When I was a teenager, in the late 1990s, Asbury Park, New Jersey had fallen on hard times.
The kinetic energy of the small shore city—Ferris wheels and carousels, breezy counters with young people selling waffle cones and hamburgers to beachgoers in the salty air—was largely gone. Six Flags and shopping centers, situated on highways to nowhere, had taken the wind out of its aging sails. Gone, too—or neglected beyond recognition—were the compact blocks of attached storefronts and ornate, nineteenth-century homes that had once given form to a traditional seaside urbanism. In place of its storied past was a myriad of empty lots, empty stores, failed projects, and tired rooming houses, many of which looked more like Halloween than summer vacation.
Today, Asbury Park is coming back—in a way. Over the past decade, the fresh gleam of new construction has filled in vacant canvases, and small investors have renovated much of the surviving stock of old houses, hotels, and storefronts. Cookman Avenue, which links the Boardwalk with an active train station, is once more a vibrant, traditional downtown. Ocean Avenue, which runs parallel to the Boardwalk, has a mixture of old and new sites. The grit has faded, but it is not all gone. Across the train tracks, in the neighborhoods away from the beach, poverty grinds on.
Meanwhile, the blocks closest to the waterfront retain a high proportion of parking lots and post-war sprawl, where the draw of the ocean, and rising property values, could sustain a more intricate, richer urbanism. The recent changes in Asbury Park offer hope, but also highlight a need for caution.
In its first heyday, Asbury Park was the crown jewel in a long string of late-Victorian urban gems along the Monmouth County coast that also included Ocean Grove, Avon-by-the-Sea, and Long Branch. Here, block after block of compact, detailed houses, with towers and turrets, stood against the pastel Atlantic coast. Developed by James Bradley on land purchased from the nearby Methodist co-op at Ocean Grove, Asbury Park combined the best instincts of the traditional building practices of the late nineteenth century with a near-perfect location. The text of a 2002 waterfront redevelopment plan describes Bradley’s 1873 vision for the new city’s layout:
His plan sets a grid of traditionally scaled blocks and streets between four natural open spaces: Wesley Lake, Sunset Lake, Deal Lake and the oceanfront. Streets, which are perpendicular to the ocean, flare open as they approach the waterfront. By widening the east-west streets at their ends, Bradley increased the views of the ocean from the City, facilitated the movement of sea breezes into the city and provided space for landscape and parking improvements adjacent to the beachfront.
Asbury Park prospered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and its surviving urbanism reflects the architectural patterns of those times. Along with neighboring communities (most notably, Ocean Grove), it retains many fine examples of late-Victorian urbanism, including spacious, detailed houses, a traditional downtown, a wide, wood-planked boardwalk, and a rich mix of complementary activities along its streets.
Its urban fabric is also sustainable. Its street pattern is walkable, built around a railroad station (still active) and streetcar lines (long gone). The sea breeze and the shade created by street walls, combined with pre-air-conditioning architecture, keep the pedestrian space somewhat cooler in the summers, and the short proximities between homes and businesses minimize car travel. Small, urban parcels, by nature, require less maintenance than subdivisions of more recent vintage. Places like Asbury Park still manifest the wisdom of practical and more sustainable building customs.
By the end of the twentieth century, however, the raison d’être for this particular strand of traditional urbanism had begun to fade. The ubiquity of air travel and climate control had taken vacationers further afield, and in the path of suburban sprawl, the beach towns of Monmouth County began to divide into two groups. The more urban ones, like Asbury Park and Long Branch (having apartment houses and old hotels), began to absorb the poorest portion of residents from the encroaching tendrils of New York City’s metropolitan region. Meanwhile, towns with larger lots were reinvented as year-round suburbs.
Today, a new shift is underway. A growing appreciation for urban neighborhoods, combined with long-term economic and demographic patterns, has fueled an unprecedented affordability crisis in many of our old, first-order cities. This has been particularly true at the core of the New York region, where dozens of erstwhile working- and middle-class neighborhoods have become very expensive in the space of just one generation. A similar trend may now be gaining steam around Philadelphia.
At the same time, new appreciation of the value of community has sparked a newfound interest in the virtues of smaller places, while the rising number of Americans who can work remotely has made housing options at the metropolitan fringe more viable for those who remain attached (but not tethered) to specific regions. Accordingly, livable, attractive, and humanely-scaled towns situated at the affordable frontiers of metropolitan housing markets have a special combination of advantages in the current real estate environment. Those places with natural beauty to offer, as well, are poised to be in the catbird seat.
