In Trenton, a city that always seems full of potential, one resident, Joe Kuzemka, has made a business marketing the city itself and managing its most popular annual events. The founder of Rockhopper Creative, a marketing and event management firm, does not look like a typical ad executive. At age 42 he is heavily tattooed and sports a grizzled gray beard that would look more at home in a barroom than a boardroom. But he doesn’t look out of place at all on the streets of Trenton, and his deep connection to the city has been the key to his success.
Kuzemka is the kind of guy who is always trying to help people find new ways to explore his hometown.
A Trenton native, Kuzemka is a graphic artist who — among other credits — has provided services for Sovereign Bank Arena, Trenton Downtown Association, DeLorenzo’s Pizza, and others.
He is also the driving force behind some of Trenton’s most popular public events, including Art All Night, the Punk Rock Flea Market, and the Capital City Food Truck Battle. And now Kuzemka has added a whole new dimension to his growing roster of Trenton events: organizing the Levitt Concert series, which is made up of 10 free summer concerts that were formerly held Saturday nights on the Capital Green behind the State House.
“I couldn’t be any more excited to breathe new life into the Levitt AMP Trenton Music Series. We’ve got a great opportunity to here to reinvigorate the downtown area with a great series of music that will cover a spectrum of genres,” Kuzemka says. “It will expose our patrons to a beautiful downtown park accompanied by live music and a true sense of community.”
The series has a new day, a new time, and a new location this year, at Mill Hill Park every Thursday night at 5 p.m., June 29 through August 31. The new time and location will allow the concerts to use the tents from the Farmers’ Market earlier in the day, helping to keep costs down. Organizers hope the new weekday time will also help entice some of the state workers, who typically leave the city every afternoon, to stick around and see a side of the city that doesn’t come through in the tabloid headlines.
Kuzemka has been breathing new life into Trenton for years. You could say he’s someone who wears his heart on his sleeve. Of course, when he’s not sporting a sleeved shirt his passion for graphic art is still there for all to see. “Yeah,” he admits, “I am pretty heavily tattooed.” He then says he is also the kind of person who is always looking for new things to do and talks about his hopes for his hometown.
Kuzemka’s signature event, the Punk Rock Flea Market, will take place Saturday and Sunday, April 8 and 9, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Roebling Machine Shop, 675 South Clinton Avenue in Trenton. The event will feature live music, hand-made jewelry, horror memorabilia, taxidermy, art, antiques, collectibles, comic books, a fleet of a dozen food trucks each day, and of course, music on vinyl, cassettes, and compact discs. For more information, visit www.trentonpunkrockfleamarket.com.
The thrice-yearly festival launched in 2013 with just 50 vendors and two food trucks. Last year, the flea market had to add an extra day to accommodate more vendors. It now features about 255 vendor tables each day (with no repeats) and a dozen food trucks, plus live music. The last flea market drew more than 10,000 visitors.
“I’m always trying to bring people into Trenton to let them know about things to do and places to stay, and trying to bring Trenton back to its glory. My grandfather used to tell me how great Trenton was, and there are a lot of things to do in Trenton. He moved here from Scranton-Wilkes Barre in the 1940s and lived in North Trenton.”
Kuzemka grew up in south Trenton, on Lamberton Street, which is about as far south as the inhabited part of Trenton goes. His mother and father, who formerly worked for New Jersey Network, are both now retired.
“As a kid who grew up in Trenton, I saw that a lot of the places he told me about are gone. But a lot of us have a vision and a hope that someday will come to fruition. My grandfather was my hero. Whenever I do something I hope that he’s seeing it and is proud of me. It makes me try to be a better person.”
Kuzemka went to his first punk show at age 12, at the famous City Gardens venue. His mother wouldn’t allow him to travel to that part of town, so to see the show he pulled a classic kid con: he told his mother he was sleeping at the home of a friend, whose own parents were more lenient and allowed them to go to the concert together. “That was probably one of the most life-changing experiences of my life,” Kuzemka says.
Seeing the Circle Jerks and Weird play that night set Kuzemka on an artistic path. “I was a kid that didn’t fit in in grade school,” he says. “My first night at City Gardens at that punk show, I realized there were other people out there like that besides me. People thinking outside of the box. People who didn’t follow standard social norms. People who thought differently. People who wanted to do things for their community, whether that be music or art.”
Kuzemka speaks of City Gardens nostalgically. But nostalgia turns to longing when he says he never saw the Ramones, the legendary punk rock quartet that played there frequently enough to almost qualify as city residency — but never played an all-ages show.
“That’s one of my white whales,” he says. Indeed, the logo for the Punk Rock Flea Market greatly resembles the Ramones’ logo, which, in turn, borrowed heavily from the images that emblazon U.S. currency.
