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The Fight for Five Points

  • 12 min to read
Five Points parking and mural

A colorful mural celebrates some of the historic and current highlights of the Five Points district.

Five Points has always been two places, really.

By day, the village just east of the campus of the University of South Carolina is highlighted by cafes and boutiques and specialty shops. It’s the kind of place where you can get a sandwich, a haircut, a piercing for a nose ring, or even some CBD oil.

But by night — particularly late at night when USC and Columbia’s other colleges are in session — Five Points transforms into the city’s most enduring nightlife district. For decades it has been the go-to party destination for USC students, a place where many had their first beer, met the person who would become their spouse or had their first unfortunate run-in with a bouncer.

“Five Points has always been a tale of two cities,” says Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, who holds two degrees from USC. “Hard working businesses and business people — including bars — have been trying to provide an amenity for all Columbians, but particularly for students at USC. It has been part of the culture of USC for decades.

“Daytime Five Points and nighttime Five Points have always been two different things.”

But now that tenuous duality is at something of a crossroads. After a nearly two-year campaign by neighbors fed up with what they see as bad behavior in the hard-charging nightlife scene in the district, along with additional scrutiny from the city, Five Points seems to be in the early stages of a fundamental shift.

With college students set to return to the Capital City in coming weeks — the first day of class at USC is Aug. 22 — they will arrive to a Five Points that has a few less bars and continues to be the target of those looking to shake up the long-held vibe of the district.

Residents of the leafy neighborhoods that surround the nightlife district — aided in their quest by state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, the hellraising Democratic attorney who lives in nearby Wales Garden — have pushed back against late-night bars, taking them to court to challenge their liquor licenses.

Since last year, four college bars in the district have either closed or chosen not to pursue new liquor licenses.

The city also has cracked down on bars that once operated deep into the wee hours of the morning, with Columbia City Council in 2018 adding more regulations and greater costs for establishments seeking extended hours permits that allow them to sell alcohol after 2 a.m.

The vast majority of such establishments were located in Five Points. As a result of the heightened regulations, the number of bars citywide obtaining the permits dwindled from 22 to nine, according to records provided by the city. In Five Points specifically, it dipped from 18 bars with after-hours permits down to five.

And the district continues to battle the perception that it can be unsafe at night, a thought that was put into sharp focus when USC student Samantha Josephson, was kidnapped and killed in March when she got into a car she mistakenly believed to be her Uber ride after a night of revelry in Five Points.

Despite that headline-grabbing incident, and other high-profile cases in the past, police insist crime has actually been trending downward in the urban village.

As talks about nightlife in Five Points continue to roil, the Five Points Association merchants group and the Coalition of Five Points Neighborhoods — a collection of residents from several nearby neighborhoods — recently announced a new collaboration, one that seeks to enhance business recruiting, make streets more pedestrian-friendly and bolster safety efforts.

Tim Smith, the owner of Five Points’ venerable Papa Jazz Record Shoppe and president of the Five Points Association board, acknowledges that the district has long sought to maintain its sort of dual identity as a funky shopping village and a favorite nightspot for college kids.

“I do think there is a connection between the two that makes the neighborhood strong and makes it thrive,” Smith says. “But … we got a little bit out of balance [in the direction of the bar scene]. Hopefully we are getting a little more in-balance.”

And finding that balance has never been easy.

Horseshoe Five Points bar

The Horseshoe is one of several bars in Five Points that have closed in recent months.

Whittling Away

Dick Harpootlian has done exactly what he said he was going to do.

During a May 2018 conversation with Free Times, he vowed to go to court and fight the renewal of liquor licenses in Five Points, leveraging — among other legal tools — a section in the S.C. Constitution that says restaurants that sell alcohol must “engage primarily in the preparation and serving of meals.”

“We’ll just keep whittling them down,” Harpootlian said at the time.

Though state law doesn’t include a set percentage of food sales establishments must hit, Harpootlian and lawyers from his firm — working on behalf of neighbors who live near Five Points — have been able to do some whittling.

Popular college watering holes The Roost, The Barn, and The Horseshoe have closed; Cover 3 will close its doors on Aug. 31 when its license expires.

Harpootlian and the Five Points neighbors also are challenging the liquor license of landmark Five Points bar Group Therapy, owned by former USC quarterback Steve Taneyhill. Attorneys say a hearing for Group Therapy — the namesake for Hootie & the Blowfish’s current concert tour — could be this winter.

With all of the bar closures, and with the long-running Group Therapy next in Harpootlian’s crosshairs, many USC students and recent grads have lamented the seeming culture shift in the college hangout district.

“Man ain’t no way they shutting 5 Points down like that,” former USC basketball star Sindarius Thornwell tweeted on June 25.

Taneyhill responded to Thornwell, tweeting, “GROUP THERAPY has no plans to close big guy.”

In a recent conversation with Free Times, Harpootlian says he continues to have his eyes trained on Five Points, and ominously notes that it could be a “rough fall” for businesses that frequently serve alcohol to underage students.

In February 2018, the attorney spurred a SLED raid in which more than a dozen bars were cited for selling liquor after 2 a.m. (The city’s after-hours permits pertain only to beer and wine, not liquor.)

The state senator recently implied that SLED could again be on the move in Five Points in coming months. He also says he and Five Points neighbors will likely fight any newly requested liquor licenses in the district.

“So, as bars go out of business, we are most likely going to object [to new bars] based on the concentration of alcohol outlets in Five Points,” Harpootlian says. “There are less bars than there were last year at this time, and I think as we go through the fall those folks who can’t make a living abiding by the law are going to have a problem with law enforcement and SLED.

“We are going to whittle them down. We don’t hope to see 2,000 kids milling in the streets every Friday and Saturday night down there like we saw last year.”

But there are some who think the crusade against Five Points bars has gone too far. Attorney Joe McCulloch represents the owners of a number of Five Points establishments, including The Cotton Gin, The Bird Dog, Jake’s and Pavlov’s. He says Five Points has long been a target of “elitists” and “big mouths” who live nearby.

“It’s everybody’s favorite whipping boy,” McCulloch says. “They don’t want to whip on the Vista. They don’t want to whip on Main Street. Five Points has been uniquely selected to be the whipping boy by a group of folks who moved to this area knowing exactly where they were moving.”

“It’s people who bought a nice house next to the airport and decided they hate airplanes,” he adds.

McCulloch says he wouldn’t be surprised to see an uptick in house parties in neighborhoods surrounding Five Points this fall.

“When you close establishments serving alcohol, you don’t stop people from consuming,” McCulloch says. “They move to the street or they move back into the neighborhoods to consume at house parties. That has been the same since I was 17 or 18 and running around Five Points myself.”

Smith, the Five Points merchants board president, says the idea that bars are going away completely in Five Points is a misnomer. There are still more than a dozen college bars operating in the district.

“I think there’s a misperception that in two years there won’t be any bars in Five Points,” he says. “That’s not true. The overwhelming majority of bars have been in compliance with the law and don’t have any issues. What everybody wants is for everybody to do things the right way and succeed. I think there’s a misconception that people want to see businesses close.”

Kit Smith, an influential former Richland County Councilwoman who lives in Wales Garden, is the leader of the Coalition of Five Points Neighborhoods. She has been among the neighbors who have spearheaded the move to tone down the bar vibe in Five Points.

She tells Free Times that potential new bar owners have approached neighborhood leaders to inquire as to whether they would mount a court challenge against prospective new liquor licenses. She says those would-be new bars have backed down when told the licenses would be challenged.

“We’re sort of looking at a ‘If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck’ kind of definition on who to challenge and who not to challenge,” Kit Smith says. “There are, of course, people who aren’t satisfied. But I think, in five years, it is going to be a wonderful urban village again, that also welcomes and includes college students, but maybe not to the extent and under the same circumstances that we’ve had.”

Five Points St. Pats crowd girl on shoulders 2019

Revelers listen to music at the annual St. Pat’s festival in Five Points.

Fighting the Perception

Two Five Points tragedies haunt Harris Pastides.

Pastides recently wrapped up an 11-year run as an overwhelmingly popular president at USC. During a July 31 exit interview with reporters from The Post and Courier, Pastides was asked about any regrets he had at the end of his tenure.

He said he often found himself wondering, “What could I have done?” in regard to a pair of incidents in the longtime nightlife district: a 2013 shooting in which USC freshman Martha Childress was paralyzed, and the March tragedy that claimed the life of Josephson, who was close to graduating.

“I don’t blame myself that they happened, but I do question what more can be done to improve the safety,” Pastides said. “Believe me, I’m not talking about closing [Five Points] down … but I do believe that through what the university can do, what students themselves can do, and then what the city can do and the neighbors can do, we’ve got to continue to improve the safety and the student experience down there. I do worry about that. We need to do more.”

Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook is well aware of the neighborhood’s dangerous reputation late at night. And he finds that reputation a little bit frustrating, for one big reason: Crime has been falling in Five Points.

According to city records, violent and property crimes in Five Points were down across the board in 2018, compared to 2017. In all, there were fewer rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults, car break-ins and simple assaults in the district in 2018 than the year before — in some cases, demonstrably so. Simple assaults, for instance, declined by about 40 percent.

Holbrook points to a number of police initiatives that helped lead to the dip in crime. Police have had undercover officers in Five Points and surrounding neighborhoods. It established a well-lit rideshare pickup location on Santee Avenue. Columbia Police put on annual seminars at area colleges when classes begin, particularly targeting freshmen, letting them know expectations and consequences. And the police department is administering the new late-night alcohol permit program.

“I think all of this is what’s led to the reductions we’ve seen,” the chief tells Free Times. “But, the bars are a handful. We have to keep the pressure on them. It’s just a dynamic situation.”

Holbrook says police will again vigorously monitor Five Points in the fall. He also acknowledges that, even as crime falls, individual high-profile incidents seem to grasp the local narrative.

“Five Points has always gotten attention,” he says. “When I was being hired [in 2014], that was a main part of the process, a plan for the entertainment districts and such. The Martha Childress incident, that predated me, had come to define Five Points. Of course, the Josephson situation is one of those crimes that sticks with you for the rest of your life. It doesn’t matter where it occurred.”

“There is incredible notoriety with Five Points,” Holbrook adds. “Fair or unfair, that’s just the way it is.”

Kit Smith says neighbors have seen improvements in Five Points. She specifically praised Holbrook, saying the chief’s doing “more than he should have to do.”

But she also says nearby residents are still worried about drunken, salacious behavior on their streets stemming from the nightlife district.

“We’ve still got the first responders — people living in the neighborhoods — taking care of these kids who are drunk on their porches, naked in their bushes, peeing in their yards and having sex on their cars,” she says. “That kind of stuff is not captured in the police statistics. They are looking at what happens in the Five Points district. Not the wrecks that happen on the way home or the kids that beat up somebody, because they are drunk, when they get back to their apartment.”

McCulloch, the attorney who represents a number of establishments in Five Points, says the village’s reputation as a “danger zone” is “inaccurate and unfair”

He points to the police statistics that show a dip in crime in the district.

“But that’s not what you [hear] when you talk to the neighborhood associations and the big mouths,” McCulloch says. “What you get is, ‘It’s a dangerous place, it’s crime-ridden.’ Donald Trump would call that fake news. When you juxtapose those portrayals against the crime stats, it’s exactly the opposite.”

One concern about Five Points having less bars is that students could simply take the party to another district of the city. Almost everyone interviewed for this story conceded that college kids aren’t likely to give up drinking alcohol en masse anytime soon.

But officials don’t seem concerned that students will give up Five Points as their go-to destination.

“I think the challenge with some of the Five Points business owners has always been the business model,” Benjamin says. “Lots of cheap beer to underage kids. That business model does not exist, to that level, in other parts of the city, and hopefully it never will. We’ll see how things shake out.”

Carl Blackstone, CEO of the Columbia Chamber, says geography will likely continue to draw students to Five Points, as it is just down the hill from USC.

“The bars exist there because that’s where the students are,” Blackstone says. “They are going to have to get with the program and follow the letter of the law, or else they will catch the wrath of Senator Harpootlian. But, if they are good stewards — they know they’ve got to fly right if they are going to grow.”

USC Students celebrate basketball final four in Five Points 2017

Students celebrate in Five Points in 2017 after the University of South Carolina men’s basketball team clinched a berth in the Final Four.

‘Standing Over It Like Darth Vader’

The changing face of Five Points isn’t only apparent in the bar scene. In some ways the district seems like the next frontier in a city that has seen steady development during the last decade.

For instance, on Greene Street, the former Claussen’s Bakery building, originally built in 1928, has been converted into studio apartments. The 29-unit complex opened in June.

Meanwhile, the City of Columbia has purchased — for nearly $4 million — the former state office building at 2221 Devine Street, overlooking Five Points. The city is marketing the building to hotel developers, and is touting that it would add an additional 300 parking spaces in a district where parking is at a premium.

There have also long been talks about a major redevelopment in upper Five Points from 926 to 950 Harden St., in the strip across from Food Lion that once housed businesses such as the restaurant El Burrito and the Hip Wa Zee costume shop, among others. A California development company purchased a number of the now-vacant buildings on that block two years ago, and residential and retail opportunities have been discussed for the property. Redevelopment is still in the planning stages, but construction has yet to begin. For now, The Unexpected Joy book shop continues to operate in the strip, at 942 Harden St.

Tim Smith acknowledges some bars have gone out of business, but is also quick to point out that new businesses have opened.

“Obviously there’s some change afoot,” the merchants association president says. “On the other hand, we are getting a lot of new things coming in, like the return of Gibson’s [gift shop] to Saluda Avenue [from Forest Acres], the new Home Team BBQ on Harden Street. … There are a number of development projects in the works that I can’t really give details on. But, things are happening. A number of things are happening that are going to make the future bright.”

Cover 3 in Five Points

Cover 3 is one of several bars that had its liquor license challenged by attorney Dick Harpootlian and residents from neighborhoods near Five Points.

He also stresses the association will work with nearby neighborhoods, the city and the state Department of Transportation to pursue a “complete streets” concept for Harden Street. If brought to reality, it would be a move that would slow vehicular traffic through the district while adding bike lanes and widening sidewalks. Those plans are still in the early stages.

“We’d like it to feel like the way Main Street feels,” the Papa Jazz owner says. “The traffic slows, it would be more pedestrian friendly, you’d have wider sidewalks. So, you give businesses a better opportunity to succeed. That’s not only for retail, but it would give bar businesses a better chance to succeed. A lot of reason some bars can’t meet the food requirements is that they don’t serve lunch.

“Lunch is hard to do if you don’t have ample sidewalks. A lot of people like to sit outside, like you see on Main Street.”

McCulloch is skeptical. The attorney says he’s worried that prospective new businesses of all types could be wary of having Harpootlian and concerned neighbors looking over their shoulder.

“The elitist crowd wants to promote that we need to change the complexion and the fabric and the atmosphere in Five Points,” McCulloch says. “You cannot do that when you, as an association of neighborhoods, are standing over it like Darth Vader. … That’s not free enterprise, that’s not market enterprise and that is a problem.”

Benjamin, Columbia’s third-term mayor, still believes in the urban village that has long been popular with USC students and others.

But he also concedes the city will be keeping an eye on things down there this fall.

“I do know that it is still a vibrant live-work-play district,” the mayor says. “While you see some bars closing, you also see Claussen’s revived, you see 2221 Devine [being pitched as a hotel], you see significant improvements in the stormwater infrastructure there, with investments we’ve made.

“Five Points is going to be fine. Is it going to be the same Five Points that Hootie & the Blowfish emerged from? Probably not. But, only time will tell. And in the interim, we’ll be able to continue to work with the chief of police, SLED and others to make sure it is safe around there.”

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