Remembering Greensboro  |  What's on at the Movies?  |  What's on at the Drive-Ins?
--50's or 60's post card; The Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Building is at bottom right

                                             DOWNTOWN

The end of World War II released a pent-up demand for the goods and housing which just had not been available for several years.  Automobile assembly lines geared up again, initiating the rush to the suburbs and vacation travel by car. No more crowded trains and rationed gas.  We moved into a new house in 1948 which my Dad built with "GI loan" financing--houses were going up all over town, it seems.  Along with most cities in the U.S., Greensboro, North Carolina was experiencing rapid growth in the job and housing markets.  My hometown was never exactly a metropolis during my school years, yet it wasn't exactly a small town, either.  I can still recall the feeling of going downtown in the 50's:  in those days, downtowns were very busy and very crowded -- downtowns were the true hearts of cities.  Most retail and other business took place there.   Shopping centers were virtually unheard of, and malls would come much later.   Nothing could make one feel more cosmopolitan than a trip to "town". I felt this even as a child, though I knew not what "cosmopolitan" was (nor am I sure of its total  meaning even now).  In addition to the raw energy of downtown, there were other distinctions which added to the euphoria:   women with office jobs were expected to wear heels and dresses.  Many women who went to "town" just to shop wore white gloves.  It was a dressy affair.  Men were expected always to be presentable in this environment. Greensboro had its share of "skyscrapers", the tallest being the Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Company (which made its mark in the media in the form of Jefferson-Pilot Communications), a grand gothic 17-story structure built in the late 20's, complete with a bank of very fast elevators and the "elevator starter" in a smart uniform (a very nice older negro man).  At Jefferson Square, not a square at all, but rather the intersection of Elm and Market Streets, there was a policeman who directed traffic for many years (stoplights just weren't enough most days).  He was quite a character with his  clown-like routine.  There was also the paperboy with a heavy canvas bag over his shoulder full of  The Greensboro Daily News in the morning or The Greensboro Record in the afternoon.  He would "call out" the headlines, then break into a half-song (sounding somewhat like an auctioneer) which went something like:  "Getchur evenin' Record--paper, paper".  Jefferson Square also had flocks of friendly pigeons, pigeons everywhere.   There were at least 4 movie theatres downtown, 2 nice department stores, several "dime" stores, several record stores, and too many old-fashioned diners and delis to count.  Unfortunately, downtowns have not survived in this form.  Only those who lived during this period and experienced their own downtowns as I did can know what I mean when speaking of  the "cosmopolitan" feeling they imparted.  Looking at old postcards and pictures can somewhat give one an idea.  But the difference is that I can still hear that tapper on the window at the Planter's Peanut store, and I can still see Mr. Peanut on the sidewalk outside the store giving away samples.  And I can still smell the peanuts.  Kress always smelled like popcorn.  Ellis-Stone (later Thalheimer's) moved to a new space on South Elm and built a store architecturally elegant beyond belief for a city the size of Greensboro.  Their large front foyer always smelled of whatever perfume they were promoting.  There was a very wide semi-spiral marble (as I recall) staircase connecting the first and second floors.  And huge chandeliers.  S & W Cafeteria opened downtown in the mid-50's and was another wonder from a design standpoint.  Were it still around today, it would rival even the smartest of thoroughly modern decor.  And I can still hear Howard Waynick at the S & W organ.  Woolworth's was one of my hangouts after I was allowed to venture downtown by myself from about the fourth grade on.  I was always warned to "use a straw, don't drink directly from the glass" when having a coke at the lunch counter (it's a 50's Southern kind of attitude). Earlier days in Woolworth's (some called it "Woolsworth"), I loved to spin around on the lunch counter stools.  I'd always get slapped for doing that, either by my Mother or whichever relative I was with. (Somewhat recently in Atlanta, a woman was arrested and charged with child abuse for slapping her kid in the store; the child was being a brat, and my, how philosophies on raising children have changed--for better? Or, for worse? The episode caused quite a flak in the media).  Later, in the early 60's, this same Woolworth's lunch counter would take on great historical significance by becoming the surprised host of several very famous SIT-INS.  And I can still smell the Lucky Tiger  hair tonic or the Wildroot Cream Oil which was part of the deal in the 90-cent haircut always given to me by the old negro barber at the shop in the basement on North Greene Street. The camera store, the magic and trick shop, Wilber Music Company-- where I'd buy records-- with its large Nipper RCA Dog out on the sidewalk.  Will's Book Store where I bought my Hardy Boys books.  The shoe stores (and department stores) with "pedoscopes" which afforded a live x-ray vision of the fit of the foot to the shoe.  Later, there were grave concerns over the use of these machines, and they eventually faded into the sunset.  Every year at holiday time the city strung elaborate lights and decorations over Elm Street for many blocks.  Everyone looked forward to this annual event.  As time went on and the downtown area died a slow death, the Christmas lights became less fancy with each passing year.  I never went downtown much after I left for college in 1962.  There was not much reason to-- it didn't take long till most of the stores closed for good.  (In 2000 there is some amount of optimism that the downtown area will come back strong, albeit different.  There already are several fine eating establishments, apartments, and interesting shops.  But it has a very long way to go).  Things ARE happening!

--very early postcard of The Banner Building; my Mom's beauty parlor was on an upper floor of this building; even in the 50's, this structure was in seeming immediate need of repair.
--the old Guilford County Courthouse which today is part of a newer Governmental Center complex
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page created 01 May 2000
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modified 19 August 2000
amended 01 September 2002