by MICHAEL JOHNSON
Jeff “Smitty” Smith is a legend in Winston-Salem. From humble beginnings, Smitty’s Notes was started as a newsletter to inform the public about where to go to listen to music, eat food, see art and just enjoy life locally. For more than 25 years, Jeff Smith has kept our community abreast of all there is to do and see. Jeff granted an interview to Forsyth Family about the genesis of Smitty’s Notes and his foray into sketching the cultural landscape in Winston-Salem.
Tell us about your connection/history to the Triad in particular.
I grew up in east Winston! The Triad is my home. In my teens and early 20s, I traveled even into Greensboro to go out. Back in the day, Greensboro was the hub; it had a lot more things to do than Winston-Salem.
What was the social and cultural landscape like when you first started the newsletter vs. where it is now?
I started the newsletter back in 1997. It was quiet here in terms of finding things to do. There were a few places to hang out, and there were very few bars to go to. I made a lot of good friends in those early days, but there was no getting around it – the scene was pretty slow. You had to find your own fun.
I joined a group of young professionals. I eventually found my way into being a part of a group that was the foundation of the Artspedition organization here locally through SECCA (Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art). UNC School of the Arts here in Winston was where the cool kids were. They all seemed to be “in the know” about exhibitions and things to do. The arts scene was underground but burgeoning in the 90s here. I got to know several people who either went to school or worked at UNCSA. It was the time when First Fridays were great art showcase nights on the downtown streets. I met a lot of people on the “scene,” and I attended a few parties on Trade Street which has always been the artistic hub of Winston-Salem.
Did you think the newsletter would be sustainable?
Back in 1997 when I started Smitty’s Notes, we were just trying to find things to do for the weekends. My social circle circulated emails to each other about what there was to do in town. I decided these ideas for what was happening should be put into one newsletter. I began it as “Smitty’s Community Notes” and as a bi-monthly edition. I used to frame it jokingly as “your community service announcement.” I never thought it would bloom into something. I started to notice that the city was experiencing a big loss of young professionals. A lot of that had to do with the fact that there was not much to do socially. We started taking an advocacy role of promoting events, so we could retain young professionals. I wanted to provide people with my inside knowledge of what there was to do here. I became involved as a board member for the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership (DWSP) and the Arts Council.
What do you hope to see in growth trends for the Triad, and what will help with continuing the path to being a vibrant and important community?
Entrepreneurship has come along quite a bit. More of that startup spirit will be vital. Winston Starts and Flywheel Coworking are both fantastic organizations for new, emerging companies to become burgeoning enterprises. Let us not forget that Hanes, RJ Reynolds and McLean trucking (started ocean container shipping for the world) were all entrepreneurships that got their start here.
Tell us about your greatest achievement as “Mr-Know-It in the Triad”
My greatest accolades come in the form of the trust people have in the newsletter and me. A lot of people didn’t necessarily believe at first that things would start to happen. The local community leaders trusted me and the process of building my knowledge-base and brand.
You have valiantly faced multiple sclerosis (MS). It hasn’t defeated you. What has it done?
It forced me to slow down a bit. I was going too fast. I cannot go out and do things like I used to. But, after the diagnosis, I determined I could keep going. I could pick and choose things to do and learn. I honestly just shifted my priorities. I did think I would never get to enjoy this process of being “in the know” like I did in the 90s; however, what I have done now is participate when I can and when I want.
Nominate one local cultural hero or pioneer on the scene as influential and what they mean to you or our community-at-large.
Richard Emmett – and not with just music but also the culture of our city. Through the Blue Ridge Foundation and being the music director for that, he has done so much. He came to town, and he used to work at the Horse’s Mouth Coffee Shop downtown. He was instrumental in programming art films there. He has been a true facilitator and innovator on the cultural scene for all of Winston-Salem!