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Lust, long lines and liquor towers: How Five Points lights up after dark

Experience the drunken party scene in Columbia’s Five Points

Each weekend, thousands of people crowd the bars in Five Points looking for a fun and wild night.
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Each weekend, thousands of people crowd the bars in Five Points looking for a fun and wild night.

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Five Points' Identity Crisis:

Throngs of college-aged customers are flocking to a growing number of bars. Is the century-old village changing for the worse?


It’s 1:45 a.m., and revelry is at its height in Five Points.

There’s a wet stain running down 21-year-old Josh Game’s back, thanks to the girl who urinated while he gave her a piggyback ride; she was too drunk to walk on her own.

Game’s 18-year-old friend sways heavily beside him outside a row of Harden Street bars. He clings to a tree for support, shouting in slurred words, “I’m Blind Fury!”

Girls and guys are dancing on tables at the Five Points Roost, one of about two dozen bars in Five Points that cater to college age patrons. Just a block away, a crowd is shouting the lyrics of Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness” at the Horseshoe, a scuffle is clearing up on the Harden Street sidewalk outside of Bird Dog and a young woman is falling down outside of Pinch.

It’s been hours since Five Points, a roughly 1-square-mile area on the edge of the University of South Carolina campus in downtown Columbia, began its Friday night transformation from funky urban village to raucous college party; from sidewalk dining to sidewalk fisticuffs, urination and barfing.

It happens nearly every weekend night.

Famous among a largely college crowd for its vivid nightlife, Five Points is equally infamous among surrounding neighbors for what they say are the obnoxious, alcohol-fueled shenanigans that seep from the bars into their yards in the wee hours of the night.

The multiple personalities of Five Points have the village and nearby neighborhoods increasingly on edge and somewhat at odds. The dispute has included legal challenges to bars’ liquor licenses and an effort by one city councilman to force bars across the city to close earlier.

In February, The State newspaper sent a team of journalists to Five Points for a night to learn what happens after dark in the 100+-year old district.

5 p.m.

At this hour, Five Points is the funky urban village the Five Points Association – an organization of mostly retail businesses in the district – dreams about.

Shoppers are wrapping up their final purchases. Students are studying at Starbucks. An eclectic group of folks are having an after-work drink at Delaney’s, an Irish pub. Saluda’s is gearing up for the dinner crowd.

Near the intersection of Harden and Blossom streets at Bar None, the Alpha and Omega of Five Points taverns, the regulars are starting to trickle in.

They are 40ish. Mostly male. Mostly white. Mostly affable. Mostly Gamecock. Hip before hipster was a thing.

They order domestic bottled beer. A craft brew or two. Bourbon and Coke. Shared shots – a throwback to the days of mini-bottles: “Gimme one, two ways.”

A couple at the end of the bar orders food. They nuzzle. They have a dog. The dog seems content.

Bar None is a Five Points legend. It’s a stalwart watering hole that opens at 3 p.m. and stays open until 6 a.m. Yes. Six a.m. (More about that later.)

It’s a snapshot of another time, when mid-90s sensation Hootie and the Blowfish was a local bar band and USC had 16,000 fewer students than it does today.

Bar None sits on a block that is dominated by bars. But the others won’t open until hours from now. About the only thing they have in common with Bar None is they serve booze.

6:30 p.m.

Down the street, a sneak peek of late-night Five Points unfolds at Group Therapy, another legendary Five Points bar that’s nearly twice as old as many of its patrons.

While the rest of Five Points lays low, Ubers pull up outside the Greene Street bar and groups of college-aged kids pile out for “Friday After Class.”

Guys in sports jerseys (most from the Northeast and Midwest). Girls wearing skimpy outfits. There’s loud laughing, cell phoning and frantic texting as they line up to show their IDs to the bouncers. Inside is a raucous frat party, ear-splitting DJ and all.

“Friday After Class” is a new and unique phenomena dreamed up by a fraternity. The event will end at 8:30 p.m. But it hints at the carousing to come.

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An afternoon crowd gathers at Group Therapy for “Friday After Class.” Cody Dulaney cdulaney@thestate.com

8 p.m.

Saluda’s restaurant floats above the fray on the second floor of the same building that houses Starbucks. The white linen-covered tables are all occupied.

