Historic Oberlin Village consisted of large parcels and became one of Raleigh’s first freedmen communities. The land belonged to a wealthy plantation owner, Duncan Cameron who was a politician and banker, and reportedly owned more slaves than anyone else in the state. One of his slaves, James E. Harris, established Oberlin Village in 1866 and named it for his alma mater, Oberlin College in Ohio. These 149 acres primarily consisted of farmland, where its residents eventually built churches and schools, opened businesses and some of the original homes were splendid examples of Victorian architecture. Today, a few remain and can be seen along Oberlin Road, Wade, and Clark Avenues.
Like all communities, Raleigh has been influenced by national events including a boom in housing after World War II. For this reason, Raleigh’s first suburb was developed in 1949 near Cameron Village, the Southeast’s first shopping center within Oberlin’s parameters.
Local developer Willie York partnered with Raymond Bryan in 1946 to develop the tract next to the Cameron Park neighborhood. York was optimistic that the land, once part of the Duncan Cameron plantation would prove to be an ideal place for a mixed-use development in a quickly growing post-war Raleigh.
The plan for Cameron Village was approved in 1947 and construction began soon afterwards on commercial spaces, offices, garden apartments, and single-family houses. Cameron Village experienced success from the start; commercial spaces filled up quickly and apartment homes maintained a wait list.
Early residents Cameron Village’s single-family homes were employees of York Construction Company and Cameron Village, Inc. Others worked in the shopping center’s retail establishments and lived in its adjacent homes, such as Village Pharmacy and with Cameron Village’s proximity to downtown and the State College also attracted businessmen, government supervisors, and college employees.
The 20,000 square feet space within Cameron Village was originally constructed as a bomb shelter during the Cold War. It was planned to be used not only as a place for citizens to go during an attack, but also for the federal government to recuperate.
On November 17, 1949 Cameron Village opened in Raleigh. Some of the first shops to open where Colonial Stores, the Village Restaurant, Roses 5-10-25¢ and PHR Cradle Shops. More than 65 stores—including a dry cleaner, shoe repair shop, butcher, beauty shop, two barber shops and a movie theater— and 112 professional offices were open at the complex within two years.
Cameron Village was enormously popular during the 1950s and 1960s, luring business away from downtown Raleigh, but it faced increasing competition from larger malls like Crabtree Valley in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Raleigh Underground was added as an underground entertainment district located underneath the Cameron Village shopping center. This underground network contained nightclubs, restaurants, commercial shops, and an arcade. Live music and entertainment consistently made appearances there. The underground music venues included The Frog and Nightgown, The Pier, The Bear’s Den, Elliot’s Nest and Cafe Deja Vu. Many Cameron Village shoppers are unaware that the Village Subway even existed which was full of life and entertainment, hosting many artists that are still popular today as well as many smaller acts.
The Village Subway was modeled after Underground Atlanta, a similar entertainment and shopping complex, which is still in use today. The name “Village Subway” came from its New York City-like subway entrance with a long stairwell that led to paintings of trains.
The atmosphere of The Village Subway, as described, was “diverse and expansive,” with “all types of music there, from jazz to international groups. Many artists, both well-known and obscure, performed in the underground venue. Some artists are famous for their performances at Raleigh’s The Frog and Nightgown, including Paul Jeffrey, known for working with Thelonious Monk. He spent 10 days in North Carolina performing at the Village Subway in 1970. At a later concert of his, excerpts from his set in the Raleigh club were played.
The Frog and Nightgown served as Raleigh’s only jazz club at the time. Jazz music was popular in Raleigh, and audiences had to keep an eye on who was performing often because performers were not often announced in advance. Finding her niche in jazz music, artist Leore Raphael connected with Peter Ingram, owner of the Frog and Nightclub from 1968 until 1975. Both jazz players, they performed together. Some artists though, like Dave Adams, performed often at events such as “Rock Night,” which took place every week.
Many other up and coming bands played in the basement venues, from R.E.M. to Jimmy Buffett. The first known concert footage of R.E.M. was recorded in 1982 at The Pier. In addition, Sonic Youth recorded the live track “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, a Stooges cover, at The Pier for its album Confusion is Sex. REM Live on 10.10.1982
The Connells also found their start here, performing at Cafe Deja Vu and other underground clubs in The Village Subway during their early years. They lived in close proximity to Cameron Village, and were able to walk to some of the shows, carrying their equipment with them.
Although The Village Subway had early popularity, there wasn’t enough traffic during the day to keep up with the nightlife. Security became a problem, since drugs were beginning to be distributed in the parking lot and service areas surrounding the Village. These issues as well as concerns about the fire code led to the closing of The Village Subway in 1984.
Here’s a list of other artists that have performed here:
Huey Lewis & The News
Peter Tork/The Monkees
John Cale (of Velvet Underground)
Flock Of Seagulls
Papa John Creach (of Jefferson Airplane)