A small plot of land on the boardwalk in Asbury Park, New Jersey, is laying bare a long-standing disagreement about what sort of character the city should have and the types of people who should live there.
In mid-May, I met Madeline Monaco—who lives in the complex across the street—and Felicia Simmons, two town activists, in front of the plot for a tour. Down the street from us, construction was well underway (and traffic had been inconveniently rerouted) for the Asbury Ocean Club, a luxury hotel and condominium overseen by iStar, the city’s master developer. The Ocean Club, which has a penthouse selling for $6 million, will open this summer.
The people who stay or live at the 17-story Ocean Club will, essentially, never have to leave. According to iStar’s press release, there will be a fitness center, a yoga room, a meditation terrace, a spa with an on-call masseuse, a reflecting pool, a 17-seat movie theater, a concierge to buy groceries, a place to wash dogs, a game room, and a “Beach Bellperson” who will bring towels and water and “take care of any whim.” One city official told me about a rumor that this all-inclusive setup is to entice buyers worried about the city’s crime, which, though still present, is on the decline. Brian Cheripka, a vice president at iStar, denied that claim and told me the company’s goal is to “keep the promises that were made a long time ago” and redevelop the waterfront where iStar owns 35 acres of property. As part of a redevelopment plan, zoning entitles the company to 3,100 units of housing. For decades, this beachfront area has also been under the threat of eminent domain, and several properties have been acquired after developers over the years exercised that power. Rita Marano’s deli, a former town staple and gathering spot that Marano owned for 22 years, was acquired in 2007 and is now a vacant lot—different than the one designated for the pool club—beside the Ocean Club. IStar told me they have no plans to “acquire additional property.”
But come next year, the rectangular plot will become a members-only pool club for the residents of the Ocean Club.
Though iStar told me they’re also planning to open a public pool, Monaco and Simmons worry the private club will alter the demographics and spirit of the city. “My concern is that we’re pushing people who helped build this city, we’re pushing them out to make room,” said Monaco. She worries Asbury Park will become like Long Branch, a shore town further north that’s now a chain of high-rise hotels catering to the summer crowd. In 2017, 342 new construction permits were issued in Asbury Park City, according to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. In 2011, there were only five permits.
Asbury Park has a diverse makeup of black, Hispanic, and gay populations; it has been home to those who are stigmatized or struggling. When Amy Quinn, the deputy mayor, moved there in the early 2000s, she called the city the Island of Misfit Toys. “Everyone was coming from a bankruptcy or a break-up,” she said. “It was the place you went when you were figuring out what to do.”
Monaco, Simmons, and I walked to the south side of the plot, beside a boarded-up brick building painted with a mural of a mermaid. Several objects were fastened to the chain-link fence that cordoned off the area. There was a pair of orange plastic sunglasses with the word “seeing” written on the lenses and a piece of paper that read “require exceptional knowledge from your leaders.” I thought the display looked like a form of protest, but Simmons and Monaco brushed it off as what they considered typical Asbury artist behavior. Simmons, who is black, instead talked about what she called the “private butler service” the pool club will offer. She looked me in the eye. “It’s a slap in the face,” she said.
Driving down Ocean Avenue in Long Branch feels like taking a trip to South Beach or Cabo or some other resort town nowhere near New Jersey. The tall, impersonal hotels that have come to embody the beachfront have names like Ocean Place Resort and Spa, rows of private balconies, and palm trees swaying on the properties. Kushner Companies, the real estate firm founded by Jared Kushner’s father, is behind many of the new developments, and its footprint is only growing. It recently broke ground for a 102-room beachfront hotel called the Onada Surf Club. As in Asbury, building permits have skyrocketed in Long Branch post-Sandy—from 26 new construction permits in 2011 to 160 in 2017. Even though redevelopment was slated long before the storm, Sandy brought a national spotlight to the area. “Asbury was in a really, really good position to capitalize on the attention that was given to the shore,” said Diane Bates, a sociologist at the College of New Jersey. Now, Ocean and Monmouth counties, which encompass the shore, have authorized some of the highest numbers of new construction permits in the state, doubling from 2,217 in 2011 to 4,435 in 2017.
