Asbury Park: An Appreciation of the Gritty

Casino, Asbury ParkThere are some places that are clearly magical. Washington Square Park is one of them. Asbury Park, along the Jersey shore, is another. I spent summers during my college years at the clubs there seeing bands when Bruce Springsteen (bursting at the seams of fame) would jump on stage at the Stone Pony or The Fast Lane. Asbury at that time was run down but nonetheless full of charm.

Recently, Asbury Park has been privy to its own “renovation,” and like New York City’s redesign of Washington Square Park, there’s this drive by the powers-that-be to erase the old. Any signs of grit or bohemia – bulldozed over. The major difference with Asbury is that it has the ocean – which is magnificent – and the town is so large that it’s difficult for any one entity to erase everything magical about it.

I walked around Asbury yesterday. There’s this apparent tendency by developers to want every inch of space to be allotted to high end restaurants, galleries and stores, as if it’s attempting to be Soho or “NoLiTa” — instead of letting it be what it is. There are closed storefronts that once housed hair salons and electronics stores and video stores. One of the local weeklies, the Tri-City News, has article after article stating, that, with the economic downturn, rents are down and new creative businesses can come back to Asbury and Red Bank. !

Why does it take an economic downturn for the creative to blossom? Is the only value to landlords and developers (and people like Mayor Bloomberg) money and real estate – and the accumulation of both?

Spring 2008
Spring 2008
Nobody's Bar - Now Gone
Nobody's Bar - Now Gone

Asbury Park will always have a magical spirit, no matter what they do to it. There was a time when it was seedy and charming and, if just left to its own devices, it would have rebounded in a harmonious, organic way.

But instead, with the corrupt government’s blessing, “investors” came in, including, inexplicably, Johnny Cash and Michael Jackson and Henry Vaccaro, and began constructing a building that blocked the famous driving strip along Ocean Avenue. They soon declared bankruptcy and left this monstrosity, like a shipwreck protruding from the sea, there. in the middle. of everything. For years.

The town went careening downhill from there. Now, they are taking a new stab at “revitalization.” New “developers” appeared earlier in this decade. Instead of proposing a few tweaks here and there, their plan was to reconstruct miles and miles, take property via eminent domain, to bring Asbury Park ‘back.’ The city government, again, went for it.

The "Casino" - this section now demolished
The "Casino" - this section now demolished

There are similarities between the saga of Asbury Park and Washington Square Park. Both places had ups and downs. Heydays and not-so-great days. But both were at a place where they just needed the city to come in and do a little bit of repairing, grease the mechanisms a bit. Instead, they swoop in with their charts and graphs and maps and attempt to wipe the slate clean.

There’s seemingly this driving force behind it: a need to make everything somewhat whitewashed and devoid of its history. To make these magnificent places homogenized and stripped of the very qualities that make them so special. To make it all the same. The strip mallification and corporatization of every inch of space. No one is more of a proponent of that, via his policies and endless development of New York City, than Mayor Bloomberg.

How do you legislate appreciation of the gritty?


*Updated and revised version of entry originally published July 2nd, 2008*

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3 thoughts on “Asbury Park: An Appreciation of the Gritty”

  1. Hi EV Grieve,


    The ‘old’ of Asbury Park has systematically been removed over the years but very dramatically in the last five or six. The good thing is there are still some good architecture/buildings standing that give the town its flavor. Amidst these new condos and coops. You look around and wonder… what were they thinking? I gather they felt the old buildings – and people – would ‘bring down’ the look of the new ones and no one would come there. At least no one from their desired demographic as evidenced by the emphasis on high end restaurants, galleries and stores. It’s almost like creating a town and hoping people come to it – the people that you *want.* It’s a bit bizarre.

    That being said, it’s still worth going to. Some of the new places are quite nice. It’s just there’s no evident quirkiness which was there before (other than a vegan cafe that’s fairly political – but even that seems ‘trendy’ at this point).

    Maybe it will swing the other way back again. Not what the powers that be and developers want but perhaps they can’t stop it.



    Having spent the past few months here, (hoping that the town would be back on an upswing), I realized it is a long way off, if at all…I seriously have my doubts.

    I keep thinking of an old Rolling Stones song from the early 80’s called “Shattered” which in my opinion kind of describes Asbury Park, (although it was written about NYC which did pull itself out of the bottom and recovered greatly).

    First, the only somewhat safe areas are on the boardwalk and Cookman Avenue. You would need to have your head examined to stroll around Asbury Park on foot at night and if you are a single female, forget about it! If you have any street smarts it is obvious, the type of characters and low lifes that are on many of the streets, and it is very scary.

    Yes, the gays have moved in and have attempted to make great strides in turning the community around but you have a Victorian home (redone by gays) next door to a crack house, a few doors down a house with prostiututes and so on and so forth. If you like the idea of being an urban pioneer, go for it, but be careful in the process I would NEVER leave my doors unlocked here and I think an alarm system is mandatory.

    When you visit AP now, like I did in the spring months during my initial visits, it looks great at first sight with all of the rebuilding , new stores, cafes, etc. (The Boardwalk and Cookman Avenue downtown are the only areas that seem to have improved). However, I am quite dubious about the future of all of it. The condominiums and rental prices are quickly falling due to the economy and I think it may all fall apart within the next year. There just isn’t enough to entice people to want to live here when you can live in beautiful NJ shore communities and not have to be worried about who your neighbor is and be surrounded by a nice class of people.

    I totally beleive in diversity , which AP has, however the element that is here now has a large amount of low-life trash, alcoholics, drug dependent people, and people you wouldn’t want to spend time with except a quick hello and goodbye. Trust me, it’s not what it appears to be.

    I hope my observations are incorrect for the sake of the future here, but I think I may be right. It’s at least another decade before this town turns around (if at all), so my advice is just to come for the weekend and stay in one of the nicer hotels (The Berkeley, or the guesthouse The Tides), and just have fun. But proceed cautiously before planning to move here , and even much more cautiously before buying here as you stand a chance to lose alot of money on your investment as prices have not dropped to the bottom yet.

    The locals that have been here a long time, (I have spoken with many), are also dubious about the return of Asbury Park. The gays that have moved in recently and straight couples are alot more optimistic but I really think they are wearing rose colored glasses and will be very disappointed in the next few years when there will be more than likely less positive change happening here as the financial resources are drying up.

    Sorry to report this, but I call it like I see it……

    Spend time in Bradley Beach, Long Branch, Ocean Grove or Deal if you want to live on the NJ shore. For now, Asbury Park still looks and feels like a ghetto…..Caveat emptor…..



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