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Goodbye, Maxwell’s: On the Demise of Hoboken and Places Like It

By posted at 12:00 pm on June 5, 2013 23

Hoboken(1)Old Hoboken Waterfront, featuring the Maxwell House coffee plant (far left) and the Lipton tea plant (far right).

1.
Both the Lipton Tea and the Maxwell House plants used to be situated at the north end of Hoboken’s Frank Sinatra Drive, a winding riverside road on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. Built to capitalize on the town’s proximity to Manhattan, and also the accommodating docks famously depicted in On the Waterfront, the two plants employed generations of workers from Hoboken and its surrounding area. In the mornings, the entire town smelled like tealeaves and roasted coffee.

During my lifetime, both buildings underwent a routine familiar to residents of “up-and-coming” neighborhoods across America: they were closed, sold, and replaced with luxury condominiums. Today Eli Manning owns a fully automated apartment in the Hudson Tea Building. A one-bedroom at Maxwell Place rents for $3,200 a month.

The rest of the town has undergone a similar transformation. Locally owned shops that used to line Washington Street — the main drag spanning the length of the Mile Square City — have in the past three decades been replaced by more and more cookie cutter storefronts from the likes of Baby Gap, Anthropologie, Panera Bread, and Chipotle. Real estate values have skyrocketed due to an influx of young, childless Wall Street workers who appreciate the PATH train’s easy access to the financial district.

Unfortunately this development has come at the expense of longtime residents, many of whom belong to the working classes. Last year Hoboken High School was ranked 298th out of 328 public schools in New Jersey. (Down from 187th the year prior.) The shrinking supply of rent-controlled apartments is always one referendum away from being diminished further. Local businesses evaporate and the town loses its identity. People who moved here for its flavor wake up one day and realize that flavor’s gone. What was at one time one of New Jersey’s most distinct towns is more and more becoming an extension of whitewashed New York, unrecognizable from any number of neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Nostalgic locals are replaced by the hipster vanguard; the hipster vanguard is replaced again. To the young newcomers who didn’t grow up here, there’s little reason to care: Hoboken is said to boast more bars per capita than any other American city.

At the end of July, however, the town will lose one of its best.

2.
The best way to understand Maxwell’s is to think of it as Hoboken’s own CBGB, but with tighter curation. A former tavern for the factory workers at the Maxwell House plant, Maxwell’s was bought by Steve Fallon and his family in 1978 and converted into a sit-down restaurant. At the time, Hoboken was undergoing its first wave of gentrification, and in order to take advantage of the burgeoning hipster scene, Maxwell’s launched the town’s first successful Sunday brunch.

By the early 1980s, however, the space began to establish itself as one of North Jersey’s premier concert venues — this despite the fact that its 200 person capacity event space was the size of a suburban garage. (Its acoustics were not dissimilar.) The place hit its stride when Fallon brought on Todd Abramson to manage bookings. He went on to host performances from major acts like Sonic Youth, Fugazi, Hüsker Dü, Dinosaur Jr., Nirvana, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and The Strokes. In 1985, Bruce Springsteen and Hoboken resident John Sayles teamed up to use Maxwell’s as the set for scenes in The Boss’s music video, “Glory Days.” My mother recalls that the crowd of Springsteen fans gathered uptown was larger than the one that had assembled at St. Ann’s Feast the year before — remarkable because the Feast featured appearances from both Ronald Reagan and Frank Sinatra.

All the while, Maxwell’s also hosted a steady stream of diverse punk, grunge, and indie rock groups in addition to the larger touring outfits. In a testament to the range of sounds you could experience, check out the “Away” video The Feelies recorded (the year I was born) on the same stage that (24 years hence) would feature a sold out performance from The Sun The Moon The Stars. Now add to the mix the knowledge that Yo La Tengo performed there more times than I can count – even playing the eight nights of Hanukkah every year. Add to that the knowledge that once a month the place would remove all the tables and host Dave Post’s Swingadelic project in the dining area. You get the idea.

