The building that stands at 1701 Calhoun Street in Trenton, New Jersey may not look like much. Currently, it’s a pink, cinder block building that is boarded up, fenced off, and surrounded by overgrown bushes and weeds. To the average person walking by, it is no different than any of the other buildings that have slipped into disrepair in some of the city’s poorer, more run-down sections.
However, this building is one of the main subjects of a new historical archive opening in the Trenton Free Public Library this month dedicated to the deep, rich history of New Jersey’s capital city. When most people discuss Trenton’s history, the topic of conversation quickly turns to the American Revolution, Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, and the ensuing battle against the British. The Battle of Trenton and its lasting effects on the young republic are just a chapter in Trenton’s history however. Throughout the 20th century, vibrant musical communities flourished in Trenton, ranging from jazz and blues music to alternative and punk rock by the 1980s and 1990s.
When one first looks at the building that stands at 1701 Calhoun Street in Trenton, NJ, he or she would not likely suspect that just 20 years ago, it was known as City Gardens and served as one of the most important venues in punk and alternative rock music in the nation. Hosting bands like Nirvana, the Ramones, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers that would go on to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, City Gardens holds an interesting place in Trenton’s history. In fact, aside from the fence that currently surrounds the parking lot and slight roof damage, the building looks almost the same as it did when it served as a venue. Due to its location about a mile and a half in from the Delaware River on the border with neighboring Ewing Township, and roughly forty miles from Philadelphia and sixty-five miles from New York City, the club served as a stopping point for traveling bands in an era of near endless touring for up and coming musicians.
There is very little information available concerning the early days of the club as a punk venue, but by late 1980, local DJ Randy Ellis, better known in the local music scene by his nickname Randy Now, began promoting shows in the venue. Randy Now had been an active DJ in the surrounding suburbs, but found it difficult to find places accepting of less mainstream music. Bands like the Ramones, The Talking Heads, and the Dead Kennedys were rejected in favor of more popular music in a number of clubs.
Nevertheless, a devoted network of fans developed and began frequenting the shows staged by Randy Now and up-and-coming bands of the day. This network of fans was an interesting one. The punk scene, with some exceptions, was predominantly white. For the most part, the people coming to shows were white kids, most of whom were coming from neighboring suburbs like Ewing, Lawrence, and Hamilton. After a few decades of white families moving out of the city into those surrounding suburbs, the City of Trenton itself became less and less diverse, leaving behind largely minority neighborhoods that were mostly working class or poor. Many of the kids that would come to shows did so against their parents’ wishes or without their parents knowing.
The shows themselves were quite popular to these crowds of suburban kids traveling into the city, and in retrospect, the artists performing proved to be quite important with respect to musical influence. However, the importance of City Gardens as a venue stems from what it says about Trenton’s social and cultural history. Issues of race came to the forefront as predominantly white crowds at punk shows came into contact with, and often clashed with, the predominantly African-American populations of the neighborhood that surrounded City Gardens. The new archives in Trenton hold transcripts of interviews with musicians and fans who speak to the racial dynamics of the punk community in the Trenton area and the disconnect between Trenton’s population and those who came in from the surrounding suburbs for concerts.
Furthermore, learning and telling the story of the history of music in Trenton also helps the historian understand the current state of society and culture in Trenton. Unbeknownst to many, a vibrant music community continues to exist, boasting musicians from a wide array of genres and events that continue to attract people from many towns of the surrounding areas. In opening a new archive and giving access to new primary sources, the Trenton Free Public Library is allowing for Trenton’s past to be re-imagined in new ways and for the story of the state’s capital city to be added to.
Trenton Free Public Library http://www.trentonlib.org/
Wulfing, Amy Yates and Steven DiLodovico. No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens. Trenton, NJ: DiWulf Publishing, 2014.
Mike Fischer, Second Year Graduate Student, US History Concentration