Situated roughly halfway between the more famous boardwalks of Coney Island and Atlantic City, Asbury Park has benefited from the convergence of these trends. Its proximity to two of the largest and most dynamic cities of the American Northeast allows it to be easily rediscovered. As it was in the elegant days of the late Victorian era, and in the cool, modern 1920s, Asbury Park is but a day trip from Midtown or Center City. But today, its comparative affordability, combined with its traditional, humane scale, have joined the Atlantic Ocean as major selling points.
Asbury Park’s renaissance has benefited from the wisdom of its late nineteenth century builders. Significantly, recent development has largely followed established patterns. This inherently conservative approach means that new buildings promote a continuous fabric of traditional urbanism. Street walls have been extended, building lines that approach sidewalks, and foot traffic and physical coherence are maintained through the resulting density. Where new development departs from established patterns, it is concentrated in the right locations—along the beach itself, and around the traditional downtown blocks. These sections define the city’s present chapter.
Ocean Avenue and the Boardwalk
Ocean Avenue runs parallel to the Boardwalk and has several surviving historic buildings. Most significant is arguably the combined Convention Hall and Paramount Theater, designed by Warren & Wetmore and built on the cusp of the Great Depression, between 1928 and 1930. The theater faces Ocean Avenue, Atlantic Square, and Sunset Park; the Convention Hall stretches east onto the wide sandy beach. In a unique turn of design, the coordinate, east and west parts of the complex are joined by an enclosed arcade, through which the Boardwalk passes on a north-south axis.
The New Jersey Historic Trust describes the entire structure as “an eclectic mélange of Italian and French designs with detailing in several different architectural styles incorporating nautical motifs.” Today, the Paramount Theater has been meticulously restored, but the Convention Hall—the largest piece of the complex—is disused and in need of significant restoration.
Just north of the Paramount Theater, the Berkeley Oceanfront Hotel has stood for more than a century and continues to offer elegant rooms with ocean views. To the south, the Stone Pony, at Ocean and Second, has been a consistent destination since the 1970s, with nightly concerts in the warm months. The music club has long been the hub of a vibrant local scene, helping launch the careers of Bruce Springsteen, the Asbury Jukes, and others.
Nearby, the Wonder Bar, at Ocean and Fifth, provides another stop on the music tour, and is visually notable for its large reproduction of Tillie—a smiling, toothy cartooned face that has become Asbury Park’s de facto mascot, having long branded the façade of the now-demolished Palace Amusements.
On the Boardwalk, the Silverball Museum contains a dense collection of dozens of colorful, clanging, vintage pinball machines—a refreshingly tactile and mechanical diversion from the ubiquitous touchscreens of liquid modernity. Nearby, a miniature golf course gives way to a water park comprising a cluster of gigantic, bright-hued garden tools. At the southern end of Ocean Avenue, where the Boardwalk ends and car traffic turns inward from the beach, the midcentury modern Empress Hotel, with a striking electric green backlit sign, stands across from a newer strip of stores, including Stella Marina, serving good Italian fare with an ocean view; and Style Rocket, a tourist-oriented clothing shop, sells T-shirts, caps, and other mementos graced by Tillie and other icons of Asbury Park’s branding efforts. The haunting, ruined shell of the massive Asbury Park Casino and Carousel House looms on the white sandy beach, nearby.
Unfortunately, despite the historic, iconic, tragic, and otherwise curious sites along Ocean Avenue, a very high proportion of the buildable land between the beach and Bergh Street (another ocean-parallel street, two blocks west) continues to be occupied by parking lots and random, low-rise, post-war buildings. The persistence of this pattern vitiates any aesthetic benefit that may once have accrued from James Bradley’s flared approaches to the ocean, in the city’s Victorian-era street plan. In fact, it essentially eliminates any intersection between the city’s urban fabric and its key attraction—the beach. One could easily surmise that the underuse of these parcels is not accidental, but the result of ongoing speculation. (It is common practice in urban real estate for owners to tie up prime land with dubious uses, in perpetuity, while awaiting a more optimal seller’s market—costs to the community be damned.)
Presently, the one obvious exception to this underutilized land-use pattern on the waterfront is the Asbury Ocean Club, a seventeen-story white tower nearing completion at Ocean and Third. The project’s developers seek, rather shamelessly, to skip over the incremental progress otherwise being made through small-scale redevelopment by a critical mass of individual actors. Instead, they hope to inject a dose of serious outside money into the local real estate market. A recent piece in the Times helps advance the spin by local politicians that building a plethora of expensive, ultramodern condo units will somehow better the lives of Asbury Park’s self-supporting artists and most impoverished residents. Perhaps that seller’s market is now on the horizon.
