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Farewell to Asbury Park...again

(This story originally appeared in the Star-Ledger of Newark, July 3, 2005)

    Before his final encore at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park in November 1996, Bruce Springsteen took a moment to say a few words about his adopted hometown.

    Acoustic guitar in hand, a stage full of friends and fellow musicians around him, Springsteen introduced his last number as "a goodbye song. I wrote it at a time when my life was changing and I didn't know what was up ahead or what to expect...But it was a love note, too. So here's one for Asbury, wishing that the best may be yet to come." Then he began to play the familiar opening chords to "Fourth of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," his bittersweet ballad of youth, summer, love and the inevitable loss of all three. "For me," he sang in the final verse, "this boardwalk life's through."

    Now, nine years later, on the eve of another Fourth of July, Springsteen's words have an added resonance. For the first summer in decades, Asbury's long-blighted beachfront is showing signs of life and renewal, albeit of a different form. Crumbling amusement arcades and long-vacant hotels have been bulldozed into rubble, and construction will soon begin on two mammoth beachfront condominium projects. A handful of businesses have sprung up along the newly repaired boardwalk, where the Ferris wheel, kiddie rides and miniature golf course once stood.

    This latest stage in the evolution of Asbury is set into historical context in Daniel Wolff's new book "Fourth of July, Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land" (Bloomsbury USA), which not only takes its title from a pair of Springsteen songs, but also uses his music as a sort of plumb line for a chronicle of the city's history, from 1870 to 2001.

    It's been a long time since anyone's considered Asbury Park the promised land, but Wolff takes us back to a time when it was something close to that. He chronicles founder James A. Bradley's first trip south from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to the "wild, wave-washed solitude of sand" he would later purchase and develop. Accompanied by his "faithful old colored servant" John Baker, Bradley, who had converted to Methodism, envisioned the creation of a faith-based resort, eventually naming the new town after American Methodist founder Francis Asbury.

    Despite its spiritually nourished Gilded Age roots, Asbury Park grew too big and too fast to be confined to the vision and hopes of one man. The city saw an explosion of development between 1870 and 1885, as thousands of tourists arrived each summer to enjoy the surf and cooling ocean breezes. A town sprang up around them, and promenades, pavilions and amusement areas were built to accommodate them. And soon enough, in Bradley's view, things were out of control.

    Though he still owned the majority of the land (and would struggle for decades with the town's government over the proper use of it), Bradley saw his vision going astray. In 1885, an editorial in the Bradley-owned Daily Journal - the town's first newspaper - pointed the finger at "impudent and unmannerly men and boys" who loitered at the beachfront and pavilions at night, smoking "vile cigars and cigarettes."

    One of those unmannerly souls may well have been the writer Stephen Crane, whose family moved to Asbury in 1883. While writing his classic Civil War novel "The Red Badge of Courage," Crane worked as a stringer for various newspapers, reporting news of the Shore. One of his favorite haunts was the Kingsley Street merry-go-round. That carousel house, built in 1888, would later become part of the Palace Amusements building, which was only just demolished in May of last year.

    Like Springsteen, Crane had his own love/hate relationship with Asbury. In 1892 he lamented that "Asbury Park creates nothing. It does not make; it merely amuses...this is a resort of wealth and leisure, of women and considerable wine."

    It was also a town of simmering racial tension. By virtue of geography and economics, Asbury had always been a segregated city. The town's West Side - literally across the tracks - had become home to the poor blacks and immigrants who provided the service industries that kept the resort afloat. But their presence made the town's white tourists more than a little uneasy, especially at the beach.

    Wolff quotes another Daily Journal editorial from July 17, 1885, headlined "Too Many Colored People." "We allow them to vote, to have full standing and protection in law," the editorial read. "But when it comes to social intermingling then we object most seriously and emphatically. . . . (Asbury Park is) a white people's resort and it derives its entire support from white people."

    Those tensions would eventually explode almost a century later, when three days of rioting in 1970 left much of the West Side burned to the ground. It was a blow from which the city has yet to fully recover.

