Cookman Avenue

Some of you non-Jersey-Shore-ites might be wondering why I’m featuring Asbury Park this week.

Asbury Park, aside from being one of two official “cities” in Monmouth County (the other being Long Branch), has one of the most interesting histories in the area (and, according to the official website, has been deemed the sixth-best place in the state for music).

In 1871, James A. Bradley (who developed several of the shore towns; Bradley Beach [a town slightly south] is named after him) established Asbury Park, and by 1894, the resort was officially a bustling city. Development grew; Art Deco and Beaux Arts architecture proliferated; over 600,000 people each year came by train from New York City and Philadelphia to enjoy the pleasures of Asbury. [1]

But progress wasn’t kind to the city. After World War II, the surrounding farms were developed into suburbia, so those who could afford it moved into newer houses with spacious yards. The Garden State Parkway, built from 1946-1957, allowed vacationers to plan trips that didn’t involve taking trains to the shore. Ten miles away in Eatontown, Monmouth Mall–established in 1958 and continually expanded through 1975, 1986, and 1993–was more convenient and attractive to shoppers than the boutiques of downtown Asbury Park. Thirty miles away in Jackson Township, Six Flags Great Adventure opened in 1972, making vacationers think twice about spending their summers on “a mile-long stretch of aging boardwalk amusements.”[2]

Asbury Park was already on the down-and-down when the July 4 weekend race riots in 1970 destroyed several aging buildings and killed 46 people. (My mother actually worked in Asbury Park at this time; she came back from her pleasant little July 4th weekend, heard about what had happened in Asbury while she was off skiing, and got a call from one of her clients warning everyone in the storefront operation to get out, there’s a mob coming your way!) It was official: there was no longer any reason for tourists to spend their summers in this seaside town.

Except, of course, the music scene, but I won’t get into that here.

The carousel house and Palace Amusements managed to stay afloat until 1988 (in fact, the carousel horses were refurbished at great cost in 1986, but according to Palace Amusements Online:

During the summer of 1987, a 50-mile slick of discarded medical and hospital trash and household garbage ruined parts of the Jersey shore, and scared visitors away from nearly all the rest. Bill Foster, the Palace manager, was quoted as blaming the disaster for a 55 percent drop in Palace business; others, including Sam Vaccaro [owner of the Palace from 1985 onward], dispute that figure but say the impact was very bad. A year later, mistakes made during the cleaning of Asbury Park’s sewage line flushed high levels of fecal bacteria into the ocean, closing beaches for 19 days. The State of New Jersey fined Asbury Park more than $1 million for the mistake. The number of day visitors to Asbury Park dropped like a rock.[3]

(There was a lot of drama surrounding the auctioning-off of the carousel horses–read this for details.)

As far as I’m aware, everyone who could leave did. Growing up, we heard about the shootings, the dangers, the “don’t go to Asbury if you don’t have to.” Last summer (2007), when I went to take some nighttime photos of the Asbury Park Casino, an Ocean Grove cop-on-a-Segway stopped for a few moments to warn me to BE CAREFUL! And there was an article on the front page of the Asbury Park Press today (June 18, 2008 ) describing “96 arrested in Asbury Park.”

In 2002, the redevelopment began. The dilapidated buildings are either being preserved or demolished; either way, the city is cleaning up and attracting new people, including a substantial LBGT community. [2] Cookman Avenue, pictured above, is one of the hippest areas of Asbury. According to a friend, “There’s a rainbow flag in like every window. It’s not as bad as we were told growing up.”

Asbury Park’s got a rich history: some bright, some dark, all more interesting than, say, Farmingdale. And it’s kind of exciting to share a zip code with the best-known municipality in Monmouth County.

[1] Asbury Park, New Jersey- Official Website, History, accessed June 17 2008.
[2] Wikipedia, Asbury Park, New Jersey, accessed June 17 2008.
[3] Palace Amusements Online, 1986-1988, accessed June 17 2008.