'Greetings from Asbury Park'

ASBURY PARK, N.J. -- Two towns side by side -- close enough that they share a single boardwalk. But first-time visitors who stand on the walkway between Ocean Grove and Asbury Park are not likely to confuse the two.

On the Ocean Grove side, they can take a stroll into a place that looks a lot like the 1880s: tidy Victorian houses, steeples rising above the rooftops, a beach crowded with families.

In the other direction, Asbury Park appears to be frozen in an unpleasant corner of the 1970s. There are abandoned buildings. There is peeling paint. And although Asbury has its own wide and attractive stretch of sand, there are few people enjoying it.

At first glance, most visitors would be tempted to walk south into Ocean Grove and never look back, but they shouldn't be so hasty. Those who make time for both towns will discover a rich slice of Jersey Shore history.

Although the past isn't all happy on this part of the coast, there are signs of a better future in even the most run-down parts of the boardwalk.

Asbury Park

Solitude is not a quality one expects from a New Jersey beach town on a summer Saturday afternoon. But in Asbury Park, I had the promenade to myself, with the exception of one strolling couple. As they receded into the distance, I was left alone with my thoughts, which kept returning to the same two words: "ghost town."

Victorian houses, now inns, line the streets of Ocean Grove.But ghosts aren't always bad. That was my feeling about Asbury Park, where the spirits of one of New Jersey's favorite sons, Bruce Springsteen, and other Jersey musicians still stalk the sand and the streets and the seaside bars.

Springsteen made his heritage clear with his first album: "Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J." Scenes and characters from the town have appeared in his songs ever since.

Although he's the most prominent figure in Asbury's history, Springsteen is just one part of a bigger story. Even before he first strapped on his Fender

Esquire, people were making music in this seaside town.

"Asbury Park was always a musical mecca," said Jean Mikle, who conducts tours of the city's musical landmarks along with her business partner, Stan Goldstein. "It was a city built with entertainment and tourism in mind."

In the 1930s and 1940s, the entertainment was provided by the likes of Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra. By the 1960s, rock 'n' rollers such as The Who and The Rolling Stones appeared in Asbury's long-running summer-concert series.

The '60s were also the peak years for the city's local music scene. "Because Asbury was a little more urban, a lot less uptight and a lot more open than the surrounding suburban communities, the musicians felt at home there," said Mikle.

Springsteen gained his first celebrity in the friendly but competitive jam sessions that took place nightly in the town's clubs. In time, other area rockers such as Bon Jovi and Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes would emerge from the area bars.

Asbury's musical legacy is its main tourism draw these days. While it's no Memphis or Liverpool, the town has enough pilgrims to keep Mikle and Goldstein busy, especially during its frequent music festivals.

The two also have published a guide for those who want to see the area on their own. Information is available on the Web at www.njrockmap.com.

One of the spookiest sights is the Casino, a long-abandoned arcade looming at the southern end of the boardwalk. Once the destination for families walking the boards, the building's ornate decorations testify to its illustrious past; the gaping holes in its roof are proof of what it has become.

Nearby is the Palace, another amusement facility gone bust but still graced by the goofy painted cartoon face of "Tillie," a Jersey Shore icon.

At the other end of the boardwalk is the stately Convention Hall, which was completed in 1930 and has fared much better than its neighbors.

It still hosts concerts, most notably a show by Springsteen that was televised on NBC's "Today" show last July.

As interesting as it was to see the locations that shaped Asbury Park's musical landscape, I kept returning to the same questions: What happened? Why is no one here?

The city's misfortunes began in 1970, when race riots broke out in the city. Summer visitors began to avoid Asbury, perceiving it as unsafe. Things were made worse by the suburban exodus of shops and residents that hurt many cities in the 1970s and '80s.

The road back

Today Asbury Park seems poised for a renaissance.

A redevelopment plan is in place, with construction beginning on condominiums near the waterfront. New restaurants and other businesses have opened in recent years, especially in the downtown business district. Little by little, the town seems less like a wasteland and more like a re-energized community.

Perhaps the best symbol of Asbury's return is the Stone Pony, the town's most famous live-music club. Opened in 1974, it was once a hangout for Springsteen and his cohorts.

The Pony hit hard times in the 1990s: It was closed for a period and was briefly a dance club where DJs, rather than bands, called the tunes.

But for the past few years, the Pony has returned to its old form and is one of the best places to experience live music in the area (though, happily, it has competition, including a club named Jimi that opened next door).

Paradise by the sea

In charting its renovation, Asbury Park likely is taking lessons from its neighbor, Ocean Grove. Until the early 1990s, Ocean Grove was facing some of the same problems as Asbury, if on a less extensive scale. Today, it's a welcoming vacation town with a lot of vintage flavor.

The Grove's re-creation of the late-19th century begins with its Victorian homes.

By some estimates, it contains one of the largest collection of such houses in the country, and most of them have been beautifully renovated. But it's not the architecture alone that makes Ocean Grove unusual.

Probably more remarkable is the mix of people who spend time there. On one hand, it has a large gay and lesbian population, many of whom have been involved in renovating the historic homes. It also has a strong Christian character, which can be traced to its earliest days.

In 1869, Rev. William Osborn chose the site for a summer gathering of the Methodist-Episcopal Church Society. The meetings were annual, and Ocean Grove became a popular summer destination for Methodist families on the East Coast.

Tent city

The original Ocean Grove visitors stayed in tents -- these were "camp meetings," after all. Families often returned each year, and so the tents became more elaborate over time: room-sized canvas enclosures with awnings and porches that were set up over wooden platforms each summer.

You might expect these structures to be long gone, but not in Ocean Grove. A few blocks in from the beach, you'll find about 100 of the tent houses. They're cute and cozy places, if rather closely packed together. Many are occupied by descendants of the original leaseholders. All are decorated with as much care as the Victorian mansions that neighbor them.

Nearby is Ocean Grove's primary landmark, the Great Auditorium, which opened in 1894. The 6,500-seat auditorium continues to host Sunday worship services and Saturday-evening entertainment.

Some aspects of the town's religious heritage have become less pronounced over the years; others have not. The sale of alcohol still is forbidden. For more than a century, cars and carriages were banned from the city streets on Sundays. That practice ended in 1980 due to a court order.

Laws and traditions aside, what Ocean Grove seems to offer is a sense of community.

Creating a connected community seems to be the goal in Asbury Park, too. And community -- and the dangers of losing one -- are ideas that drive the best of Springsteen's music. As different as they seem on the surface, the two towns have a lot in common and are hopefully headed in the same direction.

And, hopefully, a visit to the Asbury waterfront will soon be as communal as a stroll through Ocean Grove. That will be a good thing, so long as I still have space to spread my beach towel.

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