You could pick this place up and drop it in Manhattan.

The wine list is the size of a Guttenberg Bible while the Magnum Opus Filet goes for $45.

The valet is free. Reservations are strongly encouraged.

“Our customer base is old Shandon,” manager Andrew Thompson says. “They know that Five Points is not the same at 8 p.m. as it is at 2 a.m.”

Four college-age guys in jackets and ties – international business majors, judging by their conversation – sample the salumi board before the entrees arrive. A mother and young daughter talk middle school over mussels and salads. A large group of ladies shower gifts on a friend. A couple leans close over a bottle of wine, their food seemingly superfluous.

Saluda’s, Mr. Friendly’s, Cellar on Greene and other restaurants carry the upscale dining banner in the village.

There aren’t any college shenanigans to be seen or heard.

“We’re closed by the time the kids come out,” Thompson said.

Five Points is not the same at 8 p.m. as it is at 2 a.m.

Andrew Thompson, Saluda’s manager

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9:30 p.m.

Those who stopped in for happy hour have long gone. Five Points hangs in a lull. It hovers, a moment of transition between the quaint early evening and the chaos that’s about to unfold.

Party music thumps inside a few clubs already, echoing off lonely dance floors.

Inside the Five Points Roost, one of the district’s newest bars, Adam Ruonala counts down to when the rush will hit. About another hour.

Ruonala opened the Roost last fall in the former Pour House at the corner of Harden and Greene.

Pour House, of course, became infamous when its owner, Daniel Wells, was accused of choking a USC student into unconsciousness and slamming his face into the sidewalk last spring. The bar shut down last May after the beatdown capped a lengthy history of infractions at the bar.

“What happened here (at Pour House) was a really bad stain on Five Points,” Ruonala says.

He doesn’t want to just clean up that stain, but clean up the reputation of Five Points in general. He also co-owns the popular Rooftop bar a couple blocks down on Harden.

By Ruonala’s account, he’s trying to raise the bar, so to speak, for the college bar scene.

“There’s nothing wrong with being 21 and wanting to get a drink and get laid,” Ruonala says.

There’s nothing wrong with being 21 and wanting to get a drink and get laid.

Adam Ruonala, owner of the Five Points Roost and Rooftop bars

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Adam Ruonala, owner, Five Points Roost and the Rooftop bars Adam Ruonala Provided photo

But there’s a right way and a wrong way to offer that experience. You can sell super-cheap liquor and turn a blind eye to underage drinkers, or you can do something different, Ruonala says.

His bars offer free Uber rides to those too drunk to function and free pizza and popcorn at the end of the night. The bars boast more than a dozen security cameras each, with video feeds linked to Ruonala’s own cellphone.

“We’re not selling drunk; we’re selling a good time,” Ruonala says.

10 p.m.

Outside of the Thirsty Parrot, a car pulls into a parking space in front of the bar door. Someone nearby advises the driver not to park there: If a fight breaks out, they’ll end up with someone on the hood of their car, they’re warned.

Eddie Campbell, a 24-year-old USC student, walks into a sparsely populated Latitude 22.

“I’m not looking to drink. I just want to dance my ass off,” he says.

Columbia police Lt. Daniel Wesley explains the department's approach to policing Five Points.

11 p.m.

There was nobody, and then all of a sudden, there was everybody. The dozen people who hovered around the bar at the Rooftop 45 minutes ago have multiplied several times, and they keep filing up the stairs.

A line of about 30 people waits outside. The place should reach its capacity, about 149, in another half hour, Ruonala says.

Inside, conversations are held at shouting-level over the music. Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5” – released in 1999, when most college students were infants or toddlers – blares through the club, and everyone’s dancing.

Savannah Harrelson, a 21-year-old Clemson student, convinced a group of her USC friends to come here tonight because she likes the place.

Five Points is nothing like Clemson’s nightlife scene, she says.

At Clemson, “it’s not really clubby. It’s just more like a chill hangout scene,” Harrelson said. “It’s not as hype.”

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A Columbia Police Department officer examines various IDs found in the wallet of a man they placed in their car. Gavin McIntyre gmcintyre@thestate.com

11:15 p.m.

