SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J. – They're the places where generations of families savored fast-melting ice cream cones and chowed down on garlicky slices of pizza, where teens scoped out potential dates, where a tipsy Snooki tottered unsteadily, and under which the Drifters sang about falling in love.
For all their nostalgia, boardwalks are still a major economic engine for shoreline communities in New Jersey and New York. Tourists and residents alike spend their money on food and drinks there, or on games of skee ball or balloon darts to win a stuffed animal. So weeks after Superstorm Sandy, towns are racing to rebuild their boardwalks by May, for reasons both sentimental and financial.
They will need the tourism money this summer more than ever as they try to rebuild homes and other infrastructure. The expensive efforts are forcing decisions not only about how much to spend, but also whether to rebuild with environmentally sensitive wood or more durable materials.
The destruction in Seaside Heights has become emblematic of the storm because of a roller coaster that plunged into the ocean. Yet Sandy also destroyed the boardwalk where families eat belly-busting foods like zeppoles — fried dough laden with powdered sugar — and where Snooki and company partied their way through the MTV reality show "Jersey Shore.
Mayor Bill Akers said 75 percent of his town's budget comes from tourism, with the remaining 25 percent raised from local taxpayers.
"You can see how important it is for us to get the boardwalk back up and running, and to make sure we have a summer season," he said. "It's something we have to get done."
Seaside Heights, like several other Jersey shore towns, is soliciting bids to rebuild its boardwalk; Akers estimated it will take $10 million to $12 million. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse towns for 75 percent of those costs, but local governments first must front all the money themselves, forcing many to borrow in the short or long term.
In these towns, even in the many non-commercial sections where boardwalks are merely a non-sandy way to get from here to there, not having one is not an option.
Terri Bissell moved to Seaside Heights 15 years ago after visiting it each summer for decades. Her parents started vacationing there 70 years ago.
"It was like heaven, coming down here to the boardwalk," she said. "It was our own little piece of heaven; that's why we bought here. The kids are so happy when they're on that boardwalk. Parents are always dying to bring their kids someplace to keep them busy; the Seaside Heights boardwalk has always been that place."
To the north, Belmar has approved the largest boardwalk rebuilding project so far in the aftermath of the storm, committing $20 million to rebuild its 1.3-mile boardwalk and haul away the remnants of the old one. It is also considering erecting a steel sea wall to be buried under sand dunes to help protect the boardwalk and homes and businesses.
"The beach and the boardwalk go together," said Mayor Matthew Doherty. "It's who we are; it's part of our identity."
Yet identity only goes so far in shore towns' calculus. Money is a bigger factor.
"If there's no boardwalk, people aren't going to come this summer," Doherty said. "They'll go somewhere else, and if they like it there, they won't be back here. We want to be the first in the race to get things started for the summer."
A 20-foot chunk of boardwalk is all that remains in Belmar, for one reason. It was an experimental section, bolted to underpinnings with the same hurricane tie-down straps that many home builders use to bind homes to their foundations. The entire new Belmar boardwalk will be built this way, Doherty said.
Other Jersey shore towns including Sea Girt, Asbury Park and Point Pleasant Beach are moving forward with boardwalk rebuilding plans; Spring Lake has to rebuild its boardwalk little more than a year after Tropical Storm Irene wrecked half the old one. New York state parks, including the popular Jones Beach, also are starting to rebuild.
"We've engaged a contractor to go in and begin repairing it and experiment with some techniques as they go along," said Ron Foley, Long Island regional director for the New York state parks. "The boardwalk damage at Jones Beach was different. The wave action at some places got underneath the boardwalk. They lifted it right up, including the pilings driven into the sand, gave it a roller coaster effect."
The destruction of late October's Superstorm Sandy will likely result in some changes along the shoreline, with more wooden walkways giving way to concrete or synthetic materials. "Under the Polymerwalk" might not have the same ring to it as The Drifters' 1960s hit "Under The Boardwalk," but in some places there will no longer be boards in the boardwalk.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has decided wooden boardwalks simply can't cut it anymore. City parks officials say concrete sections of boardwalk in Queens' Rockaways and Brooklyn's Coney Island held up much better in the storm. And the mayor has long wanted to move away from the tropical hardwoods, harvested from endangered rainforests, that were used to build many boardwalks.
That is an issue Tim Keating, director of Rainforest Relief, has been working on for years. He says coastal communities will be under pressure to quickly rebuild but urges them to resist the temptation to use tropical rainforest wood such as ipe, which is cheaper than synthetic materials and popular for its durability. Belmar is considering ipe for its boardwalk reconstruction.
Keating says durable synthetic materials are the best choice for boardwalks; Belmar, Spring Lake, Point Pleasant Beach and other places already used it.
Manasquan, N.J., for decades has paved its beachfront walkway with asphalt. Yet that, too, gets trashed by major storms. A 1992 nor'easter smashed large sections of it, and Sandy wrecked about half of it.
Wooden boardwalks have staunch defenders, who say nothing else looks, feels or even smells quite like a true wooden boardwalk. A group from Coney Island called Friends of the Boardwalk sued last year to block a New York City plan to replace wooden boardwalks with concrete and plastic.
Todd Dobrin, the group's leader, isn't convinced concrete will withstand a storm any better than wood.
"When hurricanes come through, they don't ask whether it's concrete or wood," he said. "They destroy whatever is in their path."
Doherty, the Belmar mayor, is confident his boardwalk will be replaced before Memorial Day brings its own set of worries.
"If we rebuild this boardwalk, we'll have plenty of tourists," he said. "And then people will be complaining about parking."
Associated Press writer Karen Matthews in New York contributed to this report.
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC