The pop of the cork sparks friendly applause from everyone at the bar — Greenville residents and East Carolina University administrators — whether they know us or not. Early in the semester, the Fabulous Starlight Women, a group of ECU affiliates who meet at the Starlight Café every Thursday, gather to toast a milestone birthday and more than 12 years of Starlight gatherings, and management surprises us with champagne.
Starlight, a former department store, occupies the corner of 5th and Evans streets, a block from campus. Inside, the cherry wood bar stretches opposite a brick wall, so there’s little possibility of observation from the street. We Fabulous Starlight Women love it here. We are professors of Southern literature and Spanish literature, art and design, technical communication. One is a former ECU grad student who now runs a popular Greenville business. Others are a novelist and a geologist. Another is a Shakespeare scholar, though she’s hardly the only one of us who appreciates what the Bard said about drink: I would give all my fame for a pot of ale.
The Fabulous Starlight Women have been meeting at Starlight Café in Greenville for more than 12 years. photograph by Annie Cockrill
In many places, town and gown is shorthand for the often-tempestuous relationship between a university and the surrounding community. But in Greenville — especially in Uptown, a five-minute walk from the ECU campus — town and gown have become nearly inextricable, cheerfully entangled. Nearly everyone you meet here has some connection to the university, and they all make the community a lively and colorful place — a wanderer’s paradise, energized and kaleidoscopic. Here, one might say that tempestuousness has turned into effervescence, as happily as winter bursts into spring.
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A half-block up Evans Street from Starlight is the city’s effervescent epicenter: Emerge Gallery, the home of the Pitt County Arts Council. Founded by Holly Garriott, Christina Miller, and Leah Foushee, three ECU students who saw a need for community-based arts organizations in Greenville, Emerge is a place where the walls buzz with color and light. Tonight, I’ve stumbled upon the annual Tiny Art Show, where no piece is larger than 5 by 5 by 7 inches. Hundreds of gem-like paintings clamor for my attention. Glass bead earrings shimmer; enamel pendants and metal sculptures dazzle. Ingenious watercolor studies of chickens, tiny houses on twig legs, and bright bow ties made of peacock feathers make me laugh out loud. Pocket-size, handmade paper notebooks seem full of creative possibility. A house-shaped, wooden collage with a blue door instructs me to “make beautiful things every day.”
ECU’s campus mall features a replica of the cupola on the original Austin building, demolished in 1968. photograph by Jay Clark/East Carolina University
Across the street at The Scullery, Matt Scully makes beautiful things for hungry wanderers. A salad with grilled brussels sprouts, bacon, cranberries, walnuts, and warm apple cider dressing is definitely a thing of beauty. And the pork belly taco. Ditto, the beef pot pie baked in a coffee cup, and the decadent Gorgonzola grilled cheese with fig preserves and caramelized onions. Scully graduated from ECU in 2004 as a vocal studies major. Music and theater productions taught him skills useful in the restaurant business. “It’s performance,” Scully says. “Every member of the cast is important: You’ve got to have a great dishwasher.” His menu is built around local fruits, vegetables, even honey. Seasonal offerings enable him to improvise, and “improvising forces creativity.” House-made ice cream uses milk and cream from nearby Ayden. The lemon flavor is a complex delight, both sweet and sour, creamy and fizzy.
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From The Scullery, I amble east and south to 5th Street and in to Art Avenue. I’m immediately taken by a piece on the left wall: The Divine Mother Shall Always Win by Sarah Setzco. It’s made of pale green rayon, cotton, and twigs. It looks as if my favorite scarf got beautifully and happily tangled in a tree.
Art Avenue’s large front room features handmade clothing and bags, cards, prints, dream catchers, and — is that a stuffed raven in a cage?
Emerge Gallery hosts monthly exhibits and offers art classes for adults and children. photograph by Annie Cockrill
Lisette Fee, metalsmith and jewelry-maker, takes me on a tour through the gallery’s six studios, rented cheaply to ceramicists, painters, and a photographer. The space is a former bakery, so it’s fitted with industrial sinks and boasts excellent ventilation. After graduation from ECU, Fee was looking for studio space. “I don’t know where I would have worked after college,” she tells me. “Without this space, I couldn’t do the work I do now.” Her pieces are both delicate and industrial-looking: Imagine fan dancers who work as machinists.
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A half-mile southwest, At the corner of Dickinson Avenue and South Pitt Street, steel horses cavort in wild motion, their manes and tails made of scrap metal whipped by the wind. The figures are made of repurposed wagon wheels, old pipes, stove burners, shovel heads, propeller blades, and lengths of bicycle chain.
How fabulous that all this art and music, food and drink can be found beautifully and happily coexisting in the same town.
The creator of this menagerie is ECU alum Jonathan Bowling. He creates dogs fashioned from fire extinguisher canisters, birds with wings made of golf clubs, forks, and keys. He has placed all of these animals in the neighborhood, and locals call it “the zoo.”
Don’t scrap your lawn mower: Sculptor Jonathan Bowling bends and welds old metal into eccentric works of art. photograph by Annie Cockrill
All of these animals seem alive, delighted to have been reimagined as public art, to be able to live outside in the elements. Bowling says, “I’d like to think that residents and visitors enjoy my addition to our little town.”
Over on the ECU campus, Paul Flowers is channeling the particular effervescence of middle school students. Flowers conducts the Greenville Choral Society’s Children’s Choir and a smaller ensemble, Bella Voce. They’re rehearsing a haunting melody, “Jasmine Flower.” Behind the singers, a montage of haiku-like images runs — cherry blossoms, mist over a mountain — and they’re trying not to turn around to watch. In performance, the piece goes off flawlessly, the children’s voices seeming to mature and soar in the second verse. The audience hears it, too. There is a little gasp. Afterward, the singers are giddy with happiness and relief.
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Now, in these warm spring days, the Fabulous Starlight Women can be found seated on the patio outside the bar, toasting the end of the spring semester, graduation, the creation of more ECU alumni who will perhaps make more art, more beauty, more good in the world. On these evenings, master bartender Jimmy Ingenito, mixologist extraordinaire, takes our drink orders. His recitation of all the improbable ingredients he’s used in cocktails sounds like a poem: beets and catnip, cashew juice and shamrocks, sal de gusano, chapulines, night-blooming cereus. But his list also sounds like Greenville: How fabulous that all of this astonishing art and music, food and drink can be found beautifully and happily coexisting in the same town.
104 West 5th Street
Greenville, NC 27858
(252) 707-9033 starlightcafe.org
Pitt County Arts Council at Emerge
404 Evans Street
Greenville, NC 27858
(252) 551-6947 emergegallery.com
Go Outside and Play
In a city as lively as Greenville, there’s always something to do — even when the academic year ends.
Sunday in the Park
This weekly summer music series has entertained parkgoers since 1973. Performers range from classical symphony orchestras to folk musicians to storytellers. Performances take place at 7 p.m. at the Town Common on East 1st Street.
[Photograph by Will Stricklin/The Daily Reflector.]
This weekly Uptown farmers market brings you all the notes of summertime, from fresh produce to seafood to homemade ice cream. Top it off with handmade arts, craft brews, and live entertainment to complete a perfect warm-weather evening.
Rock the Bus
A monthlong exhibition of the work of Pitt County Schools’ visual art teachers serves as a celebration of all Pitt County music, theater, dance, and art teachers. From May 6-27 at Emerge Gallery, enjoy art paired with North Carolina beer and wine selections.
The Pirate Front Line
Nab one of the three rooms at the historic Fifth Street Inn near ECU, and feel like a Pirate.
Across the street from East Carolina University’s campus, among the homes of Greenville’s tree-lined historic district, you’ll find the bed and breakfast officially known as The Fifth Street Inn. Yet you might hear locals call it the “Pirate Front Line,” thanks to its proximity to the university and deep allegiance to ECU’s Pirate Nation. Built in 1924, the three-story Colonial Revival house claims a spot on the registry of National Historic Places, and its three guest rooms are decorated accordingly: Each combines history with modern amenities. “We want everyone to have a welcome, positive experience and leave with the spirit of the university,” says owner Chris Woelkers, an ECU graduate. From the purple and gold pansies in planters to the university memorabilia on the walls, The Fifth Street Inn celebrates Pirate pride.