Editor's note: This is the first in a regular series of columns by Amy Barenboim, a Rutgers University student who covers and provides commentary on local issues.
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — There is another side to nightlife in New Brunswick that is devoid of frat parties, bar-hopping and anonymous one-night stands. Underneath those conventional festivities--literally--is a whole different world. This world is New Brunswick's legendary music scene, which has produced bands such as Streetlight Manifesto, The Gaslight Anthem and Screaming Females.
Shows in the scene generally take place in the basements of houses around New Brunswick, though occasionally in bars such as the Court Tavern and Scarlet Pub. They are hosted by those devoted to the do-it-yourself ethos. Genres range from rap and hip-hop to punk and math rock. Without an institution running the shows, payment is on a donation basis (normally around $5), and attendees are free to mosh and dance as they please. However, the scene is strictly against racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of bigotry. Discrimination is simply not tolerated.
In December 2016, the Ghost Ship, a DIY venue in Oakland, California, burned down during a show, leaving 33 people dead. This tragic event shattered the DIY music community nationwide. Simultaneously, community members rallied to support each other and mend a seemingly broken system.
Police nationwide, including the New Brunswick Police Department, began to take harsher stances on their city's underground music communities. I attended a basement show shortly after the Oakland fire. Organizers strictly limited the number of attendees and announced that this would be their last show of the year. In short, show-houses all over New Brunswick and the country were terrified of police shutting down their shows and ultimately destroying a tight-knit, creative community.
The underground music scene has provided not only weekend entertainment for New Brunswick residents but also a place of solace and friendship.
"I got into shows last year at a time where I felt really lonely and needed to find new friends,” Joanne Zapata, a Rutgers University student, said. “And actually going to shows helped me find an awesome group of supportive people I see nearly every weekend that won't judge me if I dance like an idiot or mosh really hard or just wanna hang back and smoke a cigarette in the driveway."
What are the potential ramifications of destroying this community? As Zapata said, "That's the kind of bonding that you can't really get from loud bars where all you get is superficial conversations."
Over the weekend, at least three show-houses have been shut down by New Brunswick’s police and fire departments, citing fire hazards. While that is a legitimate concern, why is the same standard not applied to fraternities? Their parties sometimes attract hundreds of students, often underage, cramming into basements with little to no visibility. And there is the ever-present risk of sexual assault. On the other hand, the DIY community of New Brunswick is inherently progressive. Many attendees don’t conform to gender and/or sexuality norms and participate in political activism.
The essential question here is, why are fraternity parties encouraged by institutions, not only at Rutgers, but across the country? If the police and fire departments were truly concerned with safety, why target a scene that emotionally and socially supports its participants, rather than a ritual based purely on intoxication and hook-up culture? This disparity is one that begs an answer from New Brunswick authorities.
Furthermore, is this disparity simply inherent to our culture? Does our culture not value an entertainment scene not only unconcerned with profit, but whose very existence outright rejects capitalism?
For those who may not fit into the mainstream weekend nightlife of New Brunswick--or any college town, for that matter--the local music scene can provide an essential source of community and lack of anonymity where one may otherwise never find their place.
Amy Barenboim, a New Jersey native, is an English major at Rutgers University. She is also interested in theater and philosophy. On most days you can find her reading a book under a tree. She writes a regular column for TAPinto New Brunswick.