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.