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Forever Asbury

THIS TOO SHALL PASS, declares the graffito on the cinder-block wall. It's an apt motto for this faded seaside town. Even the Krylon addendum seems to underscore the hard-luck tale: underneath the hopeful message, someone has scrawled, F— YOU.

For decades that feel like centuries, Asbury Park—a once-prime swath of beachfront on the Jersey Shore—has been virtually abandoned by the outside world. At its nadir, the city was known as "Beirut by the Shore" and "Sarajevo by the Sea." Yet even Beirut and Sarajevo are now thriving in renewal. Beirut by the Shore?Asbury should be so lucky.

Walk along the water and see what an American beach resort once was, and what it can become. A crumbling casino teeters on stilts over the sand. Hollow shells of defunct motels lie like discarded crab casings, eroding in the salt air. A carousel sits idle by the boardwalk. Beachside avenues are lined with rusted parking meters; they haven't seen a quarter since a quarter was a dime. Seagulls squawk, waves crash, and nothing else makes a sound. There's something transfixing about these ruins, a stirring melancholy that has drawn me here again and again.

That landscape, however, is slowly changing.Asbury Park is coming upon its much-delayed third act, with a billion-dollar revival in the works. And why not?This was once among the Northeast's most prestigious resorts. Its downfall is a lesson in how fickle the American public, and how fleeting a city's fortunes, can be.

Most Americans are familiar with Asbury because of the man known simply as Bruce. What Yoknapatawpha County was to Faulkner, Monmouth County, New Jersey, has been to Bruce Springsteen. Born in nearby Freehold, the singer found his muse in the boardwalk life of 1960's Asbury Park. His lyrics are grounded in locales along the Jersey Shore, real and imagined: fans still make pilgrimages here in search of Flamingo Lane, Scrap Metal Hill, and Greasy Lake. They gaze at the vacant lot where Springsteen's "giant Exxon sign" once rose and snap photos of Madam Marie's fortune-telling booth on the boardwalk, immortalized in "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" back in 1973. Listening to those early songs, all aglow with fireworks and Tilt-A-Whirls, it is easy to believe Asbury was indeed a "little Eden." Yet even in Springsteen's youth, its glory days had long since passed.

Asbury's golden age lasted for more than half a century. Founded in 1871, the city quickly became a posh retreat for New York and Philadelphia society. The town's layout was inspired by European cities, with tranquil parks, inland lakes, and broad avenues leading to the sea. Along those avenues were some of the most opulent buildings on the East Coast. At its pre-World War II peak, the city held more than 200 hotels. Carnival rides and saltwater pools lined the boardwalk. Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw played Asbury's glittering dance halls; the Marx Brothers headlined at the Paramount.

The postwar years, however, brought a sudden shift. Asbury's middle class began moving to suburbs down the coast, made more accessible by the opening of the Garden State Parkway in 1955. Shopping malls lured businesses out of town. And with the onset of the jet age, vacationers favored Sunbelt resorts over summers on the shore. By the 1960's, the well-to-do had moved on. In their place came hippies and bikers, rockers and bohemians—and for the following decade, the counterculture saved Asbury Park from dying outright. Funky clubs and coffeehouses drew musicians from all along the coast, including future stars like Springsteen, Southside Johnny Lyon, and Steven Van Zandt. Asbury's music scene soon gained national renown.

Yet the hits just kept on coming. Race riots in 1970 devastated Asbury's west side, and the town never fully recovered. After 1978, Atlantic City's new casinos siphoned off any lingering tourist traffic. Asbury Park became a ghost town, its cluster of carnival rides transformed into a citywide haunted house. While neighboring Ocean Grove prospered as a tidy tourist enclave, a third of Asbury's residents lived below the poverty line—this in one of the wealthiest counties in New Jersey.

But an odd thing happened at the turn of the millennium. Asbury Park suddenly became a draw for urban pioneers from Manhattan, the majority of them gay or lesbian. The appeal?Asbury's relaxed vibe, a refreshing contrast to the over-fabulous Hamptons; its proximity to New York, an hour's drive away; even its gritty frontier-town image. Then there were those ramshackle, 12-room mansions, which would go for $4 million on Long Island, but here sold for a tenth of that price. The secret is out: in only three years, real estate prices have risen 300 percent.

Of course, gays and lesbians have often been at the vanguard of urban renewal—think of Washington's Dupont Circle or Boston's South End. In Asbury Park, they've found a tolerant community that's grateful for the help. "The newcomers are really stepping up, joining committees and getting involved," says city council member Kate Mellina. (The town has returned their good faith: in March, Asbury was one of several U.S. cities to begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses.)

Meanwhile, Asbury's blighted downtown is slowly returning to life. Cookman Avenue is the locus for an emerging art-and-antiques strip. An organic farmers' market has been installed on Main Street. And bars and bistros are drawing curious out-of-towners who would never have set foot in Asbury Park before. The watershed came in 2002, when the owners of Moonstruck, a trendy restaurant in nearby Ocean Grove, shocked their clientele by relocating to a run-down frame house in Asbury. After a $2 million renovation, Moonstruck reopened—all swirling ceiling fans, hardwood floors, tassel lamps, and glowing sconces. Now there's a two-hour wait on weekends to join the crowds dining on $25 lamb chops.

Signs of revival can be found all over town, if you know where to look. Wander by the former Empress Hotel and you might assume the building is abandoned. But return after midnight and the parking lot is filled with Audis and BMW's. Behind the hotel's peeling walls, it turns out, is the shore's hottest gay disco. Club Paradise was created by famed dance-music producer Shep Pettibone in 1999; now half of gay New Jersey turns up on summer weekends to swim in the oversized pool, lounge at the tiki bar, and dance to celebrity DJ's like Junior Vasquez. Pettibone has also been restoring the long-vacant guest rooms upstairs and plans to open the Empress this month.


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