Yet Maxwell’s has always been a microcosm for what was going on in the town as a whole. It’s a case study for the prevailing trends: not only was it a product of gentrification’s inexorable march, but now it’s a victim of it as well. In recent years, the local crowds have steadily ceded ground to visitors. It’s a trend depicted in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which noted that Richard Katz had to drive into Hoboken in order to drop off his guitar. (The staff memorably treated him “like a General MacArthur returning from Korea in defiant disgrace.”) In recent years, more and more noise complaints forced shows to end early. It’s become uncommon to see Hoboken residents in attendance. The town has changed. The residents who made up the previous gentrification waves have been pushed out to new frontlines, or else they’ve grown up. The current milieu is composed of frat boys and young parents. In the comments section for The Star Ledger’s report on the bar’s closing, Hoboken is described with epithets like, “frat row,” “HoBroken,” and “DOUCHEVILLE.” As I type this, I hear the distinct click-clack of stiletto heels coming from the two girls who live next door. Monday night is when they go clubbing at places like Boa and Room 84 – both of which opened in the past year, and both of which pull nightly crowds bigger than Maxwell’s weekly draw.

3.
This is not the first time Maxwell’s has shut its doors. In the mid-90s the place was briefly converted into a fancy brewpub. Big metal casks lined the windows and the place played the radio. Three years later, the bar as we knew it was rescued and reopened thanks to an alliance between Dave Post and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley.  But this time feels different.

“The culture in Hoboken is driven by TV now,” Abramson recently told Ledger reporter Tris McCall. “A lot of the bars downtown are fighting with each other for who has the most giant TVs. That’s what Hoboken nightlife has become.” He’s not wrong. The most popular bar to have opened in town over the past year is owned by one of the families in The Real Housewives of New Jersey.

And so it goes. What started decades ago with the demolition of the Maxwell House plant will continue next month. The town’s newest residents, no doubt drawn by the allure of once-affordable rents as well as the quirky nature of my hometown — a nature established by places like Maxwell’s — will have unintentionally contributed to a rising cost of living, a rapidly emptying high school, the proliferation of chain stores, and the demise of a cultural institution. Soon I’ll move away, and when I come back years later, I’ll see a whole new town with a whole new set of problems. Meanwhile, I can’t help but feel that somewhere else in America, a small bar or restaurant owner is looking at their back seating area and thinking, “Hey, this just might work.”

Image via Hoboken411.





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23 Responses to “Goodbye, Maxwell’s: On the Demise of Hoboken and Places Like It”

  1. Joe
    at 12:59 pm on June 5, 2013

    When I saw the news yesterday that Maxwell’s was closing, I was stunned. But when I last visited in 2007, I was also stunned by the cookie-cutter establishments that surrounded it. I’m actually surprised it’s endured so long in “doucheville.” It also makes me feel that Williamsburg is not far from the stage where Hoboken is today. Many of the places that made that part of Brooklyn cool are gone now, too. I’m thinking of Zebulon, in particular. These things move in cycles, though, I’m told. And you say as much at the end of the piece.

  2. Rick
    at 3:35 pm on June 5, 2013

    I think Joe’s response has been the exact reason Maxwells is no longer open. People that support it have not been there since 2007 and then are stunned that it’s no longer open.

    The bands used in the argument to keep it open are bands that played there well over 20 years ago. Maxwell’s closed because they failed to bring in bands that people know and want to here. Not all Hoboken is d-bags. A lot of that crowd is the crowd that comes in from the suburbs when it’s not beach season. Last year I saw Dawes preform there and it was packed. This was before they opened for Mumford.

    If the owner was willing to pull in more acts that people in Hoboken are willing to listen to that is not crappy cover bands you get downtown it would still be able to afford the rising rent. Blaming the customer does nothing but leave you broke.

  3. KB
    at 6:26 pm on June 5, 2013

    Rick, I take issue with your response as well.

    Blaming the booking agent is not the answer either. There are multiple factors at play for Maxwell’s unfortunate downturn, and they’re noted in the article: rent, parking, transportation, but most notably: evolving marketplace.

    For a band to play at Maxwell’s in today’s music world, that means they are foregoing a potential appearance in Manhattan or Brooklyn. Since one of those boroughs is literally the heart of NYC and the other is the current music mecca of the country, that’s a tough market to compete with. Whereas, in years past, Maxwell’s could easily book a second date for a band on top of its NYC date, that’s not so easy today. There are several different venues of all manner of sizes in New York where an artist could choose to play.

