Let me get this right out into the open - I love all things kitschy, strange, abandoned or historic. Asbury Park, New Jersey has fit nicely into all of these categories (more or less) at some point in my lifetime. Conveniently, it's also one of my favorite places in my state and a place that I tie to a lot of memories. Also, as a point of fact, when I find something interesting, I tend to ramble about it for a while.
My first visit to Asbury happened when I was around 8. It was before my younger sister was born and was the only trip my family ever took to the Shore. My dad hated the sand, heat and doesn't swim so we only went that one time. We weren't even supposed to go to Asbury originally. My dad took a few wrong turns and that's where we ended up!
I remember it very well, we rolled into a run down town, very much in decline and drove until we saw sand. We ended up at a private beach club with a red brick building and had to pay quite a bit of money to park and get onto the beach. We were given wrist bands and my brother and I went nuts once we saw the ocean. We jumped in the surf and layed in the waves, giggled when the sand erroded beneath our feet as the tide ran out. We rode rides and walked the splintering board walk. We stayed the entire day, my permed hair (it was the early 1990's - cut me some slack) was limp and crazy and my nose was red when we left, but it was easily one of the most memorable days of my life.
The most vivid part of this memory for me, is the red brick building that marked the entrance to the beach club. I have never been able to find this building again.
I didn't see Asbury Park again until the summer of 2006. My friends and I ventured to the ruined town to see a show at the legendary Stone Pony. Why legendary? It's where Bon Jovi got their start and one of Bruce Springsteen's favourite jam clubs. (For those not familiar with New Jersey or Springsteen's history, he grew up in Asbury's more affluent neighboring town, Long Branch.) The show was alright, but what I really wanted to do was hit the streets and the boardwalk of a town that I remembered fondly, but had been run to ruins by riots, municipal mismanagements and a lack of tourism due to towns like Seaside heights and Point Pleasant boasting better boardwalk attractions.
This section of the casino is now demolished.
carousel building, boarded up
What I saw was fascinating and heart breaking. The old casino building was in ruins and obviously home to more than a few squatters. The Convention hall was closed up. The Palace Amusements building with it's smiling Tillies, symbols of Asbury Park and New Jersey in general, had been demolished. Madame Marie's fortune telling building still stood where it always had. It's neon light said 'Open' but was very clearly misinformed.
We wandered the boardwalk, layed on benches talking and played in the surf until the wee hours of the morning when the faintest hints of purples and reds started creeping across the skyline. We bid fairwell to Asbury Park.
I read up on the history of this shore town, in books and via the internet. There's a lot of information, so if you're interested in finding out what happened to this town over the last 100+ years, google is definitely your friend.
The next time I saw Asbury, it was memorial day, I was married and the town had started to take on a new face. There was construction on the Casino building, half of the building had been chopped off! There were swanky bodegas and restaurants on the boardwalk; a far cry from the boarded up dingy white store fronts I had seen 3 years before.
Construction inside the Casino. The construction zone in blocked off by murals.
The beach was filled with people, there were kids playing on the boardwalk. The Convention Hall was open, welcoming visitors into its restaurants and shops. I was ecstatic. My husband and I took a stroll down the boardwalk. This was his first visit to the shore point. He remarked that this was the most peaceful shore spot he's ever been to. There were no carnies trying to hawk over priced games of chance, no creak and groans of decade old carnival equipment. No douchebags wandering the boardwalk shoving people aside with their over inflated ego.
We ate at the WonderBar and walked Ocean Ave on our way back to our car. We passed the Stone Pony, which looked exactly as it had three years before. Ocean Ave was still fairly run down, the back of boardwalk shops coated in peeling paint, accessorized by wilted scrubby plants and sand. Overall the feeling I had when I left was hopeful. A place I held close to my heart was being restored and loved again.
We revisited again this past weekend with a friend of ours and the vast improvements since our visit in May are astounding! Ocean Ave is cleaned up, the Carousel building is being used to stage plays, we even saw someone getting married on the beach and taking photos in front of the Casino!
I'll end this lengthy post with a few more photos. Some from this weekend and a May/August shot of Ocean Ave. If you are ever in New Jersey and get the opportunity to visit Asbury, do so. There isn't much to do in the way of kitschy boardwalk entertainment, but you can get your fortune read by Madame Marie, Get summer fare and cold beers at the WonderBar, sit and relax on a quiet beach or just immerse yourself in oddball New Jersey history.
The Convention Hall welcomes visitors and is still being restored.
Flyers advertising "The Full Monty" on the doors of the Carousel Building.
Ocean Avenue - May 2009/August 2009
(same building, different directions)
If you want to see more photos of my excursions to Asbury in 2006 and 2009, pop on over to my Flickr set.