By Si Liberman
ASBURY PARK, N.J. —On a sunny July day not too long ago you could walk this city’s mile-long boardwalk and hardly see a soul on the boards or beach. Rusting parking meters along the beachfront, some torn from their foundations, hadn’t seen a quarter in a quarter of a century, and many boardwalk and downtown buildings were boarded up and seemingly abandoned.
But, my, how things have changed. Bordered by two lakes and the Atlantic Ocean, the square-mile city has come alive after undergoing major redevelopment, inspiring editors of Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel Magazine to dub it “The Coolest Small Town in America 2017.”
“The revitalized resort, an easy road trip from New York and Philadelphia, offers great shopping, dining, and views of one of the East Coast’s most beautiful beaches,” the magazine notes in its June issue. “This beach town that helped launch Bruce Springsteen is, not surprisingly, a music mecca — check out shows at the legendary Stone Pony, the Paramount Theatre and Convention Hall. We love Asbury Park’s cultural diversity, welcoming vibe, and year-round calendar of events: Fourth of July fireworks, Oysterfest, Zombie Walk, and so much more.”
Springsteen’s career took wing in Asbury Park in the ‘70s. In his 1975 breakout album, “Born to Run,” he lamented the city’s urban decay after racial riots that devastated the West Side.
“You could hear the whole damn city crying,” he wailed in the album’s “Backstreets” number. Visit the city on almost any summer day now, and you’ll find the boardwalk and beach crowded with fun-loving sun worshippers. New privately owned trendy shops and dozens of new restaurants line the boardwalk and downtown streets. In fact, the city of 16,000 residents enjoys the reputation as the culinary capital of central Jersey.
Three of the area’s most popular restaurants coexist on the boardwalk — Stella Marina Bar & Restaurant, a two-story, moderately priced eatery with an Italian bent and upstairs panoramic ocean view; Langosta Lounge, a seafood palace with an Asian flair operated by Marilyn Schlossbach, a self-taught, creative executive chef and avid environmentalist and philanthropist who co-owns six other area restaurants; and Robinson’s Ale House, an upscale pub with a menu that features a dozen different burgers and half-dozen grilled cheeses. On the second floor of Robinson’s there’s a supper club.
The boardwalk is rebuilt, and a multimillion-dollar renourishment program has widened and expanded the beach, rated by the New Jersey Marine Sciences Consortium as one of the best ocean bathing sites in the state.
The Asbury, a new 110-room boutique hotel near the beach that debuted in May 2016, is further evidence of the resort’s dramatic turnaround. It’s the first hotel built in the city in 50 years, and has been heralded by Travel + Leisure Magazine “as one of 44 of the world’s best new hotels.”
“This colorful property is Jersey’s hot new gathering spot,” says the magazine. “There’s an inviting lobby cafe and bright-yellow pool chairs to lounge on during the day; at night, options include outdoor movies and a packed rooftop bar.” The new hotel is owned by iStar, a 24-year-old, New York-based real estate investment trust that says it has invested $150 million in the city and expects to pour a billion more redevelopment dollars into Asbury Park in the next 10 years.
Asbury Park also annually hosts a film and music festival, New Jersey’s LGBT Pride celebration and parade and the state’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony. In June the gay pride parade attracted the biggest turnout in its 26-year history with U.S Sen. Cory Booker joining marchers, the Asbury Park Press reported. The New Jersey Hall of Fame honors Jerseyans who’ve made important contributions to society and the world. Honorees have included Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Woodrow Wilson, Frank Sinatra, Paul Robeson, Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Toni Morrison and Yogi Berra.
The internationally acclaimed troubadour known as the Boss who wrote “Backstreets” while crafting his skill at the beachfront Stone Pony rock music palace deserves much of the credit for the resort’s recovery. He’s known for making unannounced visits to the Stone Pony from his 378-acre horse farm home in Colts Neck to jam with other musicians and headlining concerts for local charities at the boardwalk Paramount Theatre and Convention Hall. In 2002 he unveiled his post 9/11 “Rising” album in Asbury Park on national television.
More than any other person, town officials will tell you, he’s helped put the resort back on the map.
Those old, derelict parking meters near the beach have been replaced by sophisticated computerized ones that require $1 or $2 an hour in cash or via credit card. Parking revenue, a good tourism indicator, has more than doubled since 2013, adding nearly $4.5 million to the city treasury last year, and the Asbury Park Chamber of Commerce clocked a million-plus visitors in 2016.
The landmark Stone Pony, the Ocean avenue house that Springsteen built, remains the resort’s No. 1 attraction, regularly spotlighting up-and-coming bands. Some nights you’ll see a line of anxious young patrons snaked around the block awaiting entry with hopes of catching the Boss in action during a surprise visit.
Urban gays and lesbians also have contributed to the resort’s resurgence. Priced out of Fire Island and the Hamptons, they bid up and fixed up many of the city’s three- and four-story Victorian homes, sending values soaring.
Rainbow flags, the gay emblem of a welcoming community, flutter from a number of city homes, and members of the gay community have served on the City Council and Board of Education. Asbury Park was one of the nation’s first municipalities to issue a same-sex marriage license and is known for annually hosting the state’s largest Gay Pride parade.
Mikell Towery, owner of Mikell’s 128-year-old Big House Bed and Breakfast, puts it this way: “Asbury Park is not Cape May. It’s an urban, gritty, yet incredibly hip little city with a New York-y vibe. If you’re looking for ‘quaint,’ this is not it. … If you want to have a really fun, exciting time, Asbury is for you. We’re an open-minded, diverse town that welcomes people of all races and sexual orientation.”