This past summer, Asbury Park, New Jersey, was bustling. One never would have guessed that Hurricane Sandy—which hit one year ago this week—had wiped out the entire boardwalk and closed waterfront businesses for the better part of the year.
Downtown Asbury Park has organically sprouted into an urbanized pocket of culture buzzing with locals, foodies, and rockers. Its main thoroughfare, Cookman Avenue, is studded with gastropubs, mom and pop coffee shops, antique furniture stores, art galleries, quirky boutiques, and a newly minted independent movie theatre. A few blocks north lies the legendary rock 'n' roll music venue, The Stone Pony, and Asbury Lanes, a vintage bowling alley from the 1960s that was recently refurbished. Much of the current development momentum owes its success to the initial visionaries who began investing in the commercial district when it was still considered risky territory.
Together, entrepreneurs Meg Brunette, Kyle LePree, Jason Watt and architect Jim Watt have been quietly contributing to the revitalization of downtown Asbury Park for nearly 20 years. They first opened Brickwall Tavern, a gastropub with comfort food, craft beer and live music, on Cookman Avenue in 2006, an era when downtown Asbury Park was sufficiently lacking in sustainable commercial activity.
The team turned to architect Jim Watt for their next dream project, Porta (above), a Neapolitan pizzeria and dance club. Cynics thought the decision to purchase and renovate a battered building on Kingsley Street, another dead zone in Asbury Park, was ill-advised and destined to fail. They trusted their instincts, and Porta is now the most popular spot in Asbury Park, pumping out 880 pizzas on Saturday nights.
It was on the heels of this fruitful collaboration that the quartet decided to formally merge their independent firms. Mike Alfieri, an attorney and developer the four had worked with for years, also came on board as a fifth partner to establish the collective SMITH.
Appropriately headquartered on Cookman Avenue, SMITH is a lean crew of passionate entrepreneurs, dynamic designers, brand strategists, and skilled leadership coaches. SMITH also challenges convention, shunning definitive job titles, singular job roles and traditional market research. For example, when SMITH began looking for a pizza chef for Porta, their creative director, Fredrica Vilardi, volunteered for the position and trained intensely with master Neapolitan pizza maker Roberto Caporuscio in New York City.
Equally as unconventional, Goldie’s restaurant (above) was the brainchild of SMITH’s copywriter and brand strategist, Mark Hinchliffe, also a certified vegan chef who was tired of having to travel to New York City for an upscale meal. Goldie’s became the first fine dining vegan restaurant in the entire state of New Jersey.
Coming full circle, SMITH recently purchased the historic gas company building on Bangs Avenue. It has plans to open a French Brasserie, Pascal & Sabine, at the street level. Above, the collective is designing smart, urban condo units that highlight SMITH’s appreciation for the spirit of Asbury Park and adaptive reuse design.
Like every storied American city, Asbury Park has a long history of gilded yesterdays. It is a city with distinct character and tenacious resiliency: Asbury Park has been knocked down by destructive race riots, collapsing real estate markets, and unforgiving Mother Nature; but it’s people like the team at SMITH that make one wonder if Asbury Park’s golden age is still yet to come.
Mendoza-based writer Nora Walsh is a contributor to TravelandLeisure.com and author of Patchwork Compass, a photo travel blog.