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This summer, three bars that have become mainstays of New York City's Lower East Side will close. El Sombrero (or The Hat, as it's more commonly called), Motor City and Max Fish will all be leaving a neighborhood that now resembles the chaos of New Orleans' Bourbon Street on the weekends more than the downtown cool with which it once was associated.
While they'll all be missed in different ways, there's something much more tragic about Max Fish's departure from the area, because it's an enclave for the New York skate scene. (How many bars had an etnies shoe model?) It would be exhausting to even try to recap the list of skaters who have passed through the Fish's doors. Every New York pro -- plus the likes of Jason Dill, Steve and Alex Olson and Dustin Dollin, to name but a few -- has pulled up a stool at Manhattan's only bar decorated with works from Dash Snow, Shepard Fairey and Thomas Campbell.
"Tell everyone we're really closing," said a tattooed bartender when we asked her to comment on the relocation. "Everyone thinks we're lying because it's been rumored for so long, but at the end of July it's over."
Max Fish used to meld with the grittiness of the neighborhood. It now sits an island unto itself.” Ava Rollins
Opened in 1989 by Ulli Rimkus, the bar attracted artists and eccentrics, quickly becoming a fixture of downtown. Max Fish's cool was predicated on it not trying to be. It's a bar where skaters, artists and actors pack in together on weekends because they all share the bond of being New Yorkers.
It's a strange space where it's difficult to discern what is and isn't part of the frequent art shows, but it wasn't always a skate haven. As photographer and "Epicly Later'd" host Patrick O'Dell explains, "When I first went to Max Fish, it was significantly more of a bohemian/LES artist/musician bar. It didn't seem overly 'skater' 15 years ago. I think [brothers] Marc and Tino Razo really opened that up."
But with a rumored rent hike to $14,000 per month, Rimkus decided to abandon the Ludlow Street location and reopen across the river in Williamsburg. Several other Manhattan-based businesses have made this move, but for a bar with such history, a shift to the saturated center of every hipster cliché could be dangerous. Since the Fish is central to so many skate spots and hangouts, its physical location helped make it a go-to for locals, weekend warriors and out-of-towners.
"I can't count the number of amazing humans I met there," says photographer Angela Boatwright. "Graffiti writers befriend skateboarders befriend musicians befriend firefighters befriend neighborhood locals. It's an absolute melting pot of character and culture and so completely representative of downtown Manhattan."
Ava Rollins, co-curator of the bar's final art show, aptly titled "End of Days," describes Max Fish's charm this way: "The space is rather polarizing. Either you love or hate it, I think. I've always loved it. It's also ephemeral. The mechanical pony in the window used to be rideable, next to the pool table. The walls and ceilings rotate art. The bathroom is just layers of tags and stickers. The art is all multimedia and, to me, exquisitely balanced chaos."
Despite the tight deadline, Rollins and her co-curator, art and marketing consultant, Yolande Whitcomb, were able to secure a stacked and diverse lineup of artists and photographers for the bar's farewell art show, including Craig Wetherby, Ricky Powell, Max Snow, Wyatt Neumann and Brooklyn art collaboration FAILE. Running now through July 24, "End of Days" is a reflection of the bar's personality.
In a city where bars are staggered on almost every block, what made Max Fish different? "Max Fish is like the airport hub/clubhouse. You can go there and, no matter what, you'll find someone that you want to hang out with for hours," says recently appointed VP of operations for Rock Star Bearings Alex Corporan. "Ulli is the queen bee, the mothership of the house and the piece of the puzzle you must have."
O'Dell shares Corporan's admiration of Rimkus, saying, "Ulli is where Max Fish begins; her support and love for her staff and the regulars is what gives the place life. She's always been a patron of local and international artists and supported the scene that circled around Max Fish."
This isn't the first time there's been a closure scare for the Fish. Ben Detrick wrote a colorful epitaph for the bar in 2010 for The New York Times, but Rimkus was able to negotiate with the landlord and keep the Fish open. Pro skateboarder Kevin "Spanky" Long was quoted in that article, saying, "The top 100 times of my life have all been in this bar." On a recent humid Sunday afternoon, Long was there in a Mercyful Fate T-shirt, shooting pool, and was soon joined by fellow pro Braydon Szafranski. Though everyone was smiling and laughing, there was an underlying somberness punctuated by the snap of pool balls.
Boatwright relayed her perspective on why the Fish is so important to many. Patrons get to know a physical place and infuse it with an ever-deepening vibe -- a thing that, unlike a name or a bar stool, can't easily be trucked across town. "New York City is a difficult place to live and Max Fish is our home. And by home I mean family, familiarity and comfort," she says. "Max Fish is the great equalizer: When you walk in, you are the same as everyone else in the room, for better or for worse."
For more on Max Fish, check their website at maxfish.com.