    The fact that they were able to book as much quality entertainment at Maxwell’s in recent years as they were (even if less than years prior), is a testament to the talent and reputation of Todd Abramson, who is unquestionably the man behind Maxwell’s success all these years.

  4. Joe.L
    at 6:37 pm on June 5, 2013

    I agree with rick, up to a point, in the sense that the owner needed to bring in bands and other acts that would hold the history of Maxwell’s, yet also appealing to the public of the region.

    Just a few weeks ago, I saw a new and upcoming band there. They were great and I plan on seeing them again in a few weeks in upstate NY, but there was hardly anybody there. That was because most of the people that have been attracted to “HoBroken” would rather go to Boa or one of those other dance clubs instead of seeing, and hearing, great music by bands that just can’t compete. Every once in a while there is a bigger band that will occasionally hold a show there that sells out in only a day (hint hint. Gaslight Anthem)

    But in the end, people would rather go to a bar with a giant TV than a bar with a great live band. The nature of Hoboken is just changing with more and more “locals” bringing in the culture of our neighbors across the river (night clubs and extreme shows of wealth). And by doing so, it is killing the nature that made Hoboken so desirable for me since a young age. And as I go to classes at my college across the city, I walk passed stores that you would see anywhere else with only a few smaller shops still open and fighting for business.

  5. Paul C
    at 7:02 pm on June 5, 2013

    I hear what you guys are saying about the bands needing to be relevant to the people in the area; but I think this speaks more to Hoboken becoming a place where people no longer want to take a chance on seeing random live bands. I was amazingly shocked and happy to see Times New Viking play a not-nearly sold out show last year. My friend said “you’d like these guys” so I went there without hearing a note and was stunned. I think it was $15.

    Hoboken is a place where people just don’t go to check out random live music. You can say that’s much of the greater New York area these days, I guess, but it feels moreso there.

    The saddest thing about this is that Maxwell’s seemed to be really inclusive. You could be a yuppie or hipster or hippie and still have a good time hanging at the bar, eating fries and seeing live music. More and more Hoboken is becoming a polarized place, and that’s the saddest thing about the area.

  6. Tim Sommer
    at 7:17 pm on June 5, 2013

    Rick — thank you for a sensitive and accurate eulogy to Maxwells and the Hoboken that once was. I lived in Hoboken from 1983 to 1992, arriving when the town was mostly hispanic, working class Irish, and Italian. Many mornings, the entire city would smell like a burnt pot of coffee. For my entire 20s, my life, in any practical sense, revolved around Maxwells, Fabian’s Brauhaus (still my all-time favorite bar), and Benny Tudinos. That will always be MY Hoboken.

    For my entire time in Hoboken (but especially in the ’80s), I visited Maxwells at least two, and sometimes four or five times a week. Otten I would go just to nurse a pint of John Courage in the midst of a long walk. It was one of the ESSENTIAL rock venues on the planet — and let me aver this as a one-time touring musician, and as someone who has worked in the music industry for 35 years — along with, say, the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver, Barrowlands in Glasgow, and 36 Grossefreiheit in Hamburg, it’s a place where rock music LIVED. Personally, I thought it was never quite the same since Steve Fallon gave up day-to-day control, and although I am quite sure Todd did his job well and lovingly, he had an element of anti-mainstream snobbery which I personally did not think sat well in the all-embracing earthy confines of the room. But that’s just my opinion, and hats off to him for keeping it going all these years.

    When I moved to Hoboken 30 years ago, a friend of mine advised me not to go past Willow Ave at night, and not to go into any bar that had blinking christmas lights in the window. Tom Vezetti roamed the streets with his bullhorn, with an up-beat word for everyone who walked by. I lived in the only house on the block that was not in a significantly dilapidated condition; when I left in 1992, it was the only building on the block that had not been remodeled and condo-ized.

    That was a long time ago. Thank you for remembering that time, too.

