Let’s face it: Five Points has a problem.
Columbia’s century-old village beside the University of South Carolina campus is at a critical crossroads, with forces competing over what the entertainment district is and will become.
A growing number of bars that cater to college-age customers have the area teetering between the wholesome urban village many crave and a nightlife strip primarily known for youthful revelry.
As the district prepares to host more than 40,000 revelers for its annual beer-drenched St. Patrick’s Day festival, landlords, business owners and city officials are wrestling in and out of court over Five Points’ immediate and long-term future:
▪ Last month, residents near Five Points asked a judge to reject permanent liquor licenses for two bars.
▪ Opposition has mounted against a plan to open Macado’s restaurant/bar on the south side of Blossom Street, beside homes in the Wales Garden neighborhood. Some fear it’s an encroachment of nightlife into the residential realm.
▪ After the closing last year of the nearly 30-year-old Harper’s restaurant at the corner of Harden and Devine streets, public outcry halted plans for a Zaxby’s drive-thru restaurant in its place. It wasn’t the right fit for the neighborhood, many said. Just not “nice” enough.
▪ One City Council member has proposed forcing bars to close at 2 a.m. While the action would affect all bars in Columbia, the proposal is aimed primarily at Five Points establishments.
Bars that target college students have been in Five Points for decades.
The problem now, many say, is that the village has too many of them, and nightlife appears to be steadily taking over the face of the district. The problems spill over into nearby neighborhoods, with residents complaining about drunk students urinating in yards, randomly ringing doorbells late at night and just generally disrupting the peace.
Five Points has about two dozen bars, mostly concentrated in about a four-block area. That’s simply too many, said Amy Beth Franks, director of the Five Points Association of businesses.
Some entire blocks now are “dead zones” during the day because they are filled with bars that don’t open until late at night, said Richard Burts, a longtime developer in the district.
Five Points businesses that don’t serve alcohol still outnumber those that do, by about a two-to-one margin. But “there’s no question that I feel like Five Points is out of balance from an ecosystem standpoint,” Burts said. “That has not just happened in six months or a year. It has fallen out of balance over an extended period of time, many years, and it’s going to take time to get that back into balance.”
April Lucas, a Columbia lawyer and longtime resident of the nearby University Hill neighborhood, said she is “happy to share Five Points with the students. … On the other hand, it shouldn’t turn into a campus slum. We shouldn’t be run out of Five Points.”
More students, more bars, more problems?
Most people interviewed for this story said that while they have concerns about the district, it’s still a good place to visit, shop and dine.
It’s an area that wakes up with the brunch birds. It serves you sidewalk coffee and paninis on your way in and out of dress and flower shops. It hands you a cheap beer at happy hour then rolls out the table cloths for dinnertime. Then it keeps the lights on, the music booming and drinks flowing all night long.
“The neighborhood’s been here a little over 100 years, and the neighborhood develops a character the same way a house does,” said Tim Smith, owner of the nearly 40-year-old Papa Jazz record store on Greene Street. It’s one of several “mom-and-pop” businesses that have stayed in Five Points for decades.
Much has changed in Five Points since Papa Jazz opened in 1980 – fewer record stores, more bars. But much has stayed the same.
“When I first got here in 1980, I mean, talk about people complaining about the neighborhood. People always said, ‘There’s too many damn bars down there.’ Well, here we are 40 years later, and people are saying the same thing,” Smith said. “It’s not that bad behavior has changed dramatically. It’s that there’s a lot more kids.”
True. Many of Five Points’ new challenges can be traced to USC’s rapid growth.
The university has nearly tripled its student population in four decades, from about 12,000 in the late 1970s to about 35,000 now, said Dennis Pruitt, the university’s vice president for student affairs.
More students create a bigger market for businesses, especially restaurants and entertainment venues. And bars.
But the volume of students isn’t the only change in Five Points, Pruitt said. The alcohol-driven environment they find in Five Points also is different.
“Now you see the drink specials, people selling liquor rather than beer and wine, people mixing alcohol and drugs,” he said.
The majority of college students are not old enough to legally drink alcohol. But more than a third of USC’s first-year students say they drink alcohol in bars and clubs, although they didn’t specify Five Points, the university reports. That’s more than triple the national average of college freshman who admit drinking in bars and clubs.
Many of those students under 21 are getting into bars using fake IDs.
Students are held accountable for their behavior off campus, university officials say.
About 250 to 300 USC students each year are referred to an on-campus substance abuse treatment program called STIR: “Students Taking Initiative and Responsibility.” Consequences for alcohol violations can range from fines to academic sanctions to counseling and treatment programs – as well as, of course, the dreaded call home to mom and dad.
At the same time, “we would ask for some of that same responsibility and accountability to be applied to bar owners,” said Anna Edwards, USC’s vice president of student life. “We hear people saying, ‘Well, USC, these are your students. These people are the problem.’ We recognize they’re an element to this. But they come into these establishments, and something is happening there.”
It would help if laws that are already on the books – such as the minimum drinking age and food service requirements for businesses that serve alcohol – were consistently enforced, Franks said.
With a little effort, the bars could make more responsible practices their norm, said Adam Ruonala, who owns two of the district’s newest bars, the Five Points Roost and the Rooftop. Residents of nearby neighborhoods are fighting the bars’ efforts to get permanent licenses to sell alcoholic beverages.