After his first taste of the punk scene, Kuzemka was inspired to create his own fan zine, Nevermore, and later a record label of the same name, under which he produced a record for a friend’s band. Later he made a CD with New Jersey bands and sold 5,000 copies. He did it all like a punk — working independently, following his creative spirit.
“The punk ethos just set this industrial kind of feeling inside of me, and since then I’ve just always been trying to expose people to interesting things, whether it be music or art. I started at 12 years old, and I’m 42 now and I’m not going to quit any time soon.”
But events like Art All Night and the Punk Rock Flea Market are more than just artistic larks for Kuzemka. “Since the beginning, my biggest goal has been to attract people to Trenton. The fact is that we are more than a negative headline. We have a lot of really positive things happening here, especially with the visual arts community, which is possibly one of the strongest artistic communities in the state. I want to get people into the city and expose them to all the positive things, and not only invest in the city financially, but to get them to come back into the city, bring their friends, and so forth. Those kinds of things grow legs, and we’ve seen that happen significantly over the past four years.”
There has been a snowball effect with events too, with new festivals popping up every year. Last September Kuzemka held the Capital City Food Truck Battle at the Rho Waterfront restaurant, next door to Arm and Hammer Park, the home of the Trenton Thunder.
Food trucks have become part of American popular culture, and readers of a certain age relied on them to provide nourishing flavors in the clutch outside college student centers. But for the Trenton entrepreneur it is a way of adding another attraction to Trenton.
“Back in 2013 I started the Trenton Punk Rock flea market, and at the first flea market we had only two trucks and they sold out of food in two hours. When all that happened I decided to start the food truck battle.” Customers voted for their favorite truck, and the winners, Empanada Guy in the savory category, and Luigi’s Ice Cream in the sweet category, took home locally made trophies.
The food truck battle proved a popular event two years in a row, but Kuzemka says nothing has been decided about whether there will be another one in 2017, given the demands on his time placed by the expanded Punk Rock Flea Market and the AMP Concert series.
On top of all this, Kuzemka manages his day job. He has had an eclectic career. He was a Mercer County Community College advertising design major and past president of the school’s Graphic Design Club. Today he owns a home near Nottingham High School, close to the border of Trenton and Hamilton, is unmarried, and has no kids. “That’s why I have so much time to work,” he says. In addition to his day job as senior graphic designer at the state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, where he also helps run the marketing department, his three main projects “are the Food Truck Battle and the Punk Rock Flea Market and Art All Night,” where he is event director. He says the Trenton Downtown Association originally hired him to oversee marketing for Patriots Week, the end-of-year commemoration of the city’s indelible role in our nation’s founding.
“Artworks Trenton is kind of where I started in the city,” he says, speaking of the group that backs Art All Night. “That’s probably the group I’m most involved with. My approach is that if I have an idea I try to build it from the ground up.”
That was his approach with the Punk Rock Flea Market, which he says originally took its cue from a similar event in Philadelphia. “It’s at the Roebling Wire Works,” says Kuzemka. “I usually refer to it as the Historic Roebling Wire Works, or the machine shop. Most people know it as that. There’s so much there, it all depends what you want to get out of it. I wanted to bring in the punk rockers, which is who I grew up with. I try to bring together a lot of people who might never come together.”
That includes assembling a diverse group of vendors and “creating a micro-economy,” he says. Among the attractions will be glass-blowing, a freak show with fire and sword swallowing, and a punk rock cabaret homage to City Gardens, the former place of all things punk and alternative that had its heyday on Calhoun Street in the 1980s and 1990s.
Before the first Punk Rock Flea Market, Kuzemka says, he “expected 400 people” — but more than 2,000 people came, in a space that was not designed to accommodate that many. “Once that took off and did so well I realized I had lightning in a bottle.”
“Punk rock has a DIY ethic, and if you come to the punk rock flea market you’ll see all sorts of handmade clothing and a tremendous amount of artwork. It’s a curated flea market. There’s something there for everyone. That’s one of the things I celebrate about the flea market — the diversity is so strong,” he says.
The event also has a cost: around $15,000 to plan, pay for rentals, pay for staff, market and advertise, and manage. The event’s $4 admission and vendor charge of $60 for a six-foot table support the operations.
As with the Food Truck Battle, trucks that participate also pay a fee, and Kuzemka says he obtains all required city permits.
These days it seems you can’t be a Trenton group putting on your own homegrown event, without having another homegrown group putting on an identical event in direct competition. That happened in 2015 when Trenton suddenly found itself with dueling pork roll festivals. Following suit, there was a separate food truck festival the day before Kuzemka’s, in the Trenton Social parking lot on South Broad Street.
But Kuzemka takes it in stride and says, “I look at myself as having two full-time jobs. There’s not a lot of down time for me in my life. I sort of thrive in that environment.”