  7. Mopar Larry
    at 7:29 pm on June 5, 2013

    As a 30 year patron of Maxwell’s and a guy who used to drive an hour one way to get there, let me shed some light. One of the biggest issues is parking. A parking garage in an old building on 14th st was just demolished ( the nearest to Maxwells) and the parking on River Street is non-existent. And there is dedicated residential on street parking, which means if a non-resident parks there, you get a ticket, towed, booted or any of the combo of the above.Even the bands have trouble parking their vans and risk towing or booting. Get towed and kiss what ever you make that night good bye. There is the PATH train, but after midnight it runs once an hour. Ditto NJ Transit commuter rail which shuts down at 1 am. So with those limited transportation options and the difficulty of driving and parking, there goes a chunk of the audience who would come in from out of town.
    I found it interesting that Mayor Dawn Zimmer was quoted in a later Star Ledger article as saying she tried to see what could have been done to save Maxwell’s. The obvious solution would have been relaxing the parking regs on River St after commuting hours and easing up on enforcement. But then we know who gets revenues from parking tickets, don’t we, folks?
    And Rick I disagree with you about how they should be “bringing in bands people know.” Justin and Taylor and Carrie and the other American Idle and Voice rejects aren’t going to play Maxwell’s. (And we don’t want them to) But the many of the bands “people never heard of” are, in many cases national acts in their particular genre, backed up by local opening acts. Again I go back to the parking problem. “Circling the streets” for an hour to find a legal space is going to factor big time in whether you come back in the future. And for that, the blame goes to Hoboken, the new “Stepford” town.

  8. Joe Castrianni
    at 9:36 pm on June 5, 2013

    The parking wasn’t that big of an issue. A few years ago, Todd negotiated a deal with the parking garage at Maxwell Place. Validated parking is only $5 for every three hours. It’s clearly listed on the club’s website.

  9. Lance
    at 11:24 pm on June 5, 2013

    Parking absolutely was a problem. I’ve had friends cars get towed, I’ve been ticketed, and once, after driving around for an HOUR, I simply went home. It’s only getting worse, not better. Maxwell’s is my favorite bar/venue in the world and I am sad to see it go. So many memories there, but I understand it. It used to be, “Wow, THEY’RE playing Maxwell’s?” to “Oh man, they’re playing Maxwell’s?” Part of that is I’m getting older, but I guess so is everyone. It’s hard to have a party when it’s work for people to get there and the neighbors are all dicks.

  10. Nick Moran
    at 8:17 am on June 6, 2013

    Great points brought up by all here. One of the cruelest aspects of Hoboken parking is how both the visitor and resident-only parking signs are green and white. The difference is that one features white text on a green background; the other features green text on a white background. (Examples: http://goo.gl/1bL9V) I can’t tell you how many times I’ve directed friends into the area, told them to park on the visitors only “green on white” sign, and then found them to have actually zipped into a spot reserved for locals.

    Parking was always a hassle in Hoboken. I don’t know if I’d say it’s worse now because that would imply that it was ever better.

  11. Dave B.
    at 10:52 am on June 6, 2013

    I’ve lived in Hoboken since 1980 and have gone to shows at Maxwell’s ever since I moved there (and still continue to go). Parking has always been tight in Hoboken, and I can definitely see it becoming even more of a problem in recent years, with at least 10 high-rise apartment buildings being opened within a few blocks of the club.

    In my opinion, Maxwell’s has always done a good job booking interesting, talented bands. If their interest was in simply attracting more people from the current residents of Hoboken, they would have booked cover bands, as some other bars do. But that’s not the kind of club they want to be (and I wouldn’t pay to go there). And even if they hired cover bands, that wouldn’t solve the problem of parking.

    Parking is probably more of a problem to Maxwell’s than to bars in downtown Hoboken, which are closer to the PATH train.

    Re: mass transit to Maxwell’s: the NJ Transit bus to Port Authority stops across the street from Maxwell’s, and runs until 1:30 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, which would enable a person to catch most if not all of most Maxwell’s shows.

  12. Eric
    at 11:21 am on June 6, 2013

    Disagree with some of you saying Maxwells had to bring in bands that the rest of Hoboken would want to listen to. The fact that they don’t do this is what makes Maxwells what it is. I loved Maxwells because it was the place to go to with a pleasant atmosphere, good tunes that aren’t the top 40, not blinding with TVs everywhere, kept its old world charm, and not cluttered with all the bros from Hoboken.

