Asbury Park, the once-thriving seashore hub of Monmouth County, lost much of its economic vitality in the last decades of the 20th century but has undergone a resurgence as a diverse community with restored homes, new beachfront and downtown condominiums, and scores of shops, restaurants, art galleries and entertainment venues attracting interest.
Location: Oceanfront city in Monmouth County, bordered by Ocean Grove, Neptune, Ocean Township, Interlaken and Loch Arbour
Size: 1.4 square miles
Population: 16,819, as of July 2004
In 1871, developer James A. Bradley acquired about 500 acres, east of the railroad tracks and between Wesley and Deal lakes, for about $90,000. He named the town Asbury Park after Francis Asbury, the founder of Methodism in America. The city grew to be a resort destination, with large Victorian hotels and a famous carousel and boardwalk. Asbury Park's first Baby Parade, which would become an annual tradition, was held in 1890.
The city was the first home of the Asbury Park Press, which began as The Shore Press weekly in 1879.
Asbury Park experienced an economic downturn in the 1960s and '70s, and lost a good chunk of its white and black middle-class population. The city undertook a major redevelopment of its milelong waterfront in the mid-1980s but could not attract financing. A surge of investment began downtown in 1999, and by 2001 new developers invested in the waterfront.
Highlights, activities, events
A $1.25 billion redevelopment of the beachfront is under way and will see new condominiums, shops, nightclubs and restaurants on the shoreline. The downtown is ahead of the waterfront with many restaurants and shops open. Gay and lesbian residents and new investors helped lead the pioneering effort to transform the once dreary and empty downtown. Redevelopment is planned in other areas of the city, such as the Springwood Avenue corridor.
Bruce Springsteen, whose first album in 1973 depicted a postcard sending "Greetings From Asbury Park," helped the city regain name recognition worldwide. Novelist Stephen Crane, author of "The Red Badge of Courage," lived in Asbury Park for 10 years and began his writing career there. His Fourth Avenue family home is now the Stephen Crane Museum.
Among its innovations, the state's first electric trolleys began operating in 1887. In March 2004, the first same-sex marriage license in the state was issued, although it was later overturned.
The city's landmarks include Convention Hall and Paramount Theatre, the Casino and the iconic night club, The Stone Pony.
Annual events include the Monmouth County Friends of Clearwater Festival, the Guitarbecue Festival, Asbury Park Jazz Festival, Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgendered and Intersexed Pride Celebration and the Garden State Film Festival. Newer events include First Saturdays, held once a month, in which shops are open late with entertainment designed to draw people to the downtown.
History of Asbury Park
As the 19th century turned into the 20th, the United States experienced a renaissance known now as the Gilded Age. Expansion to the Pacific Ocean pushed open the doors of westward settlement. Mississippi River cities developed as hubs of manufacturing and transportation. Literature experimented with realism. Art and architecture found new meaning in the classical models of Athens and Rome. The windows of academia opened to let in the light of a new tradition called liberal arts. The period's optimism was palpable.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Asbury Park. Begun in 1870 by New York industrialist and real estate developer James A. Bradley, by 1890 this up-and-coming residential resort on the north shore of New Jersey's Atlantic coast was poised for the new century. A year-round tax base, commercial opportunities for aspiring merchants, and employment for its citizens rested on the economic tripod of hospitality, light industry, and what would turn out to be the forerunner of the latter-day retail-office space.
Hotels and restaurants on Ocean Avenue bustled with travelers as they did to the west along Springwood Avenue, the heartbeat of the city's diverse working-class neighborhood. On both sides of the Central Jersey Railroad's north-south axis the city encouraged manufacturing and hosted a thriving farmers market. Named for prominent 19th century Methodist ministers, Asbury Park's downtown streets and avenues reflected the ascendancy of America's middle class.
Storied offices above neo-classical bank buildings provided business addresses for such emerging professionals as lawyers, dentists, accountants, opticians, doctors, architects, and realtors. Sprinkled among them were rehearsal studios for dance, voice, instruments, and elocution. John Steinbach heralded the arrival of department-store buying on the Jersey shore when he opened a majestic four-story, yellow-brick and terra cotta Romanesque paean to merchandising.
Asbury Park also distinguished itself as an early adopter of the nation's new technologies. James Bradley had the first telephone installed in his home at the corner of Main Street and Mattison Avenue. Thanks to the Atlantic Coast Electric Company, the precursor to Jersey Central Power & Light, the residential resort was one of the earliest to have an electric street car system. The utility company again brought innovation to Asbury Park in the next century when it erected an 11-story Art Deco skyscraper at the corner of Bangs Avenue and Emory Street, making it the tallest elevator building on the Jersey shore north of Atlantic City.
