Clemson University and the City of Clemson are woven together like threads in a sweater – interlacing figuratively, geographically and politically. The partnership is so strong that it’s sometimes hard to know where one begins and the other ends. In the academic world, this relationship is known as “town and gown,” a term that originated in the Middle Ages that refers to the long black gown worn by academics back then and graduates today. In recent years, Clemson has consistently been ranked among the best in the nation for town-gown relations by the Princeton Review.
Two years ago, as the country began climbing out of the COVID pandemic, Clemson City Council came up with a way to celebrate alliances with its higher ed neighbor and bring some fun and community to the area during the quieter summer months.
The city’s “On the Ave” series was created to bring students, faculty, staff and community members together on College Avenue in downtown Clemson every other Tuesday in May and June for outdoor dining and live music. The city sections off a four-block area of College Avenue between Earle Street and Old Clemson Highway, fills it with tables, yard games and food carts and provides wristbands so over-21 patrons can take beverages outside.
Clemson mayor Robert Halfacre said the series is an ideal way for year-round employees and students at the University to come together with local community members and support local businesses. In the fall, a similar city-sponsored block party is held bi-weekly in the Patrick Square retail district.
“On the Ave is a terrific opportunity to come together as a community,” said Halfacre. “Students, residents, and businesses all benefit from the experience of outdoor dining, family-centric activities, and live music.”
Alesia Smith, assistant vice president and Title IX coordinator in the University’s Division of Inclusion and Equity and a member of the Clemson city council, said the series came about because the members of the council were looking for ways to bring the community back to the downtown area after the COVID lockdowns, which were devastating to downtown businesses. Huge events like graduations and orientations were moved online or to out-of-town venues, leaving downtown Clemson a virtual ghost town during what are typically watershed events for local businesses each year. Many of those businesses are still recovering from the up to 80 percent loss in sales during that time.
“On the Ave was a city initiative, but a lot of people who live in the community work at the University, so it’s a win-win,” said Smith. “After two years, people were ready to be out. They wanted to socialize. Our neighboring communities had similar events that were very successful, like Jazz on the Alley in Seneca. Our residents don’t normally come downtown because they think it’s for the students, so now we have a way to connect the community and enhance those relationships. It’s a family environment, and we want to encourage faculty, staff and everyone to come out and enjoy themselves.”
Smith said the series was an immediate hit starting with the first events in 2021, with hundreds of people attending each event.
“We’ve had residents ask why we don’t do it every week year-round, but we just don’t have the manpower,” she said.
The June 13 event was held under a textbook Southern sunset, with a slight breeze rustling through the tables of people enjoying grilled burgers, wings and beer and the happy screeches of children playing hopscotch and games of cornhole occasionally rising above the music. Local “neo folk jam band” Amongst the Trees had people dancing in the street with a mix of original songs and soulful covers.
Smith said the series is making an impact beyond Clemson, with other cities and universities looking to emulate its success.
“We hosted the International Town Gown Association conference here last year and On the Ave was one of the events they got to attend,” said Smith. “It was a highlight of the conference. They liked it so much that many said they are going to duplicate the event in their own communities.”
The last On the Ave event will be on June 27 from 5:30-9 p.m. on College Avenue in downtown Clemson.