“Hype” is how you’d best describe Latitude 22, where a fast-growing crowd and swirling, candy-colored laser lights cut through the loud darkness.

The scent of marijuana wafts through the air. One bar employee says, “I don’t smell anything.” Another responds, “I do.”

A DJ plays a continuous mash-up of the most singable parts of two decades’ worth of club and pop hits.

The whole bar shouts along: “Move, b----! Get out the way!”

I just want to dance my ass off.

Eddie Campbell, 24, USC student

On every inch of the sticky floor stands someone holding a personal, cranium-sized pitcher filled with neon-colored drink. They match the laser lights.

What’s in the drink?

With a happy shrug, one young woman says she has no idea.

It tastes exactly how it looks – like sweet, alcoholic candy.

A scruffy-haired young man wearing a colorfully printed fleece pullover chugs an entire pitcher. He’s cheered on by a man in a bar staff T-shirt.

The chugger then raises a proud hand in the air and sings along with “Drop It Like It’s Hot.”

In a crowded line outside the door, young people swiftly pass IDs behind their backs before stepping hopefully up to the bouncer.

Brian Hatch, 20, has worked the door of Latitude for a year and a half.

“As long as everyone is doing their job, we don’t have any problems here,” he said. He doesn’t let in anyone who looks too drunk or agitated, he said, and they wind up turning people away all the time.

“Solve the problems before they even get to the bar.”

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A group of people cross the intersection at Devine and Harden Street. Thousands of people will make their way through Five Points to various bars in one night. Gavin McIntyre gmcintyre@thestate.com

11:30 p.m.

Outside Breakers bar, on the corner of Harden and Greene, a young man leans over a trash can, his hands gripping both sides of the rim. With his head deep inside the can, he retches. In between yaks, his body trembles.

Some people walk past and barely turn a head, as if this is the norm.

Standing next to him, a buddy gives him a pep talk.

11:45 p.m.

For a good time, find the bars with the lines.

As one young woman put it: “Lines are a good sign. It means it’s good. No line means what’s the point?”

Nearly every Harden Street bar boasts an impressive line of several dozen at this time of night. They stretch for half a block in some places, spill into the streets in others.

Despite near-freezing temperatures, women wait it out in wardrobes that seem to have missed the weather forecast. Mini skirts and crop tops abound.

No worry, though; they’ll drink themselves a jacket.

Albert Thompson, a 23-year-old from Queensland, Australia, is in town visiting friends he made while studying abroad at USC a year ago.

Caught in a thick crowd outside the Rooftop, Thompson says he’s willing to wait in line “until I’m sober. … It could be awhile.”

Midnight

There’s no line, no dancing and no drama at this hour at Pavlov’s.

Known for a Greek-life crowd and “Monday Night Pav’s,” the bar plays music at a relatively reasonable decibel, the deck is crowded, and the vibe is arguably mellow compared to other clubs this time of night.

A quartet of young women, ranging in age from 18 to 20, they say, sip alcoholic drinks around a tall table beside an ongoing game of pool.

“If you’ve grown up in Columbia, Pav’s is, like, the place,” says Katherine, a 20-year-old Midlands Tech student who asked that her last name not be used.

It’s a “homey” bar, she says, and the girls feel comfortable here.

Once, Katherine got knocked out cold by a fight that broke out near her at Pav’s. The bar staff immediately came to her aid, she says.

On another occasion, a friend left her phone in the restroom, and the bar staff had charged the phone’s battery by the time she came to pick it up.

“So they, like, actually care about us, you know?” Katherine says. “They really care about our well-being and what we’re doing.”

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Emergency first responders treat a woman in a parking lot next to Moosehead Saloon. Gavin McIntyre gmcintyre@thestate.com

12:15 a.m.

Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What” starts playing in the Roost, and the whole bar yells, with partiers throwing their hands in the air and singing along.

The crowd is like a drunken sea, roiling in sync with each beat. Dancers on top of tables and tall benches – drunk people love dancing on tall things – look down on a crowded dance floor where cellphone lights brighten faces that will soon be displayed on social media.

Shot girls carry trays of colorful jello shots, holding them high above heads as they weave through the pulsing crowd.

Outside, a girl sits on the sidewalk with her head between her legs. Beside her, her girlfriends offer consolation.