Another technological innovation came from the city's first amusements entrepreneur, Ernest Schnitzler. High above Wesley Lake was his patented observation platform for a rotating wheel whose metal baskets carried riders. He placed it between an intricately detailed carousel made by renowned Coney Island woodcarver Charles I.D. Looff and one of the state's first maze of glass and mirrored walls ever built. Over on the boardwalk, New York architect Whitney Warren designed the city's most enduring Beaux Arts buildings: the Paramount Theatre and Convention Hall complex and the Casino Arena and Carousel House. Attractive arcades were matched in entertainment value with theaters erected by impresario Walter Reade who chose Asbury Park to signal the dawn of the talkies in New Jersey when he opened the Mayfair Theatre in 1927.
Keenly aware of the devastation inherent in airborne diseases, James Bradley pushed for a modern sewer system, making Asbury Park the state's first coastal community to have one. Pristine, sandy beaches, beautifully landscaped public parks, three shimmering lakes rimmed by towering shade trees, Asbury Park was laid out to nourish the overworked body and regenerate the depleted mind. Its setting enabled the city to play an active role in the country's nascent field of contemporary health care; its resident doctors founded what today is Jersey Shore University Medical Center.
The city's image as a family-friendly community was reflected in two notable developments. The first one was the summer's hugely successful Baby Parade, drawing hundreds of contestants from across the country and abroad as it grew in popularity. The second was the construction of a modern high school on the banks of Deal Lake and the inauguration of a first-rate academic and athletic program that would rival many in more established cities throughout the state.
In the 20th century, Asbury Park was firmly established among New Jersey's foremost seashore resorts, vying with Cape May, Atlantic City, and nearby Long Branch for visitors and with its quality of life. Asbury Park sparkled with the presence of five-and-dime czar Frank W. Woolworth, jazz great Duke Ellington, adventure-travel writer Lowell Thomas, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Margaret Widdemer, NAACP founder W.E.B. DuBois, crooner Frank Sinatra, teacher Elizabeth Gray Vining whose autobiography was turned into The King and I, sculptor Lorenzo Harris, former New York City mayor Ed Koch, bandleader Arthur Pryor whose composition "Whistler and His Dog" became the theme song for TV's Leave It to Beaver, Olympic track hopeful Frank Budd, actors Bud Abbott, Danny DeVito and Jack Nicholson, big-band trumpeter Harry James, and actor and civil rights crusader Canada Lee.
Asbury Park was the summer presidential headquarters of Woodrow Wilson when he ran for re-election in 1916 while on the high school's athletic grounds, the city hosted one of the earliest racially integrated baseball games to be played when the New York Yankees pitched against the Brooklyn Dodgers and the recently signed Jackie Robinson.
The teenage home of The Red Badge of Courage realism author, journalist and war correspondent Stephen Crane is the only museum in America preserved in his memory and dedicated to promoting the written word. Asbury Park's unique role in late 20th century popular music was born in 1973 when songwriter and rock and roll musician Bruce Springsteen debuted his first record album, Greetings From Asbury Park. The jacket's design featured a colorful chrome postcard printed by the Tichnor Brothers of Boston whose balloon letters framed the resort's most recognizable boardwalk attractions.
Now the 20th century has turned into the 21st, and Asbury Park is experiencing a new renaissance. A delight for architecture buffs, the entire city boasts a rich inventory which includes Queen Anne Victorian, Gothic, Federal Revival, and Moderne structures. Students from the nation's leading schools of architecture have discovered Asbury Park's value as a field laboratory for various theses on historic preservation and urban revitalization. A number of buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The city's rich immigrant experience continues, reflected in its culinary offerings, from soul food to traditional Italian, Portuguese, new American, Spanish, Asian, seafood, and the all-time favorite, diner fare. Many can be found in noteworthy buildings which have been renovated to preserve as much authenticity as possible. Asbury Park's rebirth as an art and performance incubator for rising musicians, actors, playwrights, poets and artists continues as does its new-old attraction as a central retail and office location connected to the state's inter-modal transportation network.
Helen-Chantal Pike is the author of the forthcoming Asbury Park's Glory Days: The Story of an American Resort. It is a follow-up narrative to her ground-breaking pictorial research on Asbury Park's founding history, Images of America: Asbury Park. Ms. Pike is also the author of the well-received Greetings From New Jersey: A Postcard Tour of the Garden State, a travel history based on her essays and postcards. In 2003 it won the Author's Award from the New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance for its "new understanding of New Jersey history and culture." She is at work on a new book, Bay to Bay: Searching for New Jersey's Coastal Heritage. Ms. Pike maintains and licenses the Pike Archives, a collection of rare and unusual images of New Jersey as well as turn-of-the-century logging and backwoods scenes from New England found in the works of her late father, author Robert E. Pike. An international travel writer and photographer whose works have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Journal of Commerce, and Christian Science