Arts and culture have been critical to the city’s continued success over the years, and have been a major part of the reason why New Brunswick remains the “Hub City” of Central New Jersey.
A thriving music scene, three state-of-the-art theatres, a free art museum at Rutgers, two downtown art galleries, and the most popular comedy club in the state are just a few of the attractions of New Brunswick’s rich culture.
New Brunswick is home to a vibrant and changing music scene, that has grown and evolved over the years.
Paul Robeson, a gifted actor, star athlete and the first African-American student at Rutgers, is famous for his rendition of “Old Man River.”
Perhaps the most famous band to call New Brunswick home was The Bouncing Souls. Since then, other rock groups such as Thursday and Midtown have both enjoyed critical acclaim and national attention.
Most recently, The Gaslight Anthem and The Screaming Females have made a name for themselves across the world after getting their start in the basements of New Brunswick.
New Brunswick is known for hosting underground basement shows in homes throughout the City. Hosts have taken to referring to these homes by nicknames rather than address, to keep authorities from shutting them down.
Several famous music venues have been demolished or gone out of business over the years, including The Roxy, The Melody Bar, The Budapest Cafe, and Doll’s Place.
The businesses sufferred from changing laws, as the legal drinking age was increased to 21, and the city changed how late they could stay open on Fridays and Saturdays.
But perhaps the biggest force that drove the businesses away was the rapid expansion of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital into the Fifth Ward neighborhood where the music scene was most concentrated.
For decades, basement shows have thrived, partly in response to the closings of many popular and historic music venues in the city.
Many off-campus residences near Rutgers University are now also serving makeshift music venues, known by nicknames as a means of avoiding police shut-downs of shows.
With old mattresses to sound-proof walls, and all formalities, rules, and drinking age restrictions ignored, these basement shows have created an anarchic, fast-paced, disorganized community surrounding underground music.
Fans from New Brunswick and points near and far from here crowd into the grungy basements with dim, improvised lighting, low ceilings, and even-lower pipes.
There, at shows both brand new and well-recognized touring bands use as a last resort to keep their shows and the music scene alive.
The Court Tavern remains one of the most famous rock clubs in the state. Today, a variety of musical artists perform in the basement of the Church Street establishment, which was sold in 2012.
The Court Tavern hosted such well-known acts as Patti Smith and the Smithereens, who would later go on to play at a benefit concert to save the establishment from defaulting on its tax bill.
It wasn’t the first time music fans tried and succeeded in saving the establishment.
In 2001, when plans for a new skyscraper, set to be the tallest in the city, called for the demolition of the historic music venue.
The tavern finally closed in 2012, and was purchased by Mike Barrood, the owner of the nearby bar Mike’s Courtside. It briefly went out of business in 2015, before re-opening with a new manager and the same owner.
New Brunswick’s Theatre District consists of three different theatres, each well-respected in the arts community.
The most well-known, the State Theatre, has featured musical, visual, comedy, and theatrical performances from some of the most world-renowned artists including Harry Connick, Jr., Ben Folds, “Weird Al” Yankovich, David Sedaris, and many symphony orchestras.
The Crossroads Theatre and George Street Playhouse (GSP) complete the trio, and together work through a non-profit called New Brunswick Cultural Center Inc. to advocate for their interests.
In 2015, the city and county government revived a plan that had been in the works for some time to demolish the GSP and Crossroads and replace them with a new skyscraper that would include theatre space, other arts-oriented features, beneath a highrise residential/office building above.
The Rutgers College Avenue Campus is home to the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, one of the finest in the state of New Jersey.
In 2014, the museum ended all of its admissions fees and is now open to the general public at no cost.
New Brunswick is also home to two additional galleries: Alfa Art on Church Street and Koryo Gallery on Easton Avenue.
New Brunswick is home to the Stress Factory Comedy Club, which has played host to several famous comedians over the course of the past three decades.
Originally a part of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, the club has been located at 90 Church Street for decades. It has hosted performances from world-famous standup comedians including Chris Rock, Richard Lewis, Drew Carey, Gilbert Gottfried, Artie Lang, and Denis Leary.
Several bars and restaurants host regular stand-up comedy events throughout the city as well. These venues and the Stress Factory are often a stop for up and coming comedians invovled in the New York City and Philadelphia comedy scenes.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.