The Ramkat hosted its first concert Friday night. The Vagabond Saints Society, an amazing collection of the city’s best musicians had the honor of reopening Downtown Winston’s premier music venue.
It’s been just over two years since the club that Jay Stephens opened in 2011 on the corner of 9th and Trade closed. It’s nice to see large-scale live music return to Downtown Winston. The hope is that The Ramkat will succeed where Ziggy’s failed.
Over the last couple of months, I have slowly made peace with the name Ramkat. At first, I hated the name. But slowly, I’ve come to accept and even embrace The Ramkat.
It’s not easy to create a new brand. I have to give the owners of The Ramkat points for resurrecting a name from the city’s past. The name “Ramkat” is also a tacit admission that Downtown Winston is moving into East Winston. In fact, The Ramkat is located at the intersection of Downtown Winston and East Winston.
Ramcat or Ramkat is a variation of the word Tomcat. It describes the moral character of the former neighborhood where The Ramkat now stands.
Here’s local historian Fam Brownlee to educate us on Winston’s former Ramkat or Ramcat neighborhood:
“…around 1890, one of the worst neighborhoods in the Twin City was between West Tenth and West Twelfth Streets, near Belo’s Pond…illegal booze, gambling and brothels…at the time it was located outside the town limits, but the police adopted it as a patrol area in hopes of preventing its spread into the city…both the police and the area’s frequenters called it “Ramcat.”
The Ramcat, or The Ramkat as Richard Emmett and company are now calling it, was a place where lives were cheap and vices were plentiful. It’s a neighborhood that is long since gone. The owners of The Ramkat told members of the local press that they discovered the Ramkat neighborhood while looking through Digital Forsyth’s excellent website.
But the neighborhood around The Ramkat is better known as the Pond. There is a historical marker on the corner of Trade Street and Northwest Blvd that describes the tragic events of November 2, 1904-the origins of “the pond.”
At that time the City’s water reservoir was located at the corner of 8th and Trade-close to the location of The Ramkat. When its northern wall burst in 1904, it released hundreds of thousands of gallons of water down Trade Street.
The flood took the lives of nine people and destroyed many homes in the mostly African-American neighborhood. The massive deluge of water formed what one official called “a pond” at the bottom of Trade Street and the name stuck.
But “The Pond” absent the presence of a pond would be a terrible name for a club. Besides, The Ramkat has more flair than The Pond. For an excellent account of the turn of the 20th-century life in the rough and tumble Ramkat read Brian Clarey’s Lie and Kill Club at Triad City Beat.
Frank Snipes, described by Clarey as “the Triad’s first crime lord” had a butter shop on Trade. He bought the old Belo Pond property, just down the street from the Ramkat, and at least one of his sons was known to frequent the Ramkat’s brothels.
In front of the Ramkat 8th Street becomes MLK Blvd. Throughout the nation, streets named after Dr. Martin Luther King are racial boundary lines, much to Dr. King’s chagrin-no doubt.
Trade Street south of The Ramkat is predominately white and affluent (except for Sweet Potatoes which is a beloved African-American space). Trade Street north of The Ramkat is an assortment of factories, warehouses, Black churches (New Bethel Baptist and Union Baptist) and “post urban-renewal housing” (Winston-Salem’s African-American neighborhoods: 1870-1950, pg. 36).
As I was listening to the Vagabond Saints Friday night at The Ramkat I surveyed the approximately 1,000 person crowd and saw very few non-white faces. It was a very white crowd-myself included. I thought a lot about how the predominately white folks of Downtown Winston can make common cause with the Black and brown folks of East Winston.
Winston-Salem is a very segregated city. Winston and Salem merged in 1913, but for the entirety of the city’s history, it has been segregated by law or by practice. Racial boundary lines have changed over the decades, but they haven’t been erased.
Today, as Winston transitions from a manufacturing town into a Meds and Eds City, with two sprawling medical centers and the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter the City isn’t doing anything meaningful to alleviate racial and economic divisions in the city.
The remnants of Jim Crow can be seen all over the city. You can see them from The Ramkat. You can see old Jim Crow as you drive north on Patterson from the WFU Innovation Quarter all the way to Indiana Avenue. You can see segregation along Northwest Blvd. You can see it where the Boston Thurmond Neighborhood meets Wake Forest. And most starkly you can see the legacy of slavery, segregation, red-lining, urban renewal, transportation racism, mass incarceration and failed public housing policies from Highway 52.
As the line between Downtown Winston and East Winston begins to blur, it’s time for Downtown Winston to acknowledge East Winston and work to bring jobs and community development to its food deserts and vast areas of under-investment. Downtown Winston has been transformed over the last decade-and-a-half. It’s time for East Winston to get the resources that it desperately needs.
My metaphor for the collaboration between Downtown Winston and East Winston is RUN DMC’s jam with Aerosmith, “Walk This Way.” In the video the two groups, one white, one Black are on opposite sides of a wall. There is some tension between the two groups. But eventually, the wall comes down, rock meets rap and the result is beautiful music.
It won’t be easy and it won’t come overnight, but Downtown Winston and East Winston could work together. That would require a new community first approach, which rejects market values and believes that gentrification is not inevitable. But it’s the only way forward. Downtown Winston, the glimmering creation of Allen Joines and associates can’t thrive adjacent to failing neighborhoods.