12:25 a.m.

Throngs of people fill the sidewalks and crosswalks. A young man with bleary eyes asks for directions to Moosehead Saloon before staggering across Harden Street with hundreds of others.

One group starts to cross Harden Street at the same time a car turns toward them from Greene Street.

The car honks. There’s profanity-yelling and finger-pointing.

One guy shouts, “Get yourself shot up. We don’t play.”

At Group Therapy, where the Friday After Class crowd has long since cleared out, 24-year-old Hayes Bennett stands at the bar with about 40 people. Another 100 or so fill the back bar around the corner.

“I love it,” she says. “It’s ratchet, but I love it.”

(Ratchet: adj. millennial slang 1. nasty, unrefined 2. extremely good, awesome)

Outside the bar, a young blonde stumbles but doesn’t fall.

“I’m not even drunk, I promise,” she says.

It’s ratchet, but I love it.

Hayes Bennett, 24

12:50 a.m.

The longest line at The Barn on Harden Street isn’t at the door – where a sign advertises $10 “liquor towers” – or at the bar, but at the single-stall ladies room.

While several women wait there, loud music and neon lights blaring over them, a violent tangle of men tumbles out of the adjacent men’s room.

Bar staff rushes to the bathroom, forcibly carrying one guy outside and pushing some other fighters out the door behind him.

The girls shrink back, holding onto one another and then giggling after the brief commotion subsides.

During a Saturday night, a GoPro captured the change from day to night in Columbia's Five Points.

1 a.m.

The smell of tacos mixes deliciously with cigarette smoke at the corner of Harden and Devine streets.

Jesus Ramirez eyes what’s happening on the street corner just outside his taqueria truck. There’s a young man who appears to be selling drugs.

Ramirez sets up his taco truck here Wednesday through Saturday nights. His busiest time is around 2 or 3 a.m., he says.

That must be about the time the hunger starts to hit. It did for 21-year-old Cam Cox.

Cox, a USC sophomore, has a wicked Boston accent that matches his New England Patriots football jersey, which he wears layered over a hoodie.

He orders a $3 beef taco from Ramirez after spending a couple hours, and less than $10, at Pav’s.

“You get Busch Light, two bucks a pop. Bud Light, three bucks a pop. Big difference. I get the Busch Light every time.”

He pre-gamed the night earlier with eight or so beers at a friend’s place to “get a little buzz going.”

Does he go out every weekend? “Of course,” Cox says. “It’s either sitting in my room playing Fortnite (a video game) or out here having a good time.”

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Caleb Brown, a student at Midland Tech, waits for his food as Jesus Ramirez cleans his countertop in his food truck on the corner of Devine and Harden Street. Gavin McIntyre gmcintyre@thestate.com

1:15 a.m.

There’s another line at The Barn, this time outside the men’s room.

“This guy and girl have been in there for the past 30 minutes,” one guy says. “They’re probably having sex.”

Tired of waiting, he goes to the ladies’ room.

A few minutes later, the woman walks out of the men’s room with a man following behind her, a big smile on his face.

Right outside, a fight is about to break out on the sidewalk next door.

A young man slings profanity-laden threats at two guys he accused of flirting with his girlfriend. As he is yelling at one, the other lands a sucker punch to the side of his head. He regains his balance and throws a few blows, all while his girlfriend tries to pull him away.

People standing in line at Bird Dog are cheering them on and pulling out cell phones to capture the moment. The two guys run away, and the fight fizzles out.

But the beau hasn’t had enough.

“F--- it,” he says and chases the two guys down Harden Street toward Breakers.

On the corner of Harden and Greene streets, the two guys turn to face the drunken man charging at them, and together unleash a flurry of punches to the head and body. He falls down and suffers kicks to the back and ribcage.

1:50 a.m.

Dawn breaks, sort of, at the Roost, as every light in the bar comes on.

Shania Twain’s “Man, I Feel Like a Woman” starts playing loudly.

A few people make a move to leave, but many keep dancing on tables and singing along – because, hello, Shania.

Like many Five Points bars, the Roost has a permit to stay open all night. But it chooses to close at 2 a.m. most nights, owner Ruonala said, out of preference for “better practices.”

