Bruce Springsteen. There, we’ve said it, and shall endeavor not to utter his name again, even though we’re now going to talk about a town inextricably associated with His Bossness.
If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to visit a post-apocalyptic beach resort, head either to Coney Island, or to the little stretch of the New Jersey coast called Asbury Park—but hurry because things are changing fast. Asbury Park was once a thriving destination, with glittering casinos, fancy bath houses, multi-star restaurants, big name entertainment and pretty much anything else you can imagine. During the 1960s and 1970s, it entered a period of gradual decline, with residents moving to outlying suburbs, Great Adventure stealing away tourists and the Garden State Parkway providing a direct drive to “shore points” further south. For about 30 years the town languished in poverty and desolation, but circa 2002 signs of life began to spring up everywhere.
Today it’s still a mix, but heading in the right direction. Several waterfront cool-cat lounges have opened, Convention Hall attracts top name acts and an artsy (gentrified thanks to the presence of the gay community) downtown of restaurants, shops and the unique Paranormal Museum is thriving. The boardwalk itself is experiencing a return to vibrancy—the casino walkway has reopened, snack bars are hopping and the beach is dotted with kite-flyers and exercisers (we visited in the dead of winter, so no sunbathers). And of course, the Wonderbar (they hold dog-friendly “yappy hours” so are ok in our book!) keeps serving and the Stone Pony gallops on.
Some unsightly high rise condos, a hypodermic needle in the grass around the inlet, discarded pork bones on the streets (that nearly choked Ben to death), and depressed-looking outlying areas admittedly detracted from the charm. But we’re thinking positive. With some additional investment of capital, Asbury Park could easily return to its former glory, and then some.
The casino was closed for many years. It showed signs of renovation, but we’re not quite sure of its intended use or timeframe. In the meantime, the boardwalk path through it has been reopened and temporarily decorated by local artists, leading to the neighboring town-that-time-forgot of Ocean Grove.
At the other end of the wooden pathway is Convention Hall, which in contrast was busy with musicians, artists and visitors. During our visit, a boisterous group of polar bear swimmers were celebrating, post-dunk, in the pavilion with music and food. We didn’t pay the admission, and instead explored the curiosities of the boardwalk–and there are a few.
A statue of the Greek Orthodox “Man of Love” is the first thing we noticed. Haven’t been able to find a whole lot of background on that one… Just behind him we took a look at the black granite monument commemorating the SS Morro Castle disaster. Some background: On September 8, 1934, as the ship was making its way from Havana to New York, an odd and tragic series of events were put in motion. First, the boat’s captain, Robert Willmott, died of a heart attack right on the bridge. Six hours later, the ship burst into flames at sea off the coast of Long Beach Island, killing 130+ passengers and crew before beaching its smoldering innards on the sands of Asbury Park.
Chaos reigned during the disaster–disorganization, poor training, thick smoke and a storm with gale force winds exacerbated the emergency. Life boats with a combined capacity of 350 passengers were deployed, but they evacuated only 85 people. Many of the ship’s passengers perished jumping overboard, either due to the tempestuous ocean waves or from improper use of life preservers; bodies washed up from Point Pleasant to Spring Lake. Still, rescue operations (including a plane piloted by the Harry Moore, Governor of New Jersey at the time) saved hundreds, and some even swam to shore unaided. Eventually the smoke cleared and a year or so later the wreckage was towed away and scrapped. RIP to the unfortunate souls lost on the Morro Castle.
Onward to less depressing sights:
Then we went downtown. The revitalized area had some nice shops and restaurants that we ran out of time to sample. One store had many kischy treasures, including Two Guys t-shirts (for those who are old enough to remember) and these incredible cereal-themed clocks:
We’d heard of a fantastically bad statue of The Rock Star Who Shall Remain Nameless that had been put up in Kennedy Park and investigated toward the end of our trip. We found the park, but the BS bust was a bust. Instead, the only statue we could locate was this bizarre, scaly and eyeless head of John F. Kennedy.
Just around the corner is yet another strange site: a telephone pole graveyard (or forest, depending on how optimistic you are). We had read about the Great Telephone Pole Farm of Chester (a future road trip, no doubt), but never heard even a murmur about this humble triangle of former trees. They are a little shorter than Chester’s collection, but no less odd. Look for them on Cookman Avenue at Kingsley Street.
Solidifying our impression of Asbury Park as a truly eclectic place, our last stop was at the Fourth Avenue home of Stephen Crane, author of the Civil War classic, The Red Badge of Courage. Crane was a New Jerseyan through and through. He was born in Newark in 1871, and moved to Asbury Park at the age of twelve. Though he began writing while in AP, he didn’t pen his most famous novel until he got to New York City. Doesn’t it always seem to happen that way? Poor Stephen wasn’t long for this world: he succumbed to tuberculosis at 28 years old while living in England. The house changed hands a few times after 1899, and was turned into a museum in 1995. It wasn’t open when we visited, so we just took a photo of the exterior.