Trading Places: Destination Asbury Park, NJ
It’s memorial day weekend. It’s cold and it’s gray in Seattle. Forecast? Rain! Rain! Rain! Go figure! I always have to remind myself. Joe. There are other parts of the world where the forecast is … sun, sun, sun & fun, fun, fun! Like. Wait for it. Asbury Park, NJ! ; )
Asbury Park, NJ? Really? Yeah … really! We have history. We have rapport. Though we’ve been estranged, we’re not irreconcilable. I’ve paid my dues in purgatory. Now I want my reborn “city in ruins” back! It’s my stomping grounds. It’s my new rebirth right! Okay. I’m just soooooo fucking tired of Seattle I want to scream! There I said it! I own it!
I lived in Asbury for five years of my life. They were some of the most rewardingly creative years of my life. Plus I love the Jersey Shore. Not the stupid reality show … the beach! The Atlantic. The smell of salt air & Coppertone commingling, igniting cherished and iconized childhood and adult memories.
Living Gay in the Garden State: Asbury Park
The message on T-shirts visible in the shop windows along Asbury Park’s boardwalk is unmistakable: “I LOVE AP.”
In the full sun of a mid-summer day, this ocean resort can no longer pass for a deserted landscape in a Twilight Zone episode. Au contraire. Asbury Park, the old-time standard-bearer of seashore getaways, has finally awakened from a slump of biblical proportions.
The number of beachgoers is soaring as high as the pyrotechnics display over the ocean on the Fourth of July. Art Galleries. Night life. Restaurants. They’re all here. And the driving force — economic, political, you name it — is the gay American.
“Make your move!” reads an ad hawking condos, illustrated with a photo of two males with athletic abs. For the women, there’s the “Crush,” with an invitation for all ladies to an end-of-summer kiss-off.
There’s no mistaking the masses of same-sex couples on the boards by trendy McLoone’s Asbury Grille, just outside the famed Convention Hall, during Jersey Pride weekend, which holds its 20th celebration this year.
“You can actually hold hands,” says Bill Meisch, an Asbury pioneer who arrived in 1980, and opened “House of Modern Living” downtown.
“The arts scene helps.If you’re not gay, you have tattoos,” says Meisch, dubbed “The King of Cookman Avenue” by none other than Bruce Springsteen. “That arts sub-culture is here. It goes hand-in-hand, so it works.”
Asbury works, too, for longtime partners and New York transplants Scott Hamm and Gene Mignola. They arrived about three years ago, opening Shelter Home, a retail boutique and fabric printing operation on Cookman Avenue, with a satellite store on the boardwalk.
“We have gay friends who were either weekenders here or living here,” Mignola says as he leans against a counter featuring souvenir items called Tillie Clicks, refrigerator magnets bearing the likeness of Tillie, the iconic face with that oh-so-memorable grin, which once stood watch from the now-defunct Palace Amusements.
“It was the beginning of the turning point,” he says of their arrival and the resort’s re-awakening.
At the offices of Terry Reidy, the Montclair transplant who has been Asbury’s city manager for seven years now, it’s hard to miss the framed citations (three years running) of Asbury’s spot on the list of New Jersey’s Top 10 Beaches, a contest run by the New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium.
He rattles off Asbury’s oh-so-important mix — African-Americans, Latinos, Haitians, Mexicans and, of course, gays — all attuned to their own artistic and entrepreneurial impulses.
“There’s something about Asbury Park that draws people looking for their second chance, their dream,” Reidy says. “They feel support here.”
He knows the history that shut down Asbury for more than a generation: the racial upheaval of 1970, the de-institutionalization of psychiatric patients who subsequently filled Asbury’s by-then- empty boarding houses.
He knows, too, about another piece of the resort’s long history, namely Asbury’s established gay presence. “Much longer than I realized,” he says.
“We can rest assured there was a gay presence from the time it was founded,” says Daniel Wolff, author of “4th of July, Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land,” a 2005 book that explores Asbury’s roller-coaster ride of religious, political, and musical twists and turns.
“People couldn’t be out. We didn’t hear much about it,” says Wolff. “Asbury use to be a ‘dry’ town, but there was lots of drinking. It’s always been part of Asbury’s history.”
Now, of course, Asbury’s gay presence is out and in the open. For one, it reaches deep into city hall, where Ed Johnson serves as the town’s first openly gay mayor. He is among three gay members on city council.
“A majority,” Reidy says with pride.
The reach also extends into the city’s bureaucracy, right down to the shade tree commission. “You can’t find a board in this city without gay representation,” he adds.