    They still did a good job of bringing in not well known musical talent, and plenty that still or have played sold out shows in Manhattan. Hopefully something turns around, but money is king at the end of the day (unfortunately).

  13. Puppy
    at 3:43 pm on June 6, 2013

    As someone that has been playing in Maxwell’s on and off for the past 13 years, the parking has absolutely become a problem. We would play a show there on the first day of tour (ostensibly to start the tour with some gas money) and wind up with a boot (!) on our van, and be out around $200, which was more than we made the whole show sometimes.

    The club and Todd did an excellent job at retaining the soul of a true music venue in a time where (as other have said above) crappy DJ / cover band bars have popped up everywhere, and are always packed. Maxwell’s was one of fewer and fewer venues who actually took the time to curate their shows in an engaging and inclusive way.

    It’s truly sad to see this happen, but as the rent goes up (especially on the very few remaining “underutilized” waterfront areas in NJ – e.g. Asbury), the businesses that make up the heart and soul of those towns will be pushed out to make room for national chain storefronts who can afford (and afford to write-off) those high rental costs.

    Many thanks to Maxwell’s and their whole crew: you guys made it a great place to experience, and had what was probably the best/tastiest “band menu” in the country.

  14. MikeM
    at 10:37 pm on June 6, 2013

    Walked in Maxwell’s sometime in summer ’94, paid $7, caught a band, decided to stay for another beer (as always) & see who was on next. It was the Wrens; blew the doors off the place. Bought “Silver” a week after & have been a fan since. 18 years later I was asked to play on a bill w them celebrating their 20th anniversary as a band. At Maxwells. To me that’s what it’s all about. Cheers Maxwells! Will be missed.

  15. Rick
    at 10:50 pm on June 6, 2013

    Is Maxwells the only bar in Hoboken that has to deal with parking??? 15000 people pack out Pier A for summer concerts I would think a venue that holds 200 could somehow deal with that.

    I’m tired of everyone assuming that everyone in Hoboken is a club going d-bag. There’s no reason I should have to consistently be going into the city to Rockwood Music Hall, Bowery Ballroom, Mercury Lounge, The Living Room just to see shows. Bowery Presents or the owners of Rockwood could kill if they ran Maxwells.

    It’s a complete joke that this owner keeps trying to compete and compare himself with downtown Hoboken when Uptown is nothing like it.

  16. KB
    at 2:24 am on June 7, 2013

    Hey Rick at 10:50pm, I’m sure you mean well, but you’re just wrong. Plain and simple.

    The Rockwood Music Hall has never booked a show comparable with Maxwell’s. I would welcome it if they did. And I don’t even dislike that venue, but it’s not even close to the same thing.

    And as for Bowery Presents, they are a great company, but they are a national booking powerhouse. Their resources are enormous compared to those of Maxwell’s.

    To compare Maxwell’s to these groups (or any other venue, to be honest), is like apples to oranges.

  17. BPG
    at 12:09 pm on June 7, 2013

    Actually, I have to agree with Rick for the most part. Parking or the lack of it is not a good enough reason to close Maxwells. Parking isn’t an issue when going to see a show at Bowery, Webster Hall, or Irving Plaza or any other NYC venue. You get on the Path or bus and walk a few blocks and you’re there. This is just one of a few lame excuses for closing this legendary club. The cool bands that play here and will be playing here thru July will have to play in much less glamorous places throughout the country after their shows at NYC, Brooklyn or Hoboken. Soon they’ll play in Jersey City instead of Hoboken. Less than a mile away. Transportation to the new place will be the same or more difficult than coming to Hoboken. The same gentrification is happening there and at a much faster pace than the 30 years it took here. The reasons we’ve been hearing for Maxwells demise are only a part of the story. Hopefully, someone will buy the place and retain the personality of the place. There are other Todd’s around the country who do just fine in booking original talent. The same bands that play Maxwells must play across the country in similar places that will never be as cool a place to play as Hoboken. No matter how douchey some think it has become. It’s cool enough for MMJ and Wilco and Mumford and sons; it’ll be cool enough for the next group of great bands to come down the pike.

