“Jewel of the Jersey Shore” or “Sarajevo by the Sea?”

Through most of my life, the city of Asbury Park wasn’t much of a concern. It was a rundown square mile with a bad reputation for drugs and crime. I avoided going there if I could. In all my summers working for the Monmouth County Mosquito Extermination Commission, we never had a job there. I guess the mosquitos stayed away as well.

So why am I writing about it now. Well, my wife Christine lived there until 1989. It was her childhood home, and on Christmas Day, she learned that the houses on that block had been bulldozed in the name of redevelopment. We stopped by there the next day to see for ourselves. Christine got out of the car to look around, and I gazed across the street at the abandoned, boarded-up hotel that looked in desperate need of the wrecking ball, and I asked about it later. Turns out the Metropolitan Hotel used to be a pretty nice place back in its day.

then now
Then… … and now.

Since then, I’m felt very saddened by what has happened to Asbury Park. It used to be THE place to go during the summer on the Jersey Shore. Ever seen the first few minutes of the Robert DeNiro movie City by the Sea? All the images of a packed beach and crowded boardwalk? That WAS Asbury Park (and no, I don’t mean that representative of what Asbury Park was like, those are actual images). Ever seen the rest of City by the Sea? That IS Asbury Park (AP was the main shooting location for the movie).

So what happened? Well, the Star-Ledger published a story on May 22, 1994 which stated:

“Whatever could go wrong in Asbury Park, did. The locals rioted. The upper class bolted. The economy crashed. The working class ran out of work and became the welfare class. The mental patients and druggies moved in. So did the prostitutes.

“The city gave away too much in a desperate attempt to secure developers who promised too much and went bankrupt. The only construction accomplished after nearly a decade of effort was either torched or halted mid-way.”

02700015Apparently you can trace the fall of Asbury Park to 10 days of race riots in July of 1970. After that, the well-to-do moved away and a lot of the homes that vacated were handed to families on welfare. Slowly but surely, people stopped going to the Asbury Park boardwalk, instead opting for locations such as Seaside Heights (approximately 20 miles away) or Long Beach Island (40 miles away). Some of the once-popular attractions closed down, such as Palace Amusements in 1988 (on its 100th anniversary, no less). And because developer Joseph Carabetta convinced a federal bankruptcy judge to bar Asbury Park from reclaiming the redevelopment rights, those and other structures fell into more than 10 years of neglect and disrepair. In 2004, Palace Amusements was demolished, but not before the ever-smiling face of Tillie was removed from the wall.

Asbury Park is the hometown of former WWF wrestler Bam Bam Bigalow. It has been heavily associated with the career of Bruce Springsteen, aka The Boss. His debut album in 1973 was titled, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” His song “My Hometown” from his 1984 album Born in the U.S.A., talks about a home that strongly resembles Asbury Park.

I was eight years old and running with a dime in my hand
Into the bus stop to pick up a paper for my old man
I’d sit on his lap in that big old Buick and steer as we drove through town
He’d tousle my hair and say son take a good look around this is your hometown
This is your hometown
This is your hometown
This is your hometown

In ’65 tension was running high at my high school
There was a lot of fights between the black and white
There was nothing you could do
Two cars at a light on a Saturday night in the back seat there was a gun
Words were passed in a shotgun blast
Troubled times had come to my hometown
My hometown
My hometown
My hometown

Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back to your
Your hometown
Your hometown
Your hometown

Last night me and Kate we laid in bed
talking about getting out
Packing up our bags maybe heading south
I’m thirty-five we got a boy of our own now
Last night I sat him up behind the wheel and said son take a good look around, this is your hometown

There is an ongoing attempt to redevelop Asbury Park by a group known as Asbury Partners, Inc., which paid Carabetta almost $7 million for the waterfront development rights in 2001. The destruction of my wife’s childhood home is evidence of that. There are all these plans and blueprints, hopes and dreams. Construction is starting, condominiums are being built near the boardwalk. But who will live in them? By this point, has Asbury Park’s reputation and image been sullied enough that people aren’t going to come back? Are families really going to descend on the the Asbury Park boardwalk for a day of fun and sun? I guess the developers are banking on people coming back, and families exploring the scene. Personally, I think it will all be too little, too late. The redevelopment might make Asbury Park look nicer, and it could give the city more life than it’s seen in 30 years, but the soul of once-proclaimed “Jewel of the Jersey Shore” has been permanently stained.

The Golden Age of Asbury City is long past gone, and it’s never coming back. And that is sad.