The bartenders are closing out tabs, offering cups of water and giving out high fives as Semisonic’s “Closing Time” (of course) now plays over the bar.

A man squirts a jello shot from a plastic syringe into a woman’s mouth just before they leave.

In minutes, the bar is clear and the brooms are sweeping up.

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Plastic cups, beer cans, and puddles of alcohol are left after Friday After Class at Group Therapy. Gavin McIntyre gmcintyre@thestate.com

2:30 a.m.

It’s time to eat and sober up.

There’s hardly a seat to be found at Cook Out, a fast-food joint on the upper end of Harden Street.

A couple of police officers stand watch at the restaurant.

Christian music plays inside – it’s difficult to hear it in the dining room over the din of conversation, but it’s loud and clear in the bathrooms.

It’s a phenomenon happening all over Five Points at the handful of establishments still serving food: Waffle House, Eddie’s Calzones, Grilled Teriyaki, Pita Pit.

Back at Bar None, the food rush hits, too.

“It’s about an hour of college kids getting cheese fries on their way home,” says Sam Hoy, who’s worked at the bar for a decade. “We feed people, and they go home. You’d struggle to find a college kid here in Five Points after that.”

3:10 a.m.

The throngs that filled the streets only an hour ago have dissipated.

Most of the people on the sidewalks – and there are only a handful of them by now – appear to be vagrant or waiting for a ride.

Nakia Taylor is making Uber pickups, something she’s done every Friday night since August.

By driving for Uber, she’s able to “ make sure people get home safe,” Taylor said. “It prevents a lot of these students from being reckless.”

The worst that’s ever happened to her as an Uber driver was a woman throwing up in her car.

“I don’t do this for the money. I’m a mom of teenagers. As far as I’m concerned, I’m going to make sure they’re safe,” she said. “I don’t have to be their mom to be a mom.”

3:45 a.m.

In a profanity-laced tirade, a man tells police he’s just been hit “for no f---ing reason.” Blood streaks from his mouth and across the side of his face.

Moments later, he’s joking with the same officers who found him lying on his back at the corner of Devine and Harden streets, blood on his face and eyes rolled back.

A friend said the man had been sucker punched after defending a couple of girls. There’s no sign of the girls now.

An ambulance arrives to treat him.

4 a.m.

The late-night shenanigans spilling over from Five Points into surrounding neighborhoods range from dangerous down to just plain foolish.

April Lucas, a lawyer who lives in University Hill, recalls a night when a young man caused a ruckus as he rode an office chair down Laurens Street around 4 a.m.

“Sometimes they literally howl at the moon,” Lucas said of the young revelers, who make their ways back home to USC’s campus by trekking through her neighborhood. “It’s funny to a point, and then you realize that you cannot have peaceable enjoyment of your home because of what’s going on in Five Points.”

On this very typical Friday night, though, there’s nary a college student left to be seen in the village.

By now, Five Points’ second happy hour is officially beginning at the place where the first one started 11 hours ago – Bar None.

When the young drunkards have cleared, a more mature crowd is left. They’re the service-industry and odd-shift workers just kicking off their leisure time.

I don’t want someone throwing up on me. I don’t want to have to worry about getting into a fight.

Sean McManus, 33

Inside, 30 people lounge and mill about. It’s disarmingly dim and the music is mellow. Loud enough to vibe with, but soft enough to carry a conversation at a table dotted with Yuengling, jalapeño poppers and cheese fries.

A friendly game of table shuffleboard grabs the attention of a few, while others sit alone at the bar, passively watching whatever flashes across the TV screen.

Young professionals in sport coats and business casual blouses are mingling with Main Street’s bartenders, servers and cooks after their shifts have ended. These are the regulars. The people who look for a place to go where everyone knows their name, despite their odd work schedules.

One of them is 33-year-old Sean McManus, who finished work at his IT job a couple hours ago.

“When you work until 2 a.m. you don’t have much of a social life,” he said.

But Bar None offers exactly what he is looking for.

“I don’t want someone throwing up on me. I don’t want to have to worry about getting into a fight. I want to come here for a beer, blow off some steam, meet some people, get some food and go home,” McManus said.

This is his happy hour. This is his supper joint.

“This is my 5 p.m.”

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