  18. time
    at 4:58 am on June 15, 2013

    Sorry to hear this.

    I remember it. It was a great joint.

    Cheers, Adele, my hot Angel Heat, where ever you are now.

  19. Erik
    at 5:24 pm on June 25, 2013

    BPG, I have to disagree with you slightly. Unless the venue you are attempting to get to in Hoboken is within 5 blocks of the PATH it is a huge deterrent. In the city you rarely run into this issue and in Jersey City, even with how shitty it is, there are many more public transportation options.

  20. BPG
    at 6:06 pm on June 26, 2013

    If walking from the Path to 11th St is too much trouble, there’s a bus right to the corner of 11th & Wash. Again, the parking and/or transportation difficulties is a lame excuse. It’s certainly easier to get to and around Hoboken than Jersey City unless you’re a couple blocks from a Path station. If you’re not, it’s more difficult. It’s more difficult for me to get to the Bowery or Terminal 5 or Williamsburg to see a show but if I really want to see a band, I make the effort.

  21. Steven
    at 10:03 pm on August 17, 2013

    I am a former Insurance Loss Control Inspector and inspected many a bar, including the Cadillac Bar before and after it was torn down, many a condo development project (rehabs, conversions and new construction), more thasn just a few rental income properties, many a business, a ton of former vacant lots owned by the then fire cheif, the Lipton Tea building when it housed many small, industrial businesses — inspected it twice: once for the insurance company and once for the bank during bankruptcy by the former owner(s). I even inspected the Hoboken Shipyard when it was nothing but open space and a few vacant buildings before it underwent major development. A lot has changed since the 1990′s when Hoboken was part of my area. Even inspected Maxwells once. As you come into town off the bridge — right there on the corner of Washington and 14th is the bar that had soooo many commericals done at it during the 1990′s: seemed like one commercial a month a one point.

    You name, I inspected it in Hudson County. I even inspected Riva Pointe in Weehawken for the Builders Risk Policy when it was being built; ten feet above the 100 year flood plain I was told :( and I had to determine PML as well. I inspected one of the marinas along the waterfront too and many a restaurant.

    Probably inspected more than one of the many warehouses in Seacacus owned by Hart Mountain as well as the large condo projects there.

    Also inspected tons in Jersey City too — the streets and condos and rental properties that are off the old downtown area near the Path hold fond memories.

    Bayonne too. The off track betting building site on Rt. 440 when it was just land and driven piles. The former navy yard, businsses, rental properties, the industrial complex of Port Jersey: many a business, many a warehouse and even did the private, local train that runs along the internal rail lines there for side track operations.

    All sorely missed :(

  22. Steven
    at 11:08 pm on August 17, 2013

    Wait……a mention of Hoboken is not complete without a Frank Sinatra siting.

    I inspected a small pizzeria down from the hospital in Hoboken at one point; it’s owner had a Frank Sinatra story. Before Frank passed, he would go for testing at the hospital in Hoboken. The owner tells me, one day a limo pulls up outside – out steps Frank Sinatra and a bodyguard. He comes in and asks the owner to lock the front door – the owner does so and Frank sits down and orders a plate of pasta and a slice. He eats his meal, pays the owner for the meal and tips him $100.00. This is just one of the many times I heard that Frank Sinatra walked into a local business in Hoboken, shut it down and enjoyed a meal.

    BTW — I also inspected, back then, the only two go-go bars in Hoboken, the recording studio in Hoboken ( I also inspected the Rolling Stones mobile recording studio, the one seen in the movie “Gimme Shelter”. It was purchased by friends of the owner of the recording studio in Hoboken and garaged in the lot on the premises for a time) as well as the two bus companies that called Hoboken home back in the 1990′s.

  23. Herb
    at 12:36 am on November 3, 2013

    It was the year of the Tutt Exhibit that I moved to Hoboken, in 1978 I got a railroad apartment for the whopping sum of 225 bucks per month, the building was 4 floor and we were all artists escaping NYC. I knew Steve Fallon back in the day. I remember my NYC East Village friends ( which was then still affordable but you couldn’t find a place easily ) would say ” when you move back to the USA we’ll visit, I liked Hoboken, I don’t like what I see now, but it was already happening even back then..

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