Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Greetings from … the Queerest Spot on the Jersey Shore

We just got back from our biennial-or-so pilgrimage to Asbury Park, N.J., easily the most written-about, sung-about and fretted-about seaside resort in the continental U.S. Like thousands of other people who have no connection whatsoever to the place, we’ve long been attracted to Asbury Park’s faded grandeur, its beat and forlorn urban landscapes, its abundance of interesting architectural filigree that adorns many vintage structures. It’s the same clinical nostalgia that draws us to Calvert in Robertson County, Texas, where we’ve gone to sip coffee on the town’s once-bustling (once as in the 19th century) main drag and gaze out on the bleak ass-end of nothing. Like Calvert --- whose prime attraction until a few years ago was the mummified remains of an African-American teenage hobo that were kept in a succession of funeral homes for 80 years --- Asbury Park has worked vigorously, and with only marginal success, to trade on its storied past.

Of course, we, like hundreds of thousands of other people, do have a tenuous second-hand virtual connection to the place through our repeated long-ago listenings to Springsteen’s Greetings from Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, his two first and still-best albums (after which it was a slow roll downhill to profundity and mock-heroic poses, though we still dig him). Even then, in the early-to-mid ’70s, the town and the “boardwalk life” that Springsteen simultaneously celebrated and sought to escape were long past their prime, relegated to the dustbin of commerce by the southward extension of the Garden State Parkway in the 1950s and what we always see described as the “race riots” (plural) of the 1960s. Those developments combined to send white vacationers speeding past Asbury Park to beach towns farther down the shore. (Where today, the cities charge what to our Texas populist sensibilities seem to be stiff prices for access to public beaches. [On the other hand, this cuts down on the Latino music blaring in your ear at full crank, and we don’t notice a whole lot of McMansions built right up to the low-tide line.])

By the time we first visited in the mid-’80s, the boardwalk was locked in the full death grip of urban decay. Besides the apparently unkillable Howard Johnson’s restaurant/bar (scene of a wonderful dreamscape in an early Sopranos episode), there was just one other open business on the boardwalk. The famed Palace arcade was still doing business, too, but we had the place to ourselves. The beach was literally deserted, in mid-July, and about the only human life on the boards were a couple of elderly Italian gentlemen positioned like lonely sentinels on park benches hundreds of yards apart, apparently left behind to ensure there were witnesses when the town fell in on itself.

We returned every so often and found Asbury Park’s rebirth always imminent, just over the next big redevelopment scheme or preservation movement. Businesses would open and disappear. The Palace for a while hosted a sort of flea-circus-level rock ‘n’ roll museum full of Springsteen memorabilia, but that went the way of the Tilt-a-Whirl where Bruce’s shirt once got caught. One big project was still-born by the developer’s bankruptcy, leaving the skeleton frame of 10-story building rusting near the boardwalk.

On our last visit a couple of years back, though, things did seem to be picking up. In addition to the occasional wandering crackhead, we noticed a sizable contingent of Euro-tourists clambering over the archeological ruins and muttering stuff like Le Boss a dormi ici. More touristy businesses were open, and the newspapers were full of impassioned letters arguing the pros and cons of demolishing the Stone Pony, the nightclub where Springsteen still occasionally drops in (it stands). A “Save Tillie” campaign also was in full throttle --- “Tillie” being a vintage mural of a proto-Alfred E. Neuman geek that graced the side of the targeted-for-destruction Palace (the arcade was reduced to rubble, but Tillie was indeed saved by being cut out from the wall of the doomed building, and the bricks bearing his likeness now sit in storage). Preservation battles here are elevated to a blood sport, but the possible demise of Tillie had people really worked up about the future of Asbury Park.

But what struck us most, when we went downtown and searched for a pay phone outside an abandoned department store, were the many spruce, muscled-up young men we saw walking their dogs and jogging --- in sufficient numbers to momentarily disquiet our inner Hemingway. Later, the New York Times confirmed it: A phalanx of moneyed gay men form New York and points north had descended on Asbury Park, buying up the relatively cheap Victorians and Colonials and bringing a modicum of refined taste and new money to the hard-bitten town.

Before we returned this year, we were told there were now “rainbows everywhere” and that houses that couldn’t be given away for $20,000 or $30,000 a decade ago were selling for more than $200,000 (actually, we later learned, the median home price is well above $300,000.) The town still seems seedy and beset, but we actually had to be careful not be knocked down by the steady procession of yuppies jogging, biking and rollerblading on the boardwalk. It appeared someone was restarting the abandoned development project, and down the boardwalk the sign in front of a massive new complex going up hailed it as the vanguard of a “new Golden Era” for Asbury Park. And the gay-ified refinement of the downtown seemed to be continuing apace. (But the HoJo’s still lives, dingier than ever, and we detected an especially bad odor in the place when we stepped in briefly to gander at the faded postcards.)

We’re glad for Asbury Park, and we hope the rebirth sticks this time. But we’re afraid it may be over between us. As we shuffled out of town and back next-door to bizarrely clean and affluent Ocean Grove, we found ourselves overcome with wistfulness and burdened by the question that haunts all yuppies: Why didn’t we buy some property here back in 19-- ?

Ah, well. We’ll always have Calvert.

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