Friday, March 16, 2012
From Tin Pan Alley to Max Fish
Yesterday, in Part 1 of our feature on Ulli Rimkus and Max Fish, we learned that the bar is safe for now on Ludlow Street... we also looked at the art scene that eventually helped lead to the bar's creation in 1989... You can find Part 1 of the post right here.
By Joann Jovinelly
At the same time, other members of Colab, including Rimkus, Kiki Smith, and photographer Nan Goldin were trying to make their way in midtown, peddling libations uptown at a bar called Tin Pan Alley, owned by Maggie Smith since the 1970s.
Photographer Keri Pickett, a longtime patron, called Tin Pan a place where “artists mixed with locals, where scores of young musicians performed ranging from jazz and samba to punk rock.”
Rimkus was a bartender at Tin Pan, as was Goldin, and Smith worked in the kitchen. Charlie Ahearn, who lived in the neighborhood at the time, used to hang out there and remembered the place as a kind of “tough girls environment with many strippers and street walkers drinking along with artists, musicians, drug dealers, and city detectives.
Like The Times Square Show, there were events nightly, such as film screenings and punk shows [that featured bands] like the Butthole Surfers. [Rimkus] was at the center of it all, graciously showing interest in her friends’ work and in the artists and musicians [who frequented the establishment].”
As it turns out, all of the work at Tin Pan and Colab was the perfect foundation for Rimkus, who took all that experience and used it to open Max Fish in 1989. The name came from the property’s former tenant, Max Fisch, a Jewish man who sold Judaica. Prior to obtaining a liquor license, Rimkus did what she had always done: She mounted an art exhibit, The Atomic Art Show.
“I wanted to have a place where people [could] come and hang out — not to get drunk, that was never the point,” Rimkus told Time Out New York. “The artists played a very important role in this place. We were hosting art shows before we even started the bar.”
Some Assembly Required
By their very nature most artists are anti-social, but put them all in a small room together and it’s like igniting a rabid fire. Fran Lebowitz said it best when she said “the history of art is people sitting around in bars, talking and drinking” and Max Fish certainly became a testament to that idea. It quickly made its name both for its colorful ad-hoc art shows and for launching more than a few careers.
The shows continued. Over the years the bar remained a busy, popular LES hangout. Throughout the 1990s, everyone from filmmaker Jim Jarmusch to actors and personalities Johnny Depp and Courtney Love were regulars.
Artists remained at the forefront and by the turn of the new millennium, newcomers like Dash Snow, who in 2009 was found dead of a drug overdose, called Max Fish home. Snow, along with scores of others including photographer Ryan McGinley and artist Dan Colon, had inadvertently become part of the inner circle. The baton passes to a new generation, but Rimkus is still at the helm.
“Max Fish is supposed to be a place where this sort of gathering [happens],” Rimkus told The Daily Beast. “It was always meant to be a place where you meet people you normally don’t meet. There’s your home, there’s your work, and then you have Max Fish. It hasn’t changed over the course of 20 years.”
What has changed is that the very bar that helped remake the LES is a potential target in the ever-tightening grip known as gentrification; Rimkus faced similar problems in 2010.
“Gentrification was always a thing on this block,” Rimkus told New York magazine. “I moved here years before I opened the bar. It was all Hispanic families and whoever used to be here and then moved because more and more white people moved in. And now we’re [in danger of] being kicked out [again] … there’s three different high-rise buildings next to me.”
Despite a steep rent increase, Rimkus is hanging on.
As the LES gives way to fancy condos and glass skyscrapers, due in part to zoning changes by Mayor Bloomberg, fans of the bar hope it will stay another 20 years.
To lend their support, they have signed a petition. At last count, the number of signatories had reached into the thousands, many of hom added words of encouragement, such as those from patron Shalie Sweetnam, “Max Fish is one of the many elements that personify the color and camaraderie of the LES ... it should be respected for that in a climate that increasingly and sadly values gentrification and homogenization over history and character.”
Joann Jovinelly is a freelance writer and photographer who still calls the East Village home. When she's lucky, she sells her work and pays the rent. She knows about the Times Square Show because she lived and worked with Charlie Ahearn and Jane Dickson in the late 1980s and they told her all about it, among other things.
Find more photos by Keri Pickett at Tin Pan Alley Live.