Cookman Avenue and Downtown
Moving inland, the core of Asbury Park’s traditional downtown is once again bustling with a mix of retail, residential, and commercial uses. Focused around Press Square (named for the former newsroom of the Asbury Park Press, and its neoclassical building, which still stands), a cluster of stores and restaurants caters to residents and visitors alike. Cookman Avenue, the main commercial street, comprises a multicolored variety of compact, attached storefronts, dating mostly from the early twentieth century. The scene is visually reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting, but with fewer faces marked by anomic despair.
Along Cookman Avenue, the absence of a Woolworth’s from the cascade of storefronts still feels like an omission. Though the chain is long gone, it probably should have been enshrined in neighborhoods like this, along with an old-fashioned A&P, via public trust. A closer look quickly reveals several practical, downtown businesses, along with a growing number of make-your-own-art galleries, chipper bruncheonettes (serving the requisite esoteric varieties of Bloody Marys and mimosas), a cat-themed tea house, and other shops geared toward the pervasive retail marketing correlation between excessive cuteness and disposable incomes.
Fortunately, there is also a thriving bar scene downtown, where a summer visitor can find solace from the heat, as well as the schmaltz. On a recent Sunday, an outdoor farmers’ market also added a measure of authenticity to the setting. Set up at the eastern end of the Cookman Avenue strip, near the former site of Palace Amusements, the market was busy with shoppers despite an intensely humid August heat wave. Bright-red Rutgers tomatoes, glass jars of berry jelly and clover honey, and individually wrapped cranberry muffins could all be found. About a dozen stands were set up by New Jersey farmers, bakers, jelly makers, and beekeepers.
Perhaps surprisingly, nowhere within the city limits is there a full-scale amusement park, as one might expect in such a city. Palace Amusements, which stood near the waterfront from 1888, near what remains of the Casino and Carousel House once offered a Ferris wheel, a Victorian-era merry-go-round, a funhouse, bumper cars, and other essential seashore attractions. After a century, it shut its doors in 1988, and the remaining structure was demolished in 2004. In its heyday, the business district and the beach were joined by the hub of activities around the Casino and Palace Amusements, but today only a scattering of generic townhouses and empty grass define the walkable transition between the two main nodes of the city. Recreating continuity between these distinct but complementary realms has been put off, for now, and the transition is awkward and jarring.
Where do we go from here?
Today, Asbury Park feels more hopeful than it has felt in years. But it also has reasons to remain cautious. The small, Victorian city’s location and history provide it with a salience among New Jersey beach towns that ensures a certain amount of interest in an ever-tightening real estate market. Small businesses, urban homesteaders, and individual investors have done much to build on this. Because of those factors, a new vibrancy animates the natural focal points its urban plan. Beachgoers are returning, and people are heralding a rebirth.
Yet the future of Ocean Avenue, including the sites that adjoin the Boardwalk, remains an open question. This part of the city demands a rich and intricate urbanism. Bradley’s 1873 plan would reward the development of parcels here in a traditional urban pattern of small lots with distinct, architecturally varied structures. Hewing to traditional building lines would frame and accentuate the vistas Bradley envisioned for the flared street approaches to the ocean. Such a pattern would also have the effect of weaving the city’s older blocks more naturally into a newer, larger canvas that incorporates the shore.
There appears to be a danger, however, that the land in this neighborhood will be sold off in large parcels to corporate developers. Such an outcome could have the effect of aesthetically separating the city’s historic urban fabric—an undervalued asset from its past—from the shore—its most apparent economic asset—through the construction of large-scale, self-contained, and very expensive projects. In such a scenario, it is also likely that the city’s existing economic disparity within the community would only be deepened (tax receipts notwithstanding); and that, in the resulting environment, small businesses and middle-class homebuyers would be the first to be told: No Vacancy.
Asbury Park stands at an important crossroads. With pockets of nineteenth-century urbanism and twentieth-century Americana, it offers the hopeful tale of a small, east coast city—with history, character, and a strong sense of place—finally rising above the grind of post-war urban America and reclaiming its spot in the twenty-first-century economic landscape. This reading is accurate, and this moment is valuable, and worth appreciating—not only here, but in numerous small places around the United States that have begun, against the odds, to find their way. The question now is whether the qualities of this moment can be sustained, because they are appreciated; or whether, like so many fleeting moments in our high-speed culture, they will prove to be ephemeral.
Republished with gracious permission from The American Conservative (August 2018).
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