The site of legendary Trenton punk venue City Gardens is up for auction
From the late 70s through the early 90s, City Gardens played a crucial role in developing the east coast independent music scene. Now, the building that housed the venue — which has sat unused since its closure in 2001 — is on the auction block.
As The Times of Trentonreported late last week, a number of city-owned properties have gone up on the public auction block this month, including 225 West George Street, the former City Gardens.
Located of the north end of Trenton, New Jersey, it was a haven for a variety of music fans on either side of the Delaware River. It was also a way station for touring artists between New York and Philly: part of a dotted line that could continue further south to Baltimore, D.C. and beyond. In the 2014 book No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens, authors Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico describe it as a warehouse-y dive located on what was at the time a bleak industrial strip; very fringe-of-the-fringe.
“What so many people remember is how City Gardens changed their lives,” Wuelfing and DiLodovico wrote in their Kickstarter campaign for the book. “It made many lives better and may have even saved a few. Attending those shows and dance nights made a lot of outsiders and odd socks feel like they were part of a community – accepted and free to express themselves.”
The venue played host to many legends of the 80s and 90s underground, from Bad Brains to Black Flag to The Replacements and Nirvana. WXPN’s Bruce Warren remembers that he saw “every SST band ever” at the venue, and Ween considered it their first home base, debuting at a notorious show where trippy Texas noisemakers Butthole Surfers nearly set the club on fire. In the mid 80s, the staff included a young Jon Stewart tending bar. In a Vulture.com interview, Stewart had this to say about the venue:
It was a wonderful place. [Owner Frank] Tut [Nalbone] was super warm and open, and [promoter] Randy Now [Ellis] booked great music. City Gardens, man. It just reeked of possibility, along with God knows what else, whatever other secretions and body fluids that were there. Every week, man. Like these visitors from the Enchanted Lands would show up in a bus and come here and play this amazing music. It was very, very special.
City Gardens and Ellis were spotlighted in the documentary Riot on the Dance Floor in 2014; Ellis currently operates a record store and event space in nearby Bordentown called Randy Now’s Man Cave.
Reached via email, he says that the retrospective attention City Gardens received in recent years is not something he sought out.
“When it was all over, That’s what I felt ‘It’s all over,'” Ellis says. “I never asked anyone to write a book or make a film documentary. When the computer and e-mail age grew, I started getting people writing me, saying “I want to write a book about City Gardens,” and I said “Go ahead!””
In addition to local music historians, he says many people tracked him down via email just to thank him, writing to say how going to the club changed their lives, or how it made them see life in an entirely different and better way.
“I had a kid write to me once saying how the shows were his escape,” Ellis says. “His step-father used to beat him and tied him to his bed for days, but when he could finally get out and leave his room, it was always to see a band at City Gardens — It was HIS personal Sanity moment.
“Talking about changing their lives: world-famous skateboarder, actor, and TV show host Mike Vallely was 14, and his older brother brought him to City Gardens to see Black Flag in 1984. That changed his life 1000%: NOW, Mike is THE lead singer for Black Flag (taking Henry Rollins vocal spot !)”
City Gardens brought musicians from across the country and around the world to Trenton, and as a result, bolstered Trenton’s local music community over time, Ellis says. But he is very direct in his skepticism when asked if he thinks the former City Gardens could be revived now that it’s up for auction.
“There’s no way that location could become a successful club again,” he says. “Clubs are becoming more chic: mini-breweries, gambling establishments, Live Nation-sized promoters — ones who not only have the club, they own the parking lot, the alcohol license, and even manage some of the bands and have a hand in their merchandise. And they’re multi-cities businesses. ‘Play for us in (for instance) New York City, then you play for our venue in Philly, Atlanta, St Louis, and so on. We have you all hooked up!'”
For his part, Ellis continues to book small-scale concerts and events at Randy Now’s Man Cave; upcoming shows include ska revival faves Mephiskapheles this Friday, September 6th, with Television’s Richard Lloyd in October and jagged post-punkers Bush Tetras in November; he’s also screening the ska documentary Pick It Up, hosting a David Bowie tribute by singer and harpist Erin Hill, and much more. Information on the events can be found here.
The public auction for Trenton’s city-owned properties on offer, City Gardens included, takes place at Trenton City Hall on Monday, September 16th at 10 a.m. Interested bidders must register by 11:30 p.m. on Sunday, September 15th. There’s an opportunity for prospective buyers to tour the building on Friday, September 13th, between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. The city is selling the properties “as is / where is,” and will not offer any financing. The starting bid for the former City Gardens is $30,000; more information can be found here.
Below, watch a trailer for Riot on the Dance Floor, and check out some archival video of City Gardens shows, beginning with a gig The Ramones played at the venue in 1991.