City Gardens: a love story

Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico will be here on Sunday, June 1, at 3 p.m., to discuss their oral history of the Trenton nightclub City Gardens. “No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes.” If you lived around here in the ‘80s and ‘90s, you know why the book’s subtitle refers to the club as “legendary.” If not, then read the book or come out to meet the authors.

Amy and Steve will be in conversation with two of the people who helped to make the club legendary: bartender Allison Santos and DJ Carlos Santos. Regular visitors to the library might find those names familiar, and for good reason. Allison works in the youth services department and is the founder of the Princeton Children’s Book Festival. Carlos can be found several evenings a week at the main checkout desk, where he has even been seen signing copies of “No Slam Dancing.” I will moderate the June 1 conversation, where those who were once punks, latter-day mods or new romantics will discuss their heyday.

One story not in Amy’s and Steve’s book involves how Allison and Carlos met and came to be legends. (Yes, a bartender can be “lengendary.” We’ll get to that.) Our story begins on a Saturday night in the late summer of 1981. I was in the studio of WTSR-FM (91.3) for my usual 6-10 p.m. shift playing a Delta 5 song I liked, “Try,” when the phone rang. The caller politely pointed out that Delta 5 had a new single and asked why I wasn’t playing it. After answering his question — short answer: the station had next-to-no budget for imports and indie releases and all the money I earned went to tuition — I discovered that the caller had moved to the area from Amherst, had an FCC license and college radio experience and a large record collection. I encouraged him to call station management and within weeks, he was on the air.

The caller was Carlos Santos, and a few months after joining WTSR, he was offered the job as DJ for the popular 90 Cent Dance Night at City Gardens. This wildly successful weekly event, which drew substantial crowds of locals and college students, helped to make financially possible the club’s impressive lineup of what would have to be considered the vanguard of pop music in the ‘80s and ‘90s, what eventually became known as “alternative rock.” The seemingly never-ending list of acts who appeared on Calhoun Street includes R.E.M, Gang of Four, UB40, the Replacements, Joe Jackson, Husker Du, Minutemen, New Order, the Pogues, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fishbone.

Carlos was so popular during his dozen years behind the turntable at City Gardens that when given the choice between hosting Jersey hair rock superstars Bon Jovi on a Thursday night or having 90 Cent Dance Night as scheduled, club management opted for the latter, proof positive that, in Trenton, Carlos was bigger than Jon Bon Jovi.

It was at City Gardens that Carlos met the woman who would become his wife, Allison Nowosadko, an attractive, no-nonsense dispenser of adult beverages and Jolt Cola, who was a huge fan of the music she heard playing all around her. She was a punk rock girl for a punk rock club. So what makes Allison a “legendary bartender”? Back then, Allison worked many nights with Jon Leibowitz, an aspiring comedian who had recently graduated from The College of William and Mary. As many know, Leibowitz would leave City Gardens (and Franklin Corner Tavern) behind to find fame under the stage name Jon Stewart.

While anyone who ever went to City Gardens now remembers joking around (or having serious political discussions) with Stewart — just as everyone over 65 claims to have been at Woodstock — the truth is he was just another guy very few people remembered until he hit it big. But no one ever forgot Allison. She was one of the legendary personalities of the legendary City Gardens.

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