Diverse Community with a Small-Town Feel Lakewood Township

Lakewood Township is a diverse community with a rich history, a growing population, and a wide array of attractions and amenities. Located in Ocean County, the township's accessibility to major urban centers has attracted residents who want to feel like they're part of a small town while having access to New York City, Philadelphia and the Jersey Shore. Lakewood is home to many ethnic and religious groups, young families as well as a growing senior community.

Lakewood’s Past and Present

Lakewood has seen many changes over the past several decades. Once a known as a popular resort destination, the town has grown as an influx of new residents have settled in the area.

“As with most of New Jersey, Lakewood's population has boomed,” says Stacey Spina, museum coordinator at the Lakewood Heritage Museum. “Fifty years ago it was a winter resort for the middle class and horse carriages carried Lakewood Heritage Museum guests around the lake and through the pines. During the off-season it was a lovely bedroom community. Many of the townspeople were immigrants who came to Lakewood after World War II. The architecture was some of the most eclectic in the country and included Tudor, Georgian, Federal, and Greek Revival styles – all reflecting the town’s affluence. Lakewood even had a castle built by Jasper Lynch. The outskirts of the town were home to chicken farms in a thriving poultry industry.”

Lakewood’s popularity as a vacation destination began to wane as tourists began to favor areas further south, however.

“Twenty-five years ago, the town suffered from the same urban blight that plagued many older towns during the post-recession years,” says Spina. “The tourism industry had cooled, and people were heading for southern winter destinations. The town responded by making great efforts to redevelop the lovely and historic downtown area with brick pavers and charming lamp posts,” says Spina.

But over the past 25 years, the town has again grown, welcoming both new residents and new industry.

“Lakewood is booming again,” says Spina. “The population has increased tremendously and the streets are filled with people shopping. There are few old-time residents left, but most of the current population has moved here within the last two decades. Lakewood has many adult communities that have brought new people to the area, and there are two higher education institutions, Georgian Court University and Beth Medrash Govoha.”

Area Attractions

Along with the revitalization of the downtown shopping district, great effort was also put in to refurbish the historic Strand Theatre, which still stands in Lakewood today. “The Strand is really the jewel of arts and culture in the county,” says Spina. “The theatre was designed by architect Thomas Lamb without any obstructive support columns. It has such perfect acoustics that microphones aren’t necessary for the actors to be heard. The interior reflects the great turn-of-the-20th-century theatres and has intricate gilded plasterwork and comfortable seating. Shows there include everything from musicals, to children's productions, to local talent showcases, to headline comedians and musicians.”

The town is also flush with green spaces, and residents and visitors enjoy several local parks. The town also offers a variety of outdoor activities

“Lakewood has lovely parks,” says Spina. “Ocean County Park is the former vacation estate of John D. Rockefeller. Lake Shenandoah is a great spot for canoeing, or row boating and of course, fishing. Pine Park, which is the former home of the prestigious Newman School, is now home to an annual renaissance fair just a few puts away from one of Lakewood’s three golf courses. And of course there’s the lake that Lakewood is named for – Lake Carasaljo – that’s ringed by a century-old walking path.”

Lakewood also boasts FirstEnergy Park, home to a minor-league baseball team, the Blueclaws. The town is also home to Georgian Court University, which has many programs open to the public. "The campus is located on the former George J. Gould estate and reflects the Georgian architecture that it is named for,” says Spina. “There are five distinct gardens on the estate along with sculpted works of art purchased by the Goulds at several World’s Fairs. Along with lectures and scholarly activities, the campus art gallery and library are also open to the public.”

Beth Medrash Govoha, a world-famous school for advanced Talmudic studies, is also located in Lakewood, and the town’s public library that is part of the 21-branch Ocean County Library System. “And as such, it’s an active and forward-moving organization with programs that are educational and entertaining,” says Spina. Those interested in learning more about the town’s history can visit the Lakewood Heritage Museum.

“The museum represents the people of Lakewood from its first industrial roots as a lumber mill and bog iron foundry, through the golden age of the most wealthy and influential visitors, its middle class resort era, right up to the bustling community of today,” says Spina.

