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Cailey Rizzo
July 24, 2018

This summer, ditch the Hamptons for something much cooler.

Long known as a destination for music history buffs or as a backdrop of crumbling architecture, Asbury Park has become an unlikely cultural hub on the Jersey Shore.

“Asbury Park isn’t just for us locals anymore,” Tina Kerekes, a local designer and manager at the Danny Clinch Transparent Gallery, told Travel + Leisure. “We’re attracting people from all over the world now.”

“It’s been happening in phases since the ‘90s, but within the last five years, it’s really just snowballed,” Jason Thomson, editor of the local newspaper triCityNews, said.

An average stroll through town could reveal a drag queen bingo party or an impromptu drum circle on the boardwalk. Asbury Park delights in the unexpected.

“This town is about acceptance,” Rachel Ana Dobken, a local musician, told T+ L. “People here are so accepting of new art and music, anything that’s eclectic and unique.”

Almost everyone you meet is a multi-hyphenate: A newspaper editor owns the popular coffeeshop; drag balls are run by local restaurant managers; musicians own vintage clothing boutiques. Meanwhile, the smell of the beach is everywhere and swimsuits count as acceptable attire.

“Every other boardwalk on the Jersey Shore is the same, with the shops and the fast food restaurants,” Sonia Jozajis, co-owner of the local High Voltage coffeeshop, said. “Here’s there’s cool, independent small bands playing. It’s cool and it’s different.”

If it’s possible for a town to have a je ne sais quoi, Asbury Park could be the East Coast’s top contender.

Asbury Park's History

At one end of the boardwalk, the Convention Hall and Paramount Theatre have been gathering crowds for almost 90 years. The structure, completed in 1930, sprinkles nods to the seaside (think shells and seahorses with wings) alongside intricate metalwork.

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Further along, it’s possible to flip through time at the Silverball Museum. The boardwalk staple has more than 600 working pinball machines that date back to the 1950s. Spend one hour in the interactive history lesson and play all-you-can-flip on the machines for $12.50.

The Music Scene

Music is a common thread for Asbury Park. There’s an impressive amount of live venues for a 1.6-square-mile town (at least 10, plus almost every bar and restaurant around).

To get a sense of the scene, you could head to The Stone Pony, the legendary venue that’s famous for launching the careers of both Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi. There’s also the Wonder Bar (“Bruce hangs out there on a Sunday,” one local advised). But when locals want to check out free music, they’re more likely to be found at the Asbury Park Yacht Club, Langosta Lounge or Danny Clinch Transparent Gallery.

“You can’t find parking here on the weekends anymore,” Kerekes said. “We know we’re creating history. A lot of these musicians are up-and-coming. You know they’re going places. You can feel it. You can see it.”

Sea Hear Now — a music, art and surf festival — will take place at the end of September on the beach. The line-up includes local up-and-comers alongside acts like Blondie, Jack Johnson, and Incubus.

In May, the Asbury Lanes music venue reopened after a three-year closure. In the early ‘00s, the venue was a legendary performance space for the DIY and punk scenes, with a vintage bowling alley in the back. Although the venue has gotten a high-tech upgrade from its DIY days, there are still hints of the past. Stickers and posters from past shows are littered throughout. Benches from the 1960s bowling alley remain.

About a month after its opening, Bruce Springsteen stepped on the stage and gave the Lanes a proper Asbury Park christening.

The Art Scene

Art in Asbury Park exists on the street, along the boardwalk and in gallery spaces. The Wooden Walls Mural Project festoons the empty walls of the boardwalk with murals from internationally-recognized artists. The art galleries Gallery 629, Parlor Gallery, Exhibit 9 curate work from local artists and others around the world.

Where to Eat

The growing food scene in Asbury Park is a bit of a well-kept secret — but not for long.

Modine’s southern comfort food is reason enough to head to the restaurant, but linger there for the art deco interior. Back in the 1920s, the place was a bank (as evidenced by the gigantic vault in the back) and its old-school glamour remains.

Check out Porta for neapolitan pizza the New York Times has raved about.

Local favorite options for breakfast vary between Frank’s Deli, a cash-only old-school diner that’s been in operation for more than 20 years, and Cardinal for options like “weird hash” and a vegan “brekky bowl.”

High Voltage is the popular coffeeshop with two locations: one on the boardwalk and one near the train station. When the boardwalk is empty, the first is a great place to work or read with pure oceanside views.

Where to Shop

Interwoven’s curated boutique hums with equal vibes of urban cool and beachy relaxation. The shop stocks designers like Rachel Comey and Clare Vivier alongside exclusive Asbury Park merch. Sweet Joey embodies the town’s appreciation of the past with handpicked vintage clothing, including a massive selection of rare band tees.

The LGBTQ Community

Asbury Park has long been known as the unofficial gay capital of New Jersey. The influence of the gay community is so strong, it is credited as being among the first to kickstart Asbury Park’s revival. (The first Asbury Pride Parade was held in 1970.)

Get a sense of the LGBTQ scene at weekly drag bingo at Paradise. Nearby, Georgie’s bills itself as a “gay Cheers.”

Where to Stay

The Asbury Hotel (which provided free accommodation for this story) has been credited with re-launching the town as a vacation destination. Now in its third season, the hotel has cemented itself as a destination for both locals and visitors.

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“The Asbury was always about creating a central meeting place,” David Bowd, part-owner of the Asbury Hotel, told T+L. “It was always intended to be approachable and affordable. People feel very comfortable in it. After two years, the hotel is becoming a stronger influence in the town.”

Crowds gather in the lobby for nightly live music, on the rooftop for artisanal cocktails or around the pool when temperatures start to climb.

Asbury Park's Future

Next year, there will be another high-design option for out-of-towers. The structure that will be the Asbury Ocean Club looms over the boardwalk, a litmus test for attitude towards the future. Upon completion in 2019, the building will house a boutique hotel, “an upscale, curated retail center” and oceanfront condos. It is one of the most contentious issues around Asbury’s future.

Some residents are skeptical of the pricetags on the condos (starting at $900,000 for a one-bedroom unit) and the 54-room luxury boutique hotel.

“On the boardwalk, I just hope they keep it interesting,” Thomson said. “You’ve got million-dollar condos being built on the boardwalk and there’s this fear that it’s going to turn into this upscale shopping mall. There’s worry that the people who helped create this place will get pushed out and the interesting, creative things that attracted people here in the first place will go away.”

“If we can’t keep that spirit, we won’t have been successful,” Brian Cheripka, senior vice president of land and development at iStar (the waterfront master developer), told T+L. “But I don’t think this community would let us do anything that took away the spirit.”

The site of the future Ocean Club has been a sore point for Asbury Park history. The site sat vacant for 35 years. “People looked at that site and saw a town that was still down on its luck,” Cheripka said. “If there’s one site that deserves to be a beacon of the future of Asbury Park, it’s that building.”

iStar is still in the process of choosing the retailers and restaurants that will occupy the building next year — and residents are waiting the announcement.

“Asbury has so much history with music and art — and that’s the one thing that people hope doesn’t change,” Kerekes said. “With all this development going on, all these great things happening, all these buildings coming up around us, the thing that we always hope is that that art and music scene remains. And I believe it’s gonna be here.”

The only way to know for sure is to go see for yourself.

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