For years, residents in Long Branch also fought eminent domain, which the city exercised in order to seize what it deemed blighted properties. Some residents won, but some lost. “There’s a huge part of the population that feels that we were robbed of historic buildings and homes and a simpler way of life so to speak,” said Patty Verrochi, a Long Branch resident and local activist, who speaks about how the new entertainment—like an ice rink where tickets are $16 for adult entry and skates—serves the summer clientele but not the rest of Long Branch. The town has a poverty rate of 17 percent and a median income of $54,000. “It’s not like [the Kushners are] putting a recreation center for the lower poverty side of Long Branch or a YMCA, bowling alley, movie theater,” she said. “It’s all just inclusive of those who are able to afford those luxury items.”
Last summer, I spent the Fourth of July with a friend in Long Branch, where her parents recently bought a one-bedroom condo as a second home. Many year-round shore residents gripe about the swell of weekenders during the summer, and what I remember most about that holiday weekend is the number of people. The sheer volume was anxiety-inducing and weighed on all our activities. We ate ice cream at a local chain called Coney Waffle, located in an outdoor mall owned by Kushner Companies, where the line snaked out the door. The parlor sells shakes piled high with marshmallows, cookies, Ring Pops, gummy rings, and Kit Kat bars. By the time we paid and found a place to sit, the ice cream was dripping onto our hands. Later, I waited in another slow-moving line, baking under the sun, for my turn to use the public restroom. On beach days, my friend insisted we wake up at 8 a.m. to stake out a spot.
It is, of course, a privilege to be able to stay at the beach, where rentals are expensive and space is tight. Unsurprisingly, some locals feel that weekenders visit with a sense of entitlement. Along the northern part of the shore, such people are nicknamed Bennys, named after the towns they come from: Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark, and New York. Further south, the residents call them Shoobies. Bennys and Shoobies tend to drive fast, disregard traffic signals, and travel in packs. “I felt like these rich people, they have nothing better to do than come down on the weekends, and they honestly came down and threw wrappers out the windows, left shit all over the beaches, just continuously every single summer,” said Steve Campbell, who grew up and lives in Long Branch. “It’s an epidemic.”
Some shore towns hit by Hurricane Sandy are seeing a similar shift in character, particularly ones that were historically middle class. “Small cottages have been replaced by two-story homes, and we now have more of a seasonal population,” said Joe Mangino, who lives in Beach Haven West and co-founded a relief group after Sandy. According to Zillow, the home values in that town have increased 15.7 percent over the last year, and the median home price is $390,000.
Now, some of the locals who created the fabric of the towns can no longer afford to live there. In 1999, Launa Ruoff bought the Frosted Mug, a burger and shake joint on Long Beach Island. Six feet of water from Sandy ruined the kitchen equipment and her house next door. A new soft serve machine, of which she had two, can cost more than $10,000, and Ruoff couldn’t afford to rebuild. She sold the Frosted Mug, moved inland to Manahawkin, and has been struggling to hold a job ever since. When we spoke this spring, she had just been let go from the Fantasy Island amusement park because they didn’t need her year-round.
In Sea Bright, a sliver of beach on the northern tip of the shore, new construction is shifting the town’s aesthetic—and perhaps reputation. After three days of downpours, I met Susie Markson and her fiancee, Jenny Potts, at Donovan’s Reef, a famous local bar where Jon Bon Jovi has played and kids from neighboring towns go to drink. Markson moved to Sea Bright at age 24, in 1997, and for many years was the manager at Donovan’s. Now she helps run the beach. She wore a blue tie-dye staff sweatshirt that said “Sea Bright Beach” on the front and a pair of stud earrings in the shape of seashells. Part of her job is to take money from people, which she hates. She wishes the beaches in New Jersey were free to everyone, but they’re not (most towns require beach tags). Markson loves the shore for the same reasons many people love the shore: She can wear flip-flops to dinner, ride her bike into town, wake up with views of the ocean, and smell the sea-salt air anytime she wants.
