Goodnight Raleigh - a look at the art, architecture, history, and people of the city at night

The Raleigh Underground: A Lost Phenomenon

There was a time when Raleigh was known for its prolific music scene. With events such as the closure of King’s and the disappearance of the once thriving punk scene, it has moved from a trickle to a smattering of indie shows and some artists/groups at The Lincoln Theatre or the Performing Arts Center.

Nowadays Raleigh is not completely devoid of all music, but there was a time when some of the biggest names in jazz and rock played here, in the most unlikely of locations: Cameron Village.

In the same way Cameron Village itself was modeled after a shopping plaza in Kansas City, The Village Subway was modeled after the Atlanta Underground. It was a series of restaurants, clubs, boutiques, fashion stores, and a few other shops. Some of the night clubs were The Frog & Nightgown, Cafe Deja Vu, Elliot’s Nest, The Pier, Skyline, The Bear’s Den, and the Midnight Express.

The entrance to Raleigh’s “Underground” was a long stairwell that was made to look like the entrance to a subway station in NYC. At the bottom of the stairs were paintings of trains to reinforce the idea. Rather than traditional wall advertisements, there were rectangular paintings of the shops that occupied the underground space.

Every person I’ve spoken with who spent time there has fond and vivid recollections of that era and location. It represented a moment in time in which Raleigh was known far and wide for its nightlife and music scene. The number of talented artists that graced the halls of the underground is quite impressive.

Bert from the Player’s Retreat provided me with this enormous list of some of the artists that played there:

  • Doc Watson
  • Eddie Money
  • Huey Lewis & The News
  • Steppenwolf
  • Peter Tork/The Monkees
  • Velvet Underground John Cale (of Velvet Underground)
  • Nantucket
  • Flock Of Seagulls
  • Frank Zappa (?)
  • 38 Special
  • Iggy Pop
  • Jefferson Airplane Papa John Creach (of Jefferson Airplane)
  • Joan Jett
  • Jimmy Buffet
  • David Bowie
  • Black Flag
  • Cutting Crew
  • The Ramones
  • Pat Benatar
  • R.E.M.
  • Maynard Ferguson
  • Dead Kennedys
  • Sonic Youth
  • Bette Midler
  • Barry Mannilow
  • Violent Femmes
  • The Replacements
  • Thelonious Monk
  • Sonny Rollins
  • Go-Gos
  • Steve Martin
  • Martin Mull
  • Dizzy Gillepsie
  • Roger McGuinn
  • Tom Waits
  • Muddy Waters
  • The Bangles
  • Arlo Guthrie
  • Arrogance

Longtime hometown favorite The Connells played their first real gig at Deja Vu.

Robert E Leebowitz over at RDUWTF told me about a book that documents the history of Cameron Village and contains some information on the ‘Underground’. When trying to locate it, Ashlyn, a staff member at the library, told me about a performance there in which Michael Stipe from R.E.M. hid under the stage because he was so shy and/or terrified of the crowd.

It seems as though anyone who lived in Raleigh when the Underground was open has some sort of recollection of this place.

According to the Cameron Village history book, there wasn’t enough foot traffic during the day and many of the shops were replaced with nightclubs and restaurants. When Boylan Pearce sold the family owned store in 1984, the Subway was shut down in the same year.

With that, an era lasting more than twelve years ended. The area has sat idle for two decades now and is now essentially used only a storage area.

A decision was made to eliminate the storage concept and to lease the Subway area to retailers who did not require prime street level space. … York’s leasing department is now discussing the remaining space with seveal other suitable prospects

Cameron Village, A History 1949-1999

It appears the discussions on the remaining spaces have faltered, and Johnson Lambe remains the only tenant in the former Village Subway.

Sadly, as is evident from the photos, there isn’t much left other than peeling paint and a few spots of the terra cotta tiling. Nothing remains that lends itself to an almost mythical and fabled past. The stairwell (now under the library) has been covered up and paved over.

The prevailing hypothesis of its untimely demise centers around liability issues. The Cameron Village history book mentioned safety concerns and drug use supposedly prevalent at the time as the reasons for its closure. Several of the businesses in operation were doing quite well when the lights were turned off for the last time.

The Village Subway is not an almost forgotten relic in the minds of those who lived here at the time. RDUWTF published the original floor plan last August, and there is a myspace page dedicated to The Pier.

Will this dead zone continue to be a wasted expanse and used for nothing more than storage? Will Raleigh ever regain the aura of music mecca of the triangle? Will the new found riches and glitz suddenly pouring in to Raleigh from all directions do anything to revive the lost cultural past of the Village Subway?

As much as I’d love to hope so, I don’t see it happening any time soon.

Do you remember the Village Subway? Let us know what you saw or experienced.

I’d like to point out that all inaccuracies of the bands (left on but marked through) that played here were all errors on my part and not of Bert’s.