Unmarred by chain stores and the sameness that seems to afflict beachside communities nationwide, Asbury Park is a historic Jersey Coast gem where Beaux Arts and Victoriana architecture unapologetically stand side by side. As you stroll you’ll discover that at its heart, Asbury Park - which it’s acceptable to call “AP” - is a cluster of mom and pop businesses and other concerns that keeps the past alive through wonderful kitschy details.
Asbury Park was once a place Presidents vacationed, but along the way - after 1970 riots and a spell of political corruption - AP fell into a state of urban decay. Locals silently thank Bruce Springsteen for planting the earliest seeds of urban renewal by naming his 1973 debut album “Greetings From Asbury Park” after playing around town for several years and having had the courtesy to grow up in nearby Red Bank.
A car’s not necessary if you’re striking out from the New York area - ride a NJ Transit train to the Asbury Park stop and head straight up Cookman Avenue to the Boardwalk - AP’s highlights are within a square mile of here. As you stroll Cookman you’ll have your pick of pre-boardwalk munchies but if you want to head straight for sand, most local restaurants deliver directly to the beach. Here now, the “other” Jersey Shore.
5… Take a walk on the boardwalk.
The boardwalk greets you with a large yellow-and-black sign with a patina-covered copper schooner sitting atop it, which might remind you that one of maritime’s worst tragedies ever took place just outside AP’s famous Convention Hall in 1934. The Morro Castle cruise ship’s library caught fire and it resulted in 180 people losing their lives. It took a few months for local authorities to get the remnants of the ship out of the water just east of the AP Convention Hall. A granite monument was placed on the grounds just in front of the boardwalk sign to commemorate the tragedy’s 75th anniversary in September 2009.
In its glory days, the Boardwalk was famous for rides and other family attractions – including the Tilt-A-Whirl and Madam Marie’s psychic hut, both glorified in Springsteen’s “Fourth Of July Asbury Park (Sandy)” lyrics. Madam Marie’s - smack dab in the center - is one of the few original Boardwalk attractions still standing. The late Marie Castello actually garnered a New York Times obituary when she died on June 27, 2008. Family members have since taken over the business and are available for consultations (732-775-5327). Legend has it that The Boss maintained a long-running friendship with Madam Marie, stopping in now and again to chat - and he has stated that the Madam did predict his success.
Asbury Park’s beach was voted the #6 best Jersey Shore in 2008, but if it’s either blisteringly hot or rainy, you’ll find worthy amusements indoors, including the Paranormal Museum (627 Cookman Avenue, 732-455-3188, paranormalbooksnj.com, $5 admittance), whose collection includes the death mask of Robert E. Lee. Another favorite family Boardwalk activity is visiting Hot Sand (1200 Ocean Avenue, hotsandap.com), where the young and old alike can get free glass blowing demonstrations Thursday through Sunday. You can set your hands or feet in glass (i.e. “quick casts”) for $20 to $40 depending on size of cast ordered.
4… It’s show time… at the Paramount.
The Paramount (Ocean Avenue between Fifth and Sunset, 732-897-8810) is a Beaux Arts stunner. Groucho Marx and Ginger Rogers graced the stage for its big opening on July 11, 1930. Designed by the same folks who brought us Grand Central Station - and recently renovated and restored to its former glory - the Paramount now hosts everything from the annual AP Easter Pageant to Jeff Beck.
3…Be unconventional at the conventional hall.
Back in the day - circa late 60s to late 70s - “stoner” kids from Northern NJ and Philly would head down to the Asbury Park Convention Hall to take in concerts by the likes of The Doors and The Allman Brothers. It was recently discovered that some of the “Doors In Europe” DVD footage, which shows Jim Morrison on a terrace, was shot at the back of the AP Convention Hall and not somewhere in Italy as the rest of the band presumed. Along with great concerts - like the one that Bob Dylan gave in 2008 that fans are still talking about - you’ll find the Grand Arcade, just outside the Hall’s entrance. Gourmet bites await. Go for a red velvet cupcake at ManhattanJack, some raw clams on the half shell at Biggie’s Clam Bar or small plates on the beachfront veranda at Aqua Grill where "The Boss" has been spotted sipping tequila.
At the Asbury Park Galleria you’ll encounter eclectic souvenirs including items emblazoned with the image of “Tillie” - a roughly-painted portrait of a girl who oddly looks like The Little Rascals’ Alfalfa. You’ll also spot Tillie’s likeness on the wall of the Wonder Bar (1213 Ocean Ave., 732-502-8886). Kay Harris, the owner of the Galleria, is AP’s friendly unofficial historian and she can give you some good advice on the town’s “must-sees.”
2…Trot over to the Stone Pony.
The Stone Pony (913 Ocean Avenue (corner of 2nd and Ocean Aves., 732-502-0600, stoneponyonline.com) is one of the most famous rock venues in the world. Springsteen put it on the map and stars like Patti Smith and Keith Richards have fought to keep it open in more trying times. The Stone Pony still brings in the big names and in the late afternoon you can see the rock tour buses pull into the parking lot just across the street as sound check time approaches.
The boxy 36-year-old club is so small that you can hear the show clearly standing outside its front awning. The big name talent sells out fast and the original ambiance remains. The Pony is not just about rock and roll, though - many blues artists take the stage, plus on Wednesdays there are country shows presented by Jersey radio station Thunder Country 98.5 and on Thursdays there is “Open Artist Night,” which features all genres of music.
1…This casino’s not about gambling.
Closed from 1990 to 2005, the Beaux Arts Asbury Park Casino and Carousel House (700 Ocean Ave. at First Ave.) continues to undergo renovation, though the attached ornate copper and glass Carousel House is fully renovated and is the epicenter for serious theater in AP. For Summer Season 2010, Revision Theatre (732-455-3059, revisiontheatre.org) is presenting The Who’s Tommy, the world premiere of the musical The Bikinis and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (ticket prices range $50-$90 depending on night). Flea markets also take place here in summer.
Look thirty feet north from the Casino and find the First Avenue Pavilion (800 Ocean Ave. at 1st Ave.) that boasts the rainbow-colored scoop-it-yourself Candyteria (732-988-1122, candyteria.com) where most confections are about $5-$6 per pound and you can even lick homemade ice cream with an oceanfront view.
Also check out the First Avenue Pavilion’s Bodega Shoppe, which offers trendy home furnishings and bric-a-brac (732-775-4005, bodegashoppe.com) and the mid-century antique shop Corazza (732-361-3179, corazzamodern.com). They are both antique browser’s paradises and don’t be surprised if you find anything from AP city signs to furniture fit for a 1940’s Hollywood starlet.
A final note: what’s truly incredible is that the AP Chamber Of Commerce has been diligently buying back all the horses from the original Carousel House carousel - it was sold off piece by piece in the late 80s and early 90s. Once re-assembled, it will be put back into its rightful place.