Cameron Village shoppers have walked above abandoned music venues since the 1980s. Unbeknownst to many, this once-bustling collection of nightclubs beneath the shopping center remains underground both figuratively and literally.
During the 1970s and 80s “Village Subway” sat underneath Cameron Village. The collection of venues drew a variety of musicians and packs of listeners until it was abandoned and left to decay beneath shops, restaurants and a growing population.
The abandoned spot appeared forgotten until Heather Leah, editor of the Raleigh blog Candid Slice, wrote a piece that sparked curiosity for some and provoked nostalgia for others.
“I was one of those people who had no idea anything was underground,” Leah said. “Then a friend of mine two years ago showed me some blueprints. We weren’t even certain they were real, but then we found them on Google and were really excited.”
Leah, an urban explorer, wanted to explore the shops but couldn’t figure out where the entrance was. She said she had no idea the piece, which now has more than 2,200 likes on Facebook, would garner so much attention.
“I had no idea that so many people would be nostalgic for it,” Leah said, “Then WRAL called me because the story blew up, it got really big–over 250,000 readers.”
Leah said the News & Observer, WRAL and other media sources contacted her.
“I was shocked, and then WRAL said that we would do the interview down in the tunnels,” Leah said. “It was like a dream come true, you know?”
When Leah ventured into the abandoned area she said the iconic entrance—present in many pictures from Village Subway’s heyday—caught her eye, among other remnants of the past. But mostly, Leah said, there wasn’t much left.
“People keep contacting me asking me how to get down there, and I’m, like, I can’t tell you,” Leah said.
Leah said she was astounded at how many people were nostalgic for Village Subway and how much it meant to them. People who haven’t spoken in years are now reconnecting through the comment section on Candid Slice.
“They are all like ‘Do you remember so and so, oh my God!’ and they are all meeting for lunch and stuff. It’s crazy,” Leah said.
Leah said she is interested to see if something will come from the recent publicity. A documentary and reopening of the underground venues have been discussed.
“Maybe they will reopen it down there a little bit, and then people can go down there and at least see it,” said Leah. “It would be really nice if they at least opened the main entrance part.”
Many who reached out to Leah said budding, now-famous acts played beneath Cameron Village more than 30 years ago. Someone sent her a picture of a ticket with actor Steve Martin’s signature, and another person claimed actor Bette Midler once visited the venues.
Dave Adams, a local musician during Village Subway’s heyday, was part of the music scene down in the subway. He recalled the budding acts that became famous after playing there underground.
“They had R.E.M and Joan Jett play down there before both got big,” said Adams, “It was awesome.”
Acts that to played in Village Subway included The Ramones, Duke Ellington, Sonic Youth, R.E.M., Black Flag, Jimmy Buffett, Dead Kennedys, The Police and a range of other famous acts, according to Leah.
Adams was the keyboard player and singer for several bands in the 70s, including Glass Moon and a popular local band named The Fabulous Knobs. He usually played in The Pier nightclub—one of three that sat below Cameron Village.
“When we first started playing there they had a little stage that was on the left side as you came in, and then they decided, ‘Oh we need a bigger stage because we are going to have bigger acts,’” Adams said. “So they built a bigger stage on the other side. It was great.
Adams recalled the atmosphere of Village Subway’s venues being diverse and expansive.
“The atmosphere was really free and open,” Adams said. “They had all types of music there, from jazz to international groups.”
The Bear’s Den was another of the three venues underground. It was preceded by the Nightgown, Raleigh’s only jazz club, which hosted “Rock Night” once a week. Adams said he played nearly every time.
“It was a big place for jazz in Raleigh,” Adams said. “I saw so many good jazz bands down there. The best one I saw down there was Weather Report, and I saw Miles Davis, too. It was the place to play.”
Adams said Village Subway-goers oftentimes had to keep a lookout for bands they wanted to see, because shows were not announced far in advance.
“You just never knew when somebody big was going to be there—a lot of times they would announce it the day before,” Adams said. “It was a mecca for people to come and play, you know, and it was always packed.”
Adams, among many others, said he would love to see the subway revived.
“I got to see some really good bands and had a lot of fun,” Adams said.