Lately, Reidy has been charting the resort’s 21st century history-in-the-making, such as the massive rise in revenue from beach-badges. In 2003 the town took in $72,000 from badges. Last year it rose to a whopping $775,000.
“That’s just beach badges,” says Reidy. It doesn’t even factor in the 2008 arrival of parking meters along Ocean Avenue, something Reidy took some heat for in the Tri-City News, a weekly paper packed with ads from upscale retailers. “But that rapidly changed,” he says.
The trick going forward, as Wolff sees it, is to foster alliances among the resort’s diverse population.
“What happened to Asbury over and over again was one interest group took over and neglected everybody else, and it hadn’t worked very well,” says Wolff.
This time, though, Asbury’s re-emergence is being driven — not by an overriding, top-down game-changer — but by “individuals falling in love with the city,” Wolff says. “Instead of the city putting all its eggs in one basket, it’s going house by house and block by block. I think it’s very hopeful.”
The extent of Asbury’s diversity was something of a surprise to Shelter Home’s Hamm.
“It ended up being a little less gay than we thought,” he says. “In the city, most of our friends and people we dealt with were gay.” Says the 54-year-old Mignola: “Our client base is very mixed.”
Underneath it all, there’s no mistaking a sense of a homecoming among Asbury’s “new arrivals.”
In Mignola’s case, his musician father once played the oboe at the band shell above the old Howard Johnson’s (now McLoone’s Asbury Grill) when he was a kid. “So I always had a fondness for Asbury Park,” he says.
One pre-summer afternoon, Teresa Minnick stops inside the cavernous Convention Hall thoroughfare, to hawk retail space to Frieda Cohen, who is sporting a pair of bright red running shoes.
Minnick is with Madison Marquette, the outfit that has redesigned and rebuilt much of Asbury’s retail from the ground up. Cohen is looking to open up a runners shop.
Has the arrival of relatively well-to-do gays in Asbury influenced her choice of location?
“I didn’t even notice (the gays) because there’s so many people here,” says Cohen. “I’m here my whole life. Born and raised. I’m a Jersey girl.”
To be sure, there’s no escaping the pull of history — gay or otherwise.
On the boardwalk, across from the The Stone Pony, the famous music venue, is the Silverball Museum Arcade and its Pinball Hall of Fame, where visitors are enticed to bring back those “great boardwalk memories” and “play the top 200 pinball games of all time.”
There’s the ring-a-ding of the pinballs from such classics as the 1967 Apollo, made by Williams Electronic Manufacturing Co. In the center of it all is the Silverball Snack Bar, where $2.50 Nathan hot dogs can be savored on green, yellow or red Formica kitchen tables right out of the 1950s.
The palace for “pinball wizards” opened in 2009, not long after Asbury got a new boardwalk, replacing its once-derelect promenade.
“You’d run this boardwalk, and it was shaking,” says Cohen. “Now on a weekend, you can’t even run. It’s so crowded.”
I also have reason to wax poetic about Asbury this weekend …. it’s the 29th anniversary of The Clash attack on Asbury Park weekend. Three days of music and one incredible party on the last night at the Amusement Casino. But I digress ….
I need a change. I need something new, via something old. I need to get the fuck out of Dodge … so to speak. I need to be in Asbury Park, with my feet firmly planted in hallowed Jersey beach sand! I need to be slathered in Coppertone roasting my Seattle pale white body worshipping the sun and sand and fragrant Atlantic breezes. Bring it on baby! I need to be making art. Making music. Making noise! And making a new life! I’m game. I’m gayly optimistic too! I’m downright giddy at the thought!
Yes there are currently some obstacles in my way, keeping me from achieving this goal (read money) … but it’s a goal none the less. From a person who never really liked the concept of goals. Hey! Sometimes you do have to say …
What the fuck!
(though you really can’t say that in Seattle … for fear of offending) And in NJ … I know I can. I’m ready to burn some bridges bitches!
After sixteen years in Seattle … it’s crazily sad. I have no roots here. I have few friends. My only real friend here is someone I knew from back east. I have “acquaintances” but no others that would lay down their life for me. Stand with me. How fucking sad is that!
Back east I have a host of friends who would be by my side. Even after many years of absence. I was born and raised in NJ. I am a NJ boy. Man. Child.
New Jersey! I’m ready for you! Are you ready for me? Will you forgive me my West Coast trespasses? You better motherfucker! Oh … and how’s the family? ; )
Now to concoct the plan …. Destination Asbury Park, NJ!