One of Bruce Springsteen’s most famous songs says, “maybe everything that dies some day comes back.” He’s singing about Atlantic City, and the rise of the casinos over the broken remains of the old beachfront, the Atlantic’s crown jewel before the jet age. He might as well have been singing though about the Jersey Shore town where he became famous, Asbury Park, undergoing what some say is a gay revival that will turn this crumbling town around for good.
Bruce was actually from Freehold, a town a few miles inland where I grew up. We went to the same high school, years apart, and teachers beguiled me with stories of how he played guitar in the school’s courtyard, much to their annoyance, as practice for his Asbury gigs. Bruce was ever-present for us.
I was yearbook editor my senior year and “Born in the USA” was the theme. Secretly gay me got to pour over pictures of my male classmates modeling their asses in tight jeans, mimicking the Springsteen album cover for sections of the yearbook. Some of these guys were in bands that also rocked the Asbury sands. Like in Bruce’s day, it was still the Jersey Shore’s furtive creative center where musicians went seeking fame, hoping to be discovered by New York producers combing the suburbs for new talent.
I was not a musician, but like Bruce, my career started in Asbury too, with my first paid publication in the Asbury Park Press’ high school journalist section.
It’s journalists like me who are now heralding Asbury’s gay resurrection, including some from The New York Times’ real estate section. But Asbury was a gay town long ago, when Bruce was a local nobody with a stubborn dream. Yet, even then, the town had passed its prime as a beach resort.
My father would tell me about the Asbury of his youth—elegant hotels, striped cabanas, and beauty queen contests that excited many a (straight) man. He wasn’t from the shore, but instead from the rough Italian slums of Newark, and the beach was a poor kid’s treat reached by a ride down old Highway 35 or by train, alighting in the station in the center of town. Decades later, he settled with my mother nearby.
Before I was old enough to understand urban decay, Asbury’s honky-tonk decline of the 1970s and ‘80s excited me. Still, a few things connected my Asbury experiences with my father’s. One was the grand 1920s Paramount Theatre and Convention Hall, adorned with purple faience bricks, fantastic seashell and fish ornaments, and bronze ships on its roof line. It was mirrored at the other end of the boardwalk by the Casino, whose bronze dolphins jumped from limestone waves along its façade, entrancing my childhood mind with wonder. Inside was an old Planters shop, with a cast iron nut roaster and a giant Mr. Peanut we’d stand next to for photos. Barefoot in the sand, we’d toss peanuts at squawking seagulls that flew by to snatch them.
But Asbury’s decay was relentless. The most harm was done by those who claimed to want to save it. In the 1980s a grandiose big-haired plan proposed waterfront high rises and a Michael Jackson Museum idiotically over a demolished Stone Pony, the club where Bruce got his start. The Stone Pony survived, but why the town planners ever thought of destroying their most famous icon, which tourists from even Japan and Europe flocked to, boggles the mind. The entire oceanfront was seized under eminent domain. The developers put in a shell of a building and swiftly went bankrupt. The unfinished high rise taunted everyone, standing sentinel over the empty waterfront. But the gay bars still flourished, and when I was in college in the late 1980s, six served a town of only 15,000 people.
During graduate school in the early 1990s, getting a masters in urban planning at nearby Rutgers University, I began to learn how deep Asbury’s gay history went. At the time, a new plan by a gay developer seemed more viable. He would convert empty downtown space into artist lofts, a euphemism for gay gentrification, and the trendoids would come flocking. He even started a gay publication, announcing publicly what had always been known. At the time, I interviewed an aging and excited member of the municipal planning board. She was hoping it would bring back the 1960s when she claimed Asbury was so gay-popular it was Paul Lynde’s favorite summer spot. The now-rotting, white columned Metropolitan Hotel was where she said he frolicked. What’s gayer for a town than to have been Paul Lynde’s favorite resort? Some said an ambiguously asexual mayor of a big city across the Hudson also came here for fun, too, away from prying eyes.
But the guy who had this new gay plan turned out to be a bit of a scheister. He skipped town, and once again, Asbury’s dreams were broken.
Then something happened. At the turn of the millennium, New York City’s now defunct gay magazine Empire ran an article on Asbury that set the pink real estate market on fire. By this point, I had moved to Manhattan, but friends who knew I was from the area begged me to show them around. Everyone assumed the crew I guided through town was made up of house-hungry homos. I took pains to explain to anyone who asked that I was a local, not what we used to call a BENNY when I was a child—a putdown for people from Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark, and New York who were loud obnoxious, rude, and brought too much traffic during the hot summer months. But nobody in Asbury was calling anyone a BENNY anymore—everyone was happy to see the new faces.
Last year, I took a tour with Mark Lindsey from Donaldson Realty, the weekend after the New Jersey Gay Pride parade, which Asbury hosts. Post-celebratory excitement was in the air that week, as well as celebrities themselves. I even ran into CNN’s Anderson Cooper on the boardwalk; he told me he was there visiting a friend who had just bought an Asbury home.
On that tour last summer, some things about the boardwalk I remembered from my childhood were long gone—like Mr. Peanut and most of the dolphins from the Casino. The smiling neon face of Tilley, who was on the Tunnel of Love ride, had disappeared forever, his home demolished ostensibly for safety reasons, now only a horrid scar on his old block. Things seemed even more desolate here than I remembered in spite of all the media hype. Everyone assured me that the holes were the sites of future buildings. I could not wait to get back to Manhattan, and be a BENNY.
Late in the summer, I returned again, to find a new buzz in the air. Shopkeeper Kay Harris, who owns a boardwalk souvenir store, and grew up in the town, was excited I was writing about the place. Her store rekindled the old days, with pictures of Tilley and beauty queens at the Empress Hotel, now a South Beach-like gay bar and hotel complex owned by Shep Pettibone of Madonna fame. I was in luck too, she explained, in town for First Saturday, an event where stores and galleries downtown stay open late giving out wine and cheese, as shoppers dance and sing along with sidewalk rock musicians. “See you there,” she told me with a bright smile.
I was glad I went. In the space of two months, new stores had opened that were not there at the beginning of the summer. Signs for luxury condos were all over the same old buildings the scheister had planned to convert 13 years before. Maybe that attitude and hype were working. I talked with shopkeepers who moved here from Manhattan to open boutiques. BENNY was a word never before heard.
Still, there’s some sadness for me when I think of the Asbury of my childhood. There’s talk of demolishing part of the Casino, because they say the ocean has battered it too long. Like in the 1980s, they still want to demolish the Stone Pony to build something else. Along with Mr. Peanut, Tilley, and the bronze dolphins, I’d miss both dearly.
Maybe Bruce was right—everything that dies some day comes back. But it doesn’t look exactly like what you remember from childhood. Is that good or bad? I just don’t know.
New Jersey Gay Pride is held in Asbury Park on Sunday June 4 from noon until 7 p.m. with a march through town and a Pride Fair in front of Convention Hall. The Village People will be headlining this year. More information is available at jerseypride.org.
Gay information on Asbury Park is at gayasburypark.com.
City of Asbury Park information is at cityofasburypark.com.
Mark Lindsey of Donaldson Realty, 817 Sunset Avenue, can be reached at 732-775-0655 or brucefdonaldsonrealestate.com
Empress Hotel and Paradise Dance Club Complex, 101 Asbury Avenue, can be reached at 732-774-0100, paradisenj.com, or asburyempress.com
The 1920s Berkeley Carteret Hotel, 1401 Ocean Avenue, dating from Asbury’s heyday, can be contacted at berkeleycarterethotel.com or 732- 776-6700.