Op-Ed: It’s Time to Leave Max Fish in the Past
Max Fish is dead. The blogs, the press, the Lower East Side death watchers stamped the time of death at 4:00 a.m. Sunday, July 30th, 2013. The night of its final demise, Max Fish was filled to the rafters with revelers who came to pay their last respects. And across the city, and even in parts of Connecticut and Long Island (sigh, but true), a collective, nostalgic goodbye was bid to Max Fish from the now-grownup skateboarders, A-listers, onetime starving artists, and musicians, who had for a very brief moment made Max Fish their haunt.
But, the truth is Max Fish died well before the last drink was poured. As the Lower East Side became a shadow of its former self, so had Max. The A-listers and musicians stopped coming by and the starving artist found success, packing their brushes, paint, clay, and canvases for greener pastures beyond the Lower East Side. The OG skateboarders grew up, and some sadly passed away from drug overdoses. A new crop of skateboarders rolled in year-to-year, clinging feverishly to the folklore, but, in the end, Max Fish was just another bar in a community drowning in bars.
Once inspired, it became ordinary with the passage of time in a changing city. And then, when Max Fish disappeared altogether, nostalgia had a funny way of turning reality into a soft-focus illusion of sentimentality.
For many, Max Fish was a point in time where youth collided with the gritty raw, kinetic energy of a wilder New York where freedom was truly just another word for nothing left to lose. We loved New York despite our inability to posses her. We didn’t care we just wanted to belong to her.
As the city landscape changed from gritty streets to a sanitized Disneyland, the tourists and suburbanites flocked here bringing their pedestrian values and big-box chain stores. The new transplants and visitors remade New York into the bland suburban wasteland, but with skyscrapers. They didn’t want to belong to New York. They wanted New York to belong to them.
Max Fish had tapped into the zeitgeist of a space and time long gone. The current plans to resurrect it at 120 Orchard Street reek of desperation. It cannot be recreated, and raising it from the dead in a community suffering the blight of alcohol saturation is unconscionable.
With cultural and social capital so diminished, Max Fish’s Brooklyn incarnation was stymied by the realization that its once lauded cache eluded the current Williamsburg intelligentsia. The under-forty denizens of hipsterville in a snap poll were probably more likely to guess Max Fish was a newly discovered species in the Hudson River than the 80s/90s “birth of cool” where skaters, starving artists, A-listers, and musicians once commingled for a brief time. The
Brooklyn plans were scratched altogether only to resurface it seems, to familiar, now plagued, territory.
Max Fish redux at the Gallery Bar space might have been more palatable for residents to consider had owner Ulli Rimkus simply moved her existing liquor license from Ludlow to Orchard Street. Her decision to keep the Ludlow license in safekeeping guaranteed the location would remain “grandfathered,” allowing Sweet Chick easy passage to a 4:00 a.m. liquor license without any stipulations. Did Ms. Rimkus benefit from the licensing of Sweet Chick on the backs of her neighbors of twenty plus years at 176-178 Ludlow Street? The relaunching of Max Fish will be hard to support knowing that longtime residents in hundred-year-old tenements on Ludlow Street will be assaulted with the perpetual smell of fried chicken wafting into their apartments each day, and forced to endure the noise emanating from industrialized equipment and newly affixed operable windows, effectively bringing yet another bar into the street and directly into neighboring apartments.
And what of her possible future neighbors at 120 Orchard? After years of living with the problematic Gallery Bar, formerly Little Devils, they get more of the same—Max Fish on steroids. Two floors, two bars, and nearly 300 people. Even in the fog of nostalgia, Max Fish was not without problems, racking up community noise complaints and a slew of New York State Liquor Authority violations from selling to minors to disorderly premises over the years. Ironically, the neighborhood that is fueling the Max Fish resurrection is the same neighborhood that stands to lose. Again.
No matter if the Max Fish marquee cigarette comes to 120 Orchard, Ms. Rimkus and her team can’t recreate the magic of the past. They can only exacerbate the continuing problems that reproduce unabated, sanctioned by the very people who are meant to serve the neighborhood, not facilitate its decline into what we all sadly have come to call Hell Square. There is now only the eternally beleaguered Lower East Side, and the new Max Fish, legendary history aside, can’t be separated out from today’s growing problems.
When the rent increased and the authenticity of the neighborhood strayed, Max Fish abandoned the Lower East Side for Brooklyn. When Brooklyn neither cared, wanted or knew who Max Fish was, Ms. Rimkus has come back home, but in the end what good is Max Fish to us when it has already lost its soul?
-Written by Erin Harvey