    It's in the description of these later years that Wolff's book really finds its voice. Wolff contrasts the riots with the city's flourishing late-'60s music scene, epitomized by the Upstage - a teen hangout and alcohol-free nightclub above a shoe store on Cookman Avenue. This cramped, windowless venue and its all-night jam sessions became the spawning ground for much of the music that would eventually make Asbury famous again.

    It was there that a long-haired Freehold kid named Springsteen first began building his reputation as a performer and songwriter, eventually titling his first album "Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J." The musicians Springsteen met at the Upstage - including David Sancious, Steve Van Zandt, Danny Federici, Garry Tallent and others - would form the nucleus of his E Street Band.

    Although Asbury was slow to recognize its own homegrown musical heritage, it was music that led to the town's one brief renaissance of sorts in the post-riot years. During that period, nightclubs sprang up all over The Circuit - the beachfront oval formed by Kingsley Street and Ocean Avenue that had been a favorite of cruising teens since the 1940s. And though the majority of those venues featured cover bands rather than original music, their names are fondly remembered by anyone who ever spent a warm summer night going from club to club and band to band. Most no longer exist - Guilio's South, Park Place, The Peppermint Lounge, Xanadu, Mrs. Jay's, the Fastlane. Of those '70s-era clubs, only the Stone Pony survives, thanks in part to semi-regular guest appearances by Springsteen.

    By the 1970s, nearby malls had all but suffocated Asbury's once-thriving business district, leaving the town almost strictly an entertainment destination. Into the mid-'70s there were still six operating movie theaters in Asbury Park - 1920s-era movie palaces such as the Mayfair and the Paramount, and smaller venues like The St. James, the Lyric, the Savoy and the Baronet. With the rise of the multiplexes, these too soon vanished. The Lyric was the only one to survive, eventually rechristened the Park, an adults-only grindhouse adjoining Palace Amusements that proudly advertised "matinees daily." The Park itself came down last year, along with the Palace.

    But one of the ironies Wolff makes clear in his book is that, no matter your vantage point in time, Asbury's glory days are most often viewed as having already passed. As early as 1902, local merchants were complaining that the seaside pavilions were "dingy by day and poorly lighted by night" and the beachfront "old and dilapidated." In 1941, local editorials and letters decried the fact that the "good old days" of Asbury Park had ended 20 years previous. In the late 1950s, an editorial in the Asbury Park Evening Press warned that, without a vision for its future, the city might become "a moribund political sub-division to be looted and then deserted for greener fields."

    That fear eventually became reality, as a series of corrupt city government officials and misguided development deals led to one of the most fallow periods in Asbury's history, three decades of decay and neglect that left the once-vibrant beachfront area a ghost town.

    Driving through Asbury in the summer of 2005, it's easy to see that yet another version of the city is soon to emerge. The geography has already changed enough that it's easy to lose your bearings, even on the most familiar streets. Many landmarks are gone. Palace Amusements, with its smiling neon "Tillie" face that once lit up the boardwalk night, has been razed to make way for one of the condominium projects (units start at $300,000), ending a six-year effort to have it declared a historic site.

    But the truth is if it hadn't been for Springsteen, it's unlikely anyone would have thought twice about the destruction of the Palace (it had been a gutted wreck for the better part of 16 years, the carousel horses sold off long ago). When he mentioned the building in his signature ssong "Born to Run," Springsteen invested the Palace - and Asbury Park - with a romantic life that transcended the reality. His details were often specific, but universal as well. Springsteen's Asbury was a place where desperate young lovers "huddled on the beach in the mist" just beyond the flashing lights of an amusement park. That Asbury represented youth, adventure, sex. It was community. It was music. It was an Asbury Park of the mind - and the heart.

    But it is that imagined Asbury Park that looms largest, in both memory and myth. It's the Asbury Park of Crane, of Springsteen, and of James Bradley as well. A place of dreams and visions, simultaneously evocative of both a simpler past and a brighter future. And it is that Asbury Park that will endure, long after the bulldozers and wrecking balls have had their way.

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