Asbury Park, one of the old showplaces of the Jersey Shore and a town that in its heyday rivaled Atlantic City, has seen its fortunes rise and fall (and rise again). Once viewed as a city in decline, Asbury Park benefited greatly from the housing bubble of the early 2000s, and seemed poised for a renaissance of sorts. Today, the future of development and gentrification in Asbury Park is less clear, as the tanked economy has forced many of the residential projects in the pipeline into a kind of limbo, their funding tied up or evaporated and unit sales sluggish at best.
The current doldrums are another rough patch in a city that has seen its share of tough times, but whose storied history and iconic boardwalk have been immortalized on film and in music.
In the Good Old Days
Asbury Park was founded in 1871 by developer James A. Bradley, a devout Methodist who was visiting Ocean Grove, then a Methodist retreat center. Bradley named his new town after Francis Asbury, the founder of Methodism in America, and basically planned it from the ground up, encouraging the development of trolleys, hotels, the waterfront, a sewer system, an amusement park, a fishing pier, a commercial section, and, of course, churches. In the early days, when Bradley still controlled the town, he patrolled the beaches personally, looking for signs of drinking or people wearing “immodest” attire.
In the 1920s, the Casino and Convention Center were built, and Asbury Park became one of brightest lights on the Jersey Shore, rivaling Atlantic City. “It was a jewel,” says Daniel DiBenedetto, head of both the Asbury Park Chamber of Commerce and Planning Board. “People used to come from New York, from Philadelphia. The Waldorf-Astoria built the Berkeley Cateret hotel [which was renovated in 2007] here. Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra played here.”
This reporter spent a summer vacation at Asbury Park as a child in the mid-1960s, and while it may have faded a bit from its glamour days by that point, it was still vibrant and very much alive. The beaches were packed, the hotels and motels were full, the boardwalk and the amusement rides thronged with fun-seekers.