Markson walked me outside for a quick tour. We strolled along the new “boardwalk” (there aren’t actually boards; it’s made of concrete) built atop the sea wall. She pointed out the new real estate along the beachfront, including a duplex with each home selling for $1.8 million. After Sandy, several buildings behind the wall were wiped out, including Donovan’s. A friend of mine who grew up nearby described the old Donovan’s, which she loved, as a “trailer without wheels.” The new Donovan’s, rebuilt and opened in 2017, has concrete floors, flat-screen TVs, and garage doors on two sides that open onto a patio. “I prefer the old place,” said Markson.
Back at Donovan’s, Markson and Potts talked about how Sandy has now made them fear storms, which have always been a part of life in Sea Bright. The spectacle used to be fun. Markson would attend watch parties at Donovan’s, drinking beer and having a good time as the rain pelted the roof. There had been some concern about damage before Hurricane Earl hit in 2010, but the worry turned out to be for nothing.
Two days before Sandy, officials urged residents to evacuate. Still, no one thought much of it. Potts and her teenage daughter left to stay with Potts’s mother in Long Branch without bringing any belongings. When Potts got back into her house, she found the refrigerator in the living room and the couch in the kitchen. Food was strewn around the floor, and the water had carried some of it into her bathroom. Potts can still smell the sickening mix of gas and mildew. Her daughter asked her to salvage some personal items from her bedroom, but the dresser drawers were filled to the brim with water. They lost everything.
Potts and Markson began reminiscing about the old Donovan’s and the way things used to be. Markson hollered at a man standing behind us. “Hey Rich!” she said. “Remember when that possum fell on you?”
Rich walked over. “We were just talking about that,” he said. He mimed seeing an animal fall through the roof of the bar, land on his shoulder, and brush it off. “Did you tell them about the time the rat got into the deep fryer?”
There’s some talk along the coast that Asbury’s revitalization will be a model for other towns. By building hip hotels, music venues, and a bowling alley bathed in blue light, the city has drawn young weekenders and added jobs. But in the ever-present debate over which is the best shore town, not everyone wants an Asbury.
“There’s no real shops. I know there’s one or two restaurants I go to that are very nice, but nothing like Point Pleasant Beach,” said Stephen Reid, the mayor of Point Pleasant, of Asbury. “Asbury Park is the young crowd. Bar scene. Seaside Heights is the same thing. They’re trying to get out of that, though, trying to get more of a family-oriented town too. It’s going to take them some time. When you talk about some other towns, they’re just weekend communities for the summer. These are people that are transient. But when you talk about Point Pleasant Beach, these are solid towns, community towns. It’s a family-friendly town.”
After the tour in Asbury, I drove Simmons, who doesn’t have a car, to a meeting over a mile away. We followed a car with a bumper sticker that said, “Jersey Strong.” As we exited the neighborhood, Simmons pointed out a small apartment complex where her mother used to live. “I just lost my mom,” she said, then clarified: “Not to death. She moved outside of Asbury. She was priced out. She moved to Neptune.” Among other things, her mom gave up her favorite bench on the boardwalk, just a block from the Ocean Club. And Simmons’s core group of friends have moved away as well. She misses the midnight barbecues she hosted for them with music and a view of the beach from her house. Now only a handful of friends remain, making Simmons feel like a foreigner in her own town. “We call ourselves the Lost Tribe of Asbury Park, like the Lost Tribe of Israel,” she said. “We’re just wandering.” She started speaking about Asbury as if talking directly to iStar: “You’re building it for who you want to come,” she said. “You’re pricing out what makes Asbury special.”
Britta Lokting is a journalist based in New York. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, New York magazine, the Baffler, and elsewhere. She last wrote for Curbed about skoolies.