had to go through the Parks and Recreation department of the city,” Kitty tells me about those early days. “We incorporated as Greensboro Beautiful because we wanted our money to go directly into our projects.”

First up for Hamburger Square’s facelift will be a colorful new coat of paint for that weathered trestle above Davie Street, transforming what is now a drab and uninteresting view. “We’ve had lots of community input,” April explains about the next step, to brighten up the pedestrian and car thoroughfare underneath the trestle. “A lighting person came and showed us ways to have swatches of light to achieve different effects. You can set these LED lights to gradually change colors or be static.” The lights will be mounted up high to shine down.

Future enhancements will include a train-viewing area and as a complement to the existing 100-year-old shade trees, additional plantings to create greener spaces. Also in the works is some paving designed to increase pedestrian safety.

Everything new is old again!

***

Half a block north of Hamburger Square, specifically that alley between the Biltmore Hotel and the shops on South Elm and Washington, there’s an ambitious undertaking meant to revamp this dreary back street, where workers take cigarette breaks and stray cats mate. Ryan Saunders of Create Greensboro is behind it, “In 2018, I was living on the third story above Scuppernong Books which backs up into that alley. So I was using that alley on a daily basis.” He was struck by the wasted potential this corridor possessed.

For years, Ryan has been infusing life into dead spaces, both here and in High Point, “Obviously, there are a lot of hurdles to jump over to make this happen,” he admits. “But we want to create an alley that has that open, street-square feeling, where there’s landscaping and seating, so cars, bikes and people can share it,” he says. At night, he muses, “Gates would close so you could buy coffee from the coffee shop, you could buy a beer, get food and hang out. There’s an entertainment stage we envision for concerts.”

The first step is paving the alley, which is underway, but this grand scheme will rely on ingenuity, adaptability and a bit of providence. “If you take the first step today, the rest will follow,” is Ryan’s philosophy. Currently there are two large storefronts on the 300 block that have been vacant since the 1980s. “Those are really deep buildings, very old buildings,” Ryan points out. “From a real estate standpoint, the owners are going to have to invest a lot of money, really do a lot of improvements to get a tenant in there.”

Create Greensboro’s concept would accommodate a subdivision of those 3,000-square-foot former furniture stores into micro-shops, with an entrance facing the alley. “Because you have a smaller space, you’re paying less rent,” Ryan says. “So it’s more approachable for an entrepreneur. Washington Alley is not just a beautification process, this is basically an incubator for small businesses. That’s really what incremental development is all about.”

Relatively small projects like these have a huge impact on day-to-day life for those of us who live and work downtown, and help foster an environment that may encourage young creatives to stick around and not leave town at the first opportunity. Like I did.”

***

Traverse a few blocks down South Elm to find my fave noshery, Chez Genèse. Not that they need the publicity, this charming bistro is nearly always at capacity and will be even more so, I suspect, when Centric Brands relocates its headquarters into the former Blue Bell plant next door.

No matter how packed this comfy corner cafe can get, one is always able to enjoy a quiet conversation, and Eye was pleased to discover potato leek soup on the menu on my last visit, one of my go-to dishes. Don’t know if it’s still on the board but it was the best I’ve ever tasted, richly creamy with miniature wedges of potato to make it hearty enough for a meal. I also recommend the quiche of the morning — tall, silky smooth.

Anyone lunching or breakfasting with me at Chez Genèse becomes an instant fan. You will too.  OH

Billy Eye is always at a loss as to what to write here, how can anyone encapsulate that much fabulousness into mere words?

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