Where politics and culture merge


She's no classic beauty. Still, the cinder block shack that hunkers off the tracks just before they cross Assembly in downtown Columbia wears her own peculiar charm.

   Weathered by some 50-odd winters and a beating from Hugo, the roof sags, mold creeps down off-color walls, broken wooden shutters hang unevenly over the windows, the outside stairs are slick with wear. Yucca has taken over the corner, poking spiney fingers into the path of the cracked sidewalk that wraps around front.

GROW crew
Merll Truesdale, Wendy Brinker and Wayne Cassetti are part of a new effort to revive an old Columbia tradition: the GROW Café

   Over the years, the building has settled into the earth, shifting its walls, buckling floors, lending the place a Fun House appeal. Someone called it a Dali painting. "There isn't a right angle in the whole place. The only time it looks straight is if you're not."

   The two-story structure has settled so comfortably on the corner, in fact, it looks like it might always have been there, seems almost a living thing, its crooked rooms the chambers of a giant, beating heart.

   In its first incarnation, the building at 18 Bluff Rd. was a boarding house, cut into several modest suites. Later it was a general store and a honky-tonk, Nadine's Bar & Grill.

   In 1977, the hippies moved in. They painted a rainbow that arched over the front door and a big sun on the concrete floor downstairs. The neighbors, mostly mill workers and blue-collar families, were wary. They'd seen troublemakers like this on TV.

   The longhairs belonged to GROW -- the Grass Roots Organizing Workshop -- which was created in the late 1970s as a vehicle for leftist political work in South Carolina. Activists had been meeting in livingrooms around Columbia for more than a year when they decided to look for office space.

   "We wanted to create an institution to support the political work, to have an address and a phone," Brett Bursey says. They planned to open a café to finance the operation.

   When they found the place on Bluff Rd., they worked a deal with the owner, Bob "Slick" Dyson. The first year was free in exchange for fixing the place up -- no small proposition. It had been empty for nearly a decade, and for at least some of those years rain had been coming through the roof.

   "It was a big old mess," Bobbie Bursey remembers. She scraped walls, painted and helped pay the bills in those early years -- "no telling how much." She says she did it because she loves her children. Besides, she's the one who raised her son and daughter Renee to raise hell.

   The Café finally opened on a Friday the 13th, in January, 1978. It served up cold beer, vegetarian food and live music on the weekends.

"Sometimes in the evenings it was like
that bar scene in Star Wars -- sheer diversity.
Mill people, black people, gay people,
men in suits,the mayor, the literati --
it was a cultural Left Bank."

   The Café cultivated a variegated crowd. "Sometimes in the evenings it was like that bar scene in Star Wars -- sheer diversity," Bursey says. "Mill people, black people, gay people, businesspeople, men in suits, the mayor, the literati -- it was a cultural Left Bank."

    Ray Permenter, who first came to GROW as an antinuclear activist, spent four years on the Café staff. Permenter, openly gay before stepping out was greeted with applause, remembers the Café as a place where he felt comfortable. "You could walk in and they'd accept you for who you were," he says. "They didn't pass judgment. It was family. All ages. All creeds."

   Poets. Politicians. Junkies. Artists. Rednecks. Everyone seemed to drift through at some time or other. Even grownups, like teachers and judges.

   State Supreme Court Justice Jean Toal remembers going to the GROW Café. "Lord, Lord, Lord... " she says, trying to pin down a date, "in the '70s sometime." She went with her husband, Bill, and their kids, who were small then.

   "There was music as well as good political talk," Toal says. "It was unique. It was one of the first places that was integrated in an easy sort of way, as far as racial backgrounds and economic backgrounds."

   Some of the longtime residents of the mill village didn't approve of all that mingling. They weren't sure about the strange goings on at GROW, and protested the Café's beer license. A Mr. Kirkland testified at the hearing in front of the alcohol commission that the Café was not good for his community, that he had driven by the building and "witnessed a young couple committing Sex Act Number Two."

   Kirkland shared his concern that kids hanging out in front of the Café were "high on drugs." When a commissioner asked if he had ever stopped and talked to anyone, Kirkland said, "No, they might have gotten me."

   The Café kept its beer license, but never did find out what Sex Act Number Two was. Just to be safe, the bar implemented the Pervert Patrol, a regular policing of the parking lot by a staff member wearing a hat with a light on top.

   GROW, all the while, served as meeting space for environmental and antinuclear activists. They organized the GROW Food Co-op, a food-buy for low-income households that still provides produce for about 150 families. They also planned the first and largest antinuclear demonstration in the South, meeting for more than a year to plan a direct confrontation with what they called "nuclear madness."

