Greetings from Asbury Park

After years of neglect, the ocean resort made famous by Bruce Springsteen is reinventing itself.

New Jersey

August 04, 2002|By Marion Winik | Marion Winik,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Today I saw a ghost.

I saw the white sands of Asbury Park, N.J., filled with bright bikinis, striped umbrellas, children with pails and shovels. Lifeguards on a wooden platform monitored a throng of boogie boarders and wave jumpers, as judges with clipboards and sunglasses reviewed the entries in a sand- castle contest: a mermaid astride a dolphin, a stylish art deco couple kissing inside a deep hole, a bathing beauty. Up on the boardwalk, a queue awaited the next batch of french fries at the Mayfair snack bar.

This was not just another day at the beach; it was an out-and-out apparition, for there has been nothing like it in my hometown for a long, long time.

"We're so ... busy!" gasped Diane Heleotis, the proprietress of the Mayfair. Last time I was here, a year ago, she was closing early because they hadn't sold anything all day.

Since the mid-'70s, the splendid resort town where I grew up has been down on its luck in a serious way. A race riot in July 1970 is the most frequently mentioned cause of Asbury's decline, but that was one of many problems: the abandonment of downtown stores and cinemas for malls and multiplexes, the vicious corruption of the city government, the closing of nearby state mental hospitals, releasing patients into an already impoverished urban population, to name a few. The medical waste that washed up on the Jersey shore in the '80s was the very icky icing on the cake.

By the early '90s, when I would come back to visit my mother, who still lives nearby, the town of 17,000 had hit rock-bottom. A developer bought up most of the beachfront, then went bankrupt, leaving a morass of litigation as well as the cement carcass of an unfinished condominium.

Meanwhile, the majestic old structures on either end of the boardwalk -- the Victorian Casi-no, with its glass and dark-green spires; the Italianate Convention Hall, with its washed-purple arches and furbelows, both designed by the architects of Grand Central Station in Manhattan -- seemed almost haunted.

I'd pay $3 to take my sons onto the beach, buy them a hot dog from the ever-languishing Mayfair and play "abandoned minigolf" -- bringing putters and balls to smack around the warped, weedy little course. By the mid-'90s, there wasn't even a cop to tell us to shoo.

"Here's where the U-Pedal boats were," I'd tell the boys, pointing to the still surface of Wesley Lake, where I worked the summer I was 14, alternating with shifts at a bustling coffee shop at the other end of the boardwalk.

"This is where Aunt Nancy played pinball," I went on, showing them a boarded-up arcade. "And this was Mrs. J's," I said, trailing off as I remembered nursing teen-age crushes on hoodlum boys in the long-vanished bar and burger joint.

My sons must have thought I was very, very old, because Asbury Park looked like a place where nothing had happened in about a hundred years.

A town rises again

Those not-quite-100 years of solitude have ended, and though Asbury Park is not exactly your typical travel destination, it's already a place well worth a visit -- if you want to combine a couple of days at the beach with a bird's-eye view of a ghost town being reborn.

If you nurture a dream of running a B&B or a frozen yogurt stand at the shore, quick! Come before rents get any higher. Or if you just want to appreciate the rare phenomenon of individuals bringing the place they live back to life, building by building and block by block, rather than some corporate-sponsored gentrification blitz, go ahead and get in the car. From Baltimore, you can be there in 2 1/2 hours.

On the other hand, you can wait five years. By then, there will be more than one hotel in town and no more vacant blocks. A day at the beach will probably cost more than $3 (though I'm hoping the same sun-baked old sailor will still be there to collect it.) By then Asbury Park will probably have become some kind of cross between Province-town and Ocean City, adding its trademark funky grandeur and rock 'n' roll attitude to the virtues of those enclaves.

But if you wait, you'll have missed being part of something exciting.

"There are two kinds of people who come to Asbury Park -- those who get it and those who don't," says Michael Liberatore, proprietor of Insomnia, an espresso bar and sandwich shop in the newly breathing downtown, which lies about five blocks inland from the boardwalk.

"Some friends come down from [New York] city to see me, they take one look around, and they say, 'Are you out of your mind? This is West Beirut!' Others," Liberatore says, "put down their suitcases and go out for a walk. They come back two hours later and they've made an offer on a house."

Liberatore was an early scout for an influx of gay and lesbian home and business owners who have fallen in love with the potential of Asbury Park. He first visited five years ago -- "and it was a little scary," he admits.

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