Living in Lakewood

Architecturally speaking, many unique homes that reflect Lakewood's past still stand today. Spina points out that there are opportunities for people with a love of architecture to purchase and restore these classical buildings.

Co-ops and condos do exist in Lakewood, but are still far outnumbered by single-family homes in the area.

As of late, the Lakewood tax assessor reports that almost all of Lakewood's co-op developments were converted to condos ownership, says Bonnie Fitzgerald broker/owner at ERA Byrne Realty in Lakewood. In Lakewood there is only one co-op development with 88 units remaining.

“There are two distinct types of condos [in Lakewood, New Jersey], residential and [senior] adult community,” she says. “The average sales price for a residential condo, as of April this year, is $208,000 with asking prices as low as $75,000. In the senior adult communities the average condo sales price is approximately $100,474 with asking prices as low as $45,000 or as high as $195,000. The combined average of condos in Lakewood is $154,589.”

Lakewood's population has increased considerably over the past couple of decades, and long-time residents and newcomers alike benefit from the area’s cultural and community offerings, as well as its proximity to nearby highways and the beaches at the New Jersey Shore.

“We’re situated in a good location for commuting to one of the cities, but have a small town feel to the area, which makes Lakewood more desirable,” says Fitzgerald. “We also are located within 10 miles of the Jersey Shore beaches, and there is a variety of shopping and entertainment locally. We have the historic Strand Theatre, Georgian Court College, and lots of parks and green spaces.”

"We have several adult communities in Lakewood, but there are many young families settling here," says Fitzgerald.

The diverse population includes a large segment of the Orthodox Jewish community, as well as Estonian, Hispanic and African Americans. "Ninety percent of the retail stores in downtown Lakewood are either operated by members of the Orthodox Jewish community or by members of the Hispanic community,” says Sheldon Wolpin, chairman of the Lakewood Heritage Commission. “Traditionally, Saturday is a big shopping day, but in downtown Lakewood it’s quiet because many are closed due to the Sabbath."

"Many of the Orthodox Jewish residents come here for the rabbinical school, Beth Medrash Govoha – a very important part of Lakewood. It’s the largest rabbinical school in the country today. They are attracted here by that, and people have opened up places of business to serve that community, which has attracted non-students who want to take advantage of the community amenities," says Wolpin.

Because of the unique needs of its Orthodox Jewish residents -- such as having houses of worship within walking distance -- Lakewood has several communities within the community that cater to these residents.

"At the western end of the Township of Lakewood, several miles from downtown is a community that includes freestanding private homes, condos, and apartments. It's still being built, and when it’s completed, it will have about 1,000 units. It's being developed by Orthodox Jewish community, and will include several houses of worship, a shopping center with includes a totally kosher supermarket, other stores and restaurants. This is a community within the community, one neighborhood that is unique. Other such areas are being built throughout the town," says Wolpin.

Lakewood also has a growing senior population. "On the other side of the coin, we have seven or eight large senior communities. The very first gated community in the Northeast was Leisure Village, which has 2,500 units and is now close to 40 years old," says Wolpin. That was followed by Leisure Village East, which features 1,500 units.”

"Two new senior communities the Horizon and the Enclave which is still under construction," Wolpin continues. "There is a modestly large senior community in Lakewood. We have seniors who are constantly moving in, some into the two new developments, some who are buying into existing senior communities.”

Whether residents are commuting to work or enjoying the local area, they’re never far from something to do—be it New York, Atlantic City or somewhere a little closer to home. "Downtown Lakewood does have some congestion, but out of Lakewood is not so bad,” says Wolpin. “Route 9 is still a two-lane road, Route 70 is now a four-lane road and new business are being built there. The Hilton Gardens and Ruby Tuesday were recently constructed, and the Longhorn is under construction. Route 88 has the largest concentration of auto dealers.”

This once sleepy bedroom community has grown and changed over the years, offering a plethora of activities and opportunities for its diverse community. As Lakewood celebrates and takes pride in its past, it looks toward the future and continued growth, offering a little something for everyone.

Stephanie Mannino is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.

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