He said he recognizes “there are issues” with the district’s bar scene.
“There are always going to be individuals that push the boundaries, whether it’s drinking underage or over-consumption,” Ruonala said. “It is as much the responsibility of the establishment as it is the patron to ensure the safety of the individual.”
‘What kind of nonsense is this?’
What happens late at night in Five Points bleeds into neighborhoods, residents say.
Petty crimes spill over from bars – drunkards urinating in flower beds, vomiting on driveways, ringing doorbells and banging on doors at odd hours, vandalizing property or just yelling in the streets while residents are trying to sleep.
Olufemi Olulenu is in his 70s and has lived in the Martin Luther King neighborhood, just east of Five Points, off and on for four decades. It’s not uncommon for him to get a late-night call from his 97-year-old neighbor fretting about drunk people at her door.
“What kind of nonsense is this?” he said. “Drunk people have no brains.”
The neighborhood, once known as a hotbed for drugs and prostitution, is becoming an increasingly popular area for student renters. And the new Station at Five Points student apartments and the Benedict College campus lie just across Gervais Street from the neighborhood.
Olulenu watches those students stumble up the street from Five Points every weekend. And he doesn’t just worry about what harm they might do but what harm might be done to them.
On a recent night, he watched a group of men come out, lying in wait on their prey: a staggering young man walking up from Five Points around 2 a.m. Knowing the young man was in danger, Olulenu called him over to talk, then walked him home, as the group scattered.
“I am convinced if I hadn’t been outside, they would have beaten the plum out of him and took whatever money he had,” Olulenu said.
Reputation and reality
If Five Points wants to reverse the trend of more bars and bring in more upscale eateries and retailers, it has to clean up its act, some say.
“If you want better quality businesses here, you’ve got to create a better quality environment with a better reputation,” said Kit Smith, a former Richland County Council member and current head of the Coalition of Five Points Neighborhoods who’s been leading the charge to set a 2 a.m. closing time for all bars.
Closing bars earlier is just one step toward improving the district’s behavior and image, she and her allies say.
“Perception is what matters. It doesn’t matter what reality is if people believe something different,” Tim Smith, the record store owner, said. “The way you fix an image problem is, one, you have to change the image, and you have to take care of the things that cause that image. And after that, it just takes some time.”
The image was shattered several years ago when two teenagers were severely injured in separate attacks. In 2011, an 18-year-old was brutally beaten while jogging home late at night on Blossom Street. Two years later, USC freshman Martha Childress was shot and paralyzed while waiting for a cab near the fountain at the corner of Greene and Harden streets.
“Without question, there’s a perception that Five Points is unsafe,” Burts said. “But in my 30 years down here, I have never felt unsafe in Five Points.”
But, he said, “you can’t market your way out of a problem. You have to address the problems.”
In many respects, the city and county have done that. Shortly after the Childress shooting, The Library, pegged as a gang hangout, was shut down, and there was a crackdown on gangs congregating in Five Points. An army of security cameras was installed.
These days, Five Points is no less safe than any other part of the city, Franks insists. Recent crime statistics paint a somewhat mixed picture of safety in the district, but police seem to agree that the district’s reputation is worse than its reality.
“I think that people want to think that Five Points is not safe,” Franks said. “I don’t know if they want to have their minds changed.”
Many visitors do feel safe there – and they come by the thousands every weekend.
“I’ve seen a lot of crazy stuff happen, but I’ve never seen anything that scares me to where I wouldn’t want to come down here,” said a 19-year-old USC freshman named Emma, who asked that her last name not be used. She was enjoying a night out with friends at Pavlov’s bar on a recent Friday. “I mean, I’ve heard some things, but I’ve never felt really unsafe.”
Stemming the tide, stepping up the game
People are not “just sitting on their hands hoping things will be better tomorrow,” said Smith, the record store owner.
They’re fighting for Five Points, and they’re working to put new life on the streets.
Burts, for instance, is developing a new pedestrian alleyway flanked with retail spaces along Saluda Avenue.
And the 900 block of Harden Street, across from the Food Lion shopping center, is slated for new development after years of vacant storefronts and the recent closings of El Burrito and Rise Gourmet Goods & Bakeshop.
“I wouldn’t be spending my time trying to do cool projects down in Five Points if I thought Five Points was in decline. I’d go somewhere else,” Burts said. “When you do something well, people want to be a part of it. And Five Points, you know, it’s just a great spot.
“I think Five Points’ best days are ahead of it.”
Despite the tug-of-war over how to fix or save Five Points, there actually is some consensus on what the place should be: a fun, diverse district where everyone feels welcome and safe, Smith said. And there are efforts to make that happen.
“I envision it being me not having to defend what’s going on here,” Smith said. “Everybody knows that you get to a point where you have to step up your game and stem the tide and get things rolling in the right direction.”
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.
About this series
Five Points’ Identity Crisis examines the challenges confronting the urban village next to the University of South Carolina campus. Some fear a growing number of college bars threatens the character of the community. Look for stories daily in The State through Wednesday and at thestate.com.
Today: Five Points at a crossroads
Sunday: Lust, long lines and liquor towers: How Five Points lights up after dark. Plus, how easy is it for underage students to get a fake ID card?
Monday: How dangerous is Five Points?
Tuesday: The urban village has a wide range of businesses, from record stores to swanky restaurants. Is that changing?
Wednesday: Five things that must change in Five Points