Postcards from the Edge

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I’m driving north on the New Jersey Turnpike, it’s raining and I have approximately 2,000 vintage postcards of Asbury Park, N.J., in the trunk. If it sounds like I’m on a mission, I am.

My father, who grew up in Asbury Park, started collecting these cards late in life as a tribute to his hometown. Dad’s original idea was to display each card next to a present-day snapshot depicting the same scene in town. The goal was to show how great Asbury Park once was, or maybe how far it had fallen. Dad did take some photographs, but he mainly just collected the historical cards, filling binders and shoeboxes by the time he passed away five years ago. They’ve been sitting in my backyard shed since then, and I’ve decided to donate the bulk of them to the Asbury Park Historical Society.

So here I am, racing back to Asbury, where we would visit my grandmother at least once a month from our home in Philadelphia. That was in the ’70s and ’80s, when Asbury, still scarred by the race riots of the late ’60s and a string of corrupt town leaders, looked more like inner city Detroit than the gorgeous Victorian resort it had been through the first half of the 20th century. “Someday, it’ll come back,” my father used to say. And we’d all nod, even as another business would fail on the deteriorating boardwalk, or my grandmother would tell us about another grand bed-and-breakfast hotel transformed into a halfway house.

But as I turn onto Cookman Avenue, the city’s main commercial drag, I can honestly say, “Dad, you were right. Asbury Park is on its way.”

And actually, it has been for the past several years. Finally, New Yorkers started paying attention to some of New Jersey’s last inexpensive seaside property, and the local gay population (overflowing from nearby Ocean Grove) moved in and fixed up those stunning Victorians that surround the town’s three pretty lakes.

These days, Asbury’s downtown is an interesting mix of antique stores, trendy restaurants and art galleries. This is not your typical seaside resort, but something more reminiscent of Brooklyn before the Manhattanites arrived. Or maybe Hampden by the beach.

“Three years ago, you’d be afraid to walk along Cookman Avenue at night,” says Vlado Pisch, who, along with his musician son, runs Sweet Joey, a vintage clothing store that specializes in restoring old blue jeans—and also creating new ones at $350 a pop. “Now there’s a fancy French restaurant opening down the block.”

As I walk along Cookman, I notice the restored Steinbach department store, where my grandmother used to buy my birthday presents. The grande dame went out of business in 1979 and fell victim to arson in the ’80s, but now its upper four floors house loft-style apartments and its ground level contains three restaurants, including a gourmet gelateria and Baca Bar, a trendy spot for cocktails and sushi.

There’s a new art house cinema in town, a glass blowing studio, a “rock ’n’ roll cupcake shop” recently featured on the Food Network and the weirdly wonderful Paranormal Books & Curiosities, which sells “Asbury Park: Back from the Dead” mugs. As I chat with store owners, I can feel their hopeful optimism that this time the revival will stick. 

Still, as I make my way to the boardwalk and beach, I’m not as enthusiastic. The boardwalk’s famous Beaux Arts Casino building, where my father worked as a boy running games of Fascination, remains a dilapidated shell, its plans for renovation delayed indefinitely by recession and Superstorm Sandy. At the northern end of the half-mile-long boardwalk, Convention Hall and the Paramount Theatre, where Bruce Springsteen famously rehearses before going out on tour, is still boarded up after the storm, and I see fewer businesses open than on my last visit. 

But the beach looks as beautiful as ever. And the businesses that are open on the boardwalk—a Korean taco stand, an upscale Cuban restaurant, the Silver Ball pinball museum and several boutiques—seem to be doing well. A block off the boards, the famed Stone Pony has a full slate of concerts scheduled for the summer as does the Wonder Bar, a classic seaside watering hole.

The next morning I meet up with Don Stine, president of the Asbury Park Historical Society, at Toast, the go-to breakfast spot in town. Over red velvet pancakes served by a tattooed waitstaff, Stine, also a reporter with The Coaster newspaper, fills me in on the town’s tribulations. “The problem with the boardwalk is that the city signed away development rights to only one developer, so there’s no competition and less incentive to fix things up quickly,” he says. “But the downtown has been redeveloped by several developers. A little capitalistic competition works.”
But Stine admits the town has come a long way. “It used to be like ‘Night of the Living Dead’ around here. Hookers, people off their meds…” Now we’re sipping cappuccinos and eating red velvet pancakes.

After breakfast, Stine pulls his pickup truck next to my car. His eyes widen as I open the trunk. As I start handing off the boxes of postcards, I feel a tinge of sadness. But I know Dad, who was passionate about this town, would have approved. They’re only postcards, after all, picturing what once was. And maybe will be again.

Places to Stay

The 1920s-era Berkeley Oceanfront Hotel, once partly owned by Johnny Cash, is now a boutique-style hotel with views of the ocean. Rooms from $169, 732-776-6700, http://www.berkeleyhotelnj.com. Hotel Tides, a more intimate boutique property, has a pool and spa, art gallery and a well-reviewed restaurant. Rooms from $180. 732-897-7744, http://www.hoteltides.com. The oceanfront Empress Hotel has a South Beach vibe and a rocking, gay-friendly nightclub. Rooms from $129, 732-774-0100, http://www.asburyempress.com

Grab a bite

Cubacan offers upscale Cuban cuisine with seating that overflows onto the boardwalk, 732-774-3007, http://www.cubacan.net. Moonstruck serves Mediterranean specialties in a former Victorian hotel with sweeping porches overlooking Wesley Lake,  732-988-0123, http://www.moonstrucknj.com. MOGO Korean Fusion Tacos is a must for lunch on the boardwalk, 732-894-9188, http://www.eatmogo.com.

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