I rolled into Asbury Park mid-afternoon on Friday, checked into the Berkeley Hotel, laced up my running shoes, and ran through