Red Bank

. . .restyled

Celebrities and tourists are discovering the town's old-fashioned allure and upscale attractions.

New Jersey

Cover Story

October 17, 2004|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,Special to the Sun

I am eating excellent sushi at an outside cafe in Red Bank, N.J., when a young man seated nearby pops up with a question: "How 'bout those edamame?"

Since conversation between men is more likely to be sparked by a baseball score than Japanese soybeans, I'm puzzled by his friendliness.

"They're great," I reply, holding out the bowl. "Want some?"

As he reaches forward, his ill-fitting shirt and tie hint that he's a recent college graduate, perhaps working at his first real job. He seems quite proud to be dining out on a weeknight, proud he can correctly identify edamame and, above all, proud that his chicer-by-the-minute hometown is serving up such stylish food.

Perhaps I'm misreading this moment, but the fact is I experienced such Red Bank boosterism repeatedly during the couple of days I spent there recently.

An hour or so southwest of Manhattan, the town sits on a scenic peninsula between the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers, which converge about 10 miles downstream and flow into the Atlantic Ocean. Though it has a population of only 12,000, Red Bank is the biggest city in Monmouth County, one of the largest counties in New Jersey.

There's much to crow about, for Red Bank is a hamlet in transition. As recently as the early 1980s, so bleak did its prospects appear (an estimated 35 percent of storefronts were vacant), the town was dubbed "Dead Bank" by local wags. Since then, however, Red Bank has undergone a reversal of fortune.

Major credit for this turnaround is given to the mayor, Ed McKenna, who in 1989 designated a Special Improvement District where local businesses could tax themselves to pay for street-front upgrades. At the same time, a downtown alliance called the Red Bank RiverCenter was formed to encourage tourism. The result has been wildly successful -- some residents even think too much so.

"We've been discovered, unfortunately, and celebrities are descending," lamented Charlie Lyristis, proprietor of the Bistro, a popular restaurant on Red Bank's Broad Street, what locals call "the Strip."

Queen Latifah, the rap artist and actress, lives nearby, as do rockers Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi. Geraldo Rivera is the publisher of a local newspaper, The Two River Times. And film director Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jersey Girl) not only shot scenes from all of his movies here, but also periodically organizes a film festival in Red Bank called the Vulgarthon, which combines screenings of Smith's own oeuvre with that of other independent filmmakers.

Unsurprisingly, such a prepon-derance of high-profile names is attracting fans.

"The other day, a girl from Venice, Italy, shows up, and she's wearing a Bon Jovi T-shirt," recalled Margaret Mass of the Red Bank visitors' center. "Somehow, she already had Jon's home address, and she asked for the best directions, since she planned to stop by. I had to say to her, 'Now, wait just a minute, hon.' "

"Things are changing around here really fast," agreed Bill McCarthy, a salesman at Fameabilia, a shop that sells souvenirs of New Jersey-identified notables -- from HBO's Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) to Albert Einstein (he taught at Princeton -- get it?).

"New things are popping up all over the place," McCarthy said. "The town's becoming more upscale."

Affluence and decay

Signposts of affluence abound. There is a Starbucks, a Restoration Hardware and rumors that Tiffany & Co. is soon to open. Sciortino Tailors, a custom suit maker for the likes of Denzel Washington, Elton John and Kath-leen Turner, recently branched out from its Manhattan flagship to open a second shop in Red Bank.

The city also boasts dozens of restaurants, many of them excellent: Red, El Salvadoreno, Osteria Dante, Cafe Everest and Teak. There are 15 art galleries; an antiques district; an art house cinema that shows only independent and foreign films; and the Count Basie Theater (named for another favorite son), a 1,575-seat venue that attracts headliners such as LeAnn Rimes. Set to open in 2005 is Two Rivers Theater, housed in a $15 million state-of-the art building.

There's something more complicated and interesting to Red Bank, though, than mere manifestations of the nouveau rich. After all, any town that welcomes a Vulgarthon movie festival must have a sense of humor about its place in the world. And Red Bank's desire to go upscale may not be completely wholehearted, either, for a stroll about its quaint streets reveals door-to-door contrasts between the gleaming future and past decay.

Witness the continued existence of Kislin's, a magnificently dusty and dilapidated sporting goods store. Shelves are stuffed with equipment from athletic events long past (wooden tennis rackets and roller skates -- not in-line skates) and a bizarrely large inventory of Carhart hunting apparel. There's a story going around town that the people who run Kislin's recently found boxes of old high-school letter sweaters up in the attic. Naturally, these are now for sale.

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