   About 5,000 people turned out in a soybean field to protest the bomb plant, and were rewarded by a surprise performance by Jackson Browne. Before it was over, nearly 300 protesters were arrested for trying to scale the fence to the nuclear facility. Most of the GROW staff spent three days in the Barnwell County Jail.

GROW Bartender
Takao Butterfield tends the Café bar in 1978

   The Café closed in 1983, after what had started as a peace-and-love sort of deal had turned into something else.

   Early on, the ugliest things ever got was at staff meetings, where they held long and heated arguments about whether to put meat on the menu. Once, a staff carnivore was so provoked he went to the store and came back with a package of bologna, which he ate, slice by slice, in front of the vegetarian with whom he'd been arguing.

   Over time, GROW was forced to grapple with the potential for serious violence. There are stories about a guy the size of a gorilla coming in, picking a fight and throwing some people across the room. Another time, someone who had been bounced from the bar started stabbing the door, his knife coming through the wood "like a nightmare."

   Permenter remembers some guy getting mad after being refused more to drink. The drunk threatened him with a gun. "We finally got it from him, and it turned out to be loaded."

   The final scene came during a meeting of the local NOW chapter. The house rules were that during meetings the jukebox got unplugged and nobody could shoot pool. This time, though, a patron didn't want to put his stick down. The person doing the asking was black; the guy shooting pool called him a monkey. It all kind of went downhill from there.

   It was time to close the Café. African Dreamland played the final show.

The Columbia band Slurr practices downstairs at GROW, in a room that just months earlier was humming with the sound of printing presses.

   For the past16 years, GROW has been home to Harbinger Publications -- which became the backbone of the operation and paid the bills after the Café closed. It also generated two newspapers, including the one you're reading.

   Last winter, after seven years in Olympia, POINT moved its offices to a barn in the country. The idea was to reduce overhead expenses and to scale back the print work to concentrate on the newspaper and on community organizing. Most of the printing equipment was sold, and the rest moved.

   All that empty space got Wendy Brinker thinking. At first, she was looking at the downstairs as a place for her band to practice. Then, she started to think bigger.

   Brinker -- who spent several years as POINT's art director and now runs her own graphics business, Meridian -- first came to GROW when she was still in high school.

   She was managing the bar when it closed, and has always hated that it did. Now she has decided to renovate the building and open a regrooved GROW Café in time for Halloween, if all goes well.

   "When I first took the project on," she says, "it was like, 'Where do I start?'" Over the months, her optimism has run high and thin, alternately. These days, she is feeling good. "I'm confidant it can be done." There are naysayers, of course, people who roll their eyes at the idea of reopening the Café. The building is falling apart, they say. Besides, haven't we done that already?

   But Brinker insists it is not a nostalgia trip. It is about providing another stage in Columbia for emerging talent, and about keeping GROW open as a place for activists to meet, by design and by accident.

   The couple of GROW benefits thrown so far have been well-attended. They have attracted old-timers, people who remember when Loveburgers were exotic. But there is a new crowd emerging, too.

   "Young people who missed the original Café are turning out," Brinker says. "I'm hoping they can take GROW and make it their own. That will be fun to watch."

   Brinker wants to exhibit art there, and stage poetry readings. Mostly, she hopes to preserve, as best she can, the community that has been knitted under GROW's roof.

   "Columbia needs a place like this," Brinker says. "We're not trying to be like anybody else; I think we will complement the other Columbia venues."

   What makes it different is a social conscience. "We want to be a place where art, music and culture come together with politics," says Merll Truesdale who has been part of GROW from its first days.

   Before that can happen, considerable work remains to be done. The building needs to be rewired, new plumbing installed, and the roof fixed.

   To finance the renovations, Brinker is renting out space. Upstairs is an art studio and a Natural Guard/POINT /GROW office. The downstairs is being used for band practice, meetings and other events.

   In the meantime, there is a whole summer to dream about the possibilities.

   On a recent muggy evening, Brinker, Truesdale and Wayne Cassetti, who works at Meridian, lounge on the back porch at GROW, slowly draining a bottle of merlot and thinking about what was, and what might be.

   They talk about GROW parties past: the Mutant Be-In, the Christmas Cotillion, the Olympia Debutante Ball. (Brinker remembers going as Betty Bad Ass, wearing spaghetti straps and big hair.)

   Downstairs, a local band begins to practice. They sound pretty good.

   A train rumbles by, sounding its horn, and Ruby, Truesdale's dog, begins to sing.

Want to help? GROW needs donations of money, supplies and labor. Call 803-254-9398.

© Copyright by POINT, 1997
Last modified 6/23/97