Published: April 2009
By Peter Jon Lindberg
With a $1.25 billion revival under way, is Asbury Park, New Jersey, really coming back?<b>Peter Jon Lindberg</b> traces the changing fortunes of an American vacationland
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.
Still, such isolated pockets of activity have not been enough to rejuvenate the city as a whole. For that, a far more dramatic effort will be required—and now Asbury may finally have gotten what it needs. A $1.25 billion redevelopment project is in the works, calling for the creation of 3,000 apartments and condos, a seaside hotel, and 450,000 square feet of shopping and entertainment space along the waterfront. The plan also provides for below-market housing and community services on the city's poverty-stricken west side. "You can't just rebuild the boardwalk and leave the rest of the town out to dry," notes councilwoman Mellina. "Then you've got Atlantic City all over again." A final hurdle was crossed this spring, when New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection signed off on the master plan. In April, the governor met the press on the refurbished boardwalk to tout Asbury's ascendance.
As with any large-scale project, the plan has no shortage of critics. Some are dismayed by the privatization of the waterfront. They say the project focuses too much on luring home buyers with luxury condos and relatively little on public beachside attractions. Others charge that the plan fails to respect the town's heritage, particularly its offbeat, historic architecture. "Asbury Park was always a very singular place," Springsteen has said. "Those beautiful old buildings give it its personality."
Foremost among those buildings, in some people's eyes, was Palace Amusements, better known as the Palace, purportedly the nation's oldest indoor amusement park. Built in 1888 and closed in 1989, the seafoam-green, cinder-block shed once held pinball alleys, bobsled rides, and a funhouse. Across its façade were painted two garish clown faces. (The clown's name is Tillie, a reference to George C. Tilyou, founder of Coney Island's Steeplechase Park; the Palace itself was mentioned in Springsteen's "Born to Run" and was a location for his "Tunnel of Love" video.) Thanks to the efforts of a group known as Save Tillie—and of countless Bruce fanatics—the dilapidated shed was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.
But earlier this summer, after a bitter fight between developers and preservationists, the Palace succumbed to the wrecking ball. (National Register status was not enough to save it since the listing was based on "association with significant cultural events," not architectural features.) Portions of the façade were kept intact, including the Tillie paintings, which developers say will be incorporated into a future structure, like hieroglyphs on a re-created Egyptian temple.
Stan Goldstein works nights as an editor for the Newark Star-Ledger; by day he can often be found leading music tours of Asbury Park. "The walk covers only a mile, yet we have thirty sites to point out," he says. Tour stops include the former Upstage coffeehouse, where a young Springsteen often played until 5 a.m.; the FastLane club, where Bon Jovi paid his dues; and the old Student Prince, where Bruce met Clarence Clemons. Springsteen pilgrims are still the backbone of Asbury's tourist trade, though they're hardly sufficient to produce a legitimate source of revenue.
In recent years, however, Springsteen himself has been helping the city in more direct ways. He has held annual Christmas benefit concerts at Asbury's Convention Hall; at the 2000 shows he debuted a new song, "My City of Ruins," written for Asbury Park. (The ballad later became associated with New York City, after Springsteen performed it at a 9/11 tribute.) In 2002, he persuaded NBC's Today show to film a mini-concert on location in Asbury and led Matt Lauer on a tour of the city. Last summer, at his New York-area shows, Springsteen encouraged his audience to pay a visit to the shore. For every $10 spent at Asbury stores and restaurants, fans earned a raffle ticket for a chance to meet Springsteen himself.
For all their heartbreaking poignancy, the ruins of Asbury are a majestic sight: the sagging, sun-bleached façades; the wind-scarred copper filigree on the Casino; the ghostly remains of once-proud hotels. A friend has remarked that Asbury's crumbling arcades are the closest thing America has to theAcropolis, and I'm inclined to agree. It's a place anyone curious about our history should see before the evidence is carted away. For on some level, Asbury's decline is about the passing of Fun, or at least a certain kind of fun. This was, after all, how Americans spent their long-ago summers: riding swan boats and carousels, eating funnel cake, playing Skee-Ball, and wearing petticoats to the opera on the seashore. This was our vacationland.
It's hard not to think of another famous seaside mecca whose trajectory mirrored Asbury Park's, up to a point. In mid-century Miami Beach, the Deco hotels were a tropical equivalent of Asbury's boardwalk halls. Both towns fell into disrepair, and by the early 1980's South Beach was considered as dead as its northern counterpart. But while South Beach was eventually transformed into SoBe, Asbury remained, well, a city of ruins.
For some, the parallels are reason for hope. Talk to any of Asbury's gay residents and you'll hear a common refrain: Asbury Park is what South Beach was 20 years ago. Many of the new arrivals feel they're getting in at the cusp of the turnaround. To Asbury's boosters, South Beach's example is a reminder that no city—certainly no beach resort—can be written off entirely.
Kate Mellina, for one, is tentatively optimistic. "People here used to talk for hours about what Asbury Park once was," she says. "But this is the first time that people are talking about what it's going to be again."
PETER JON LINDBERG is an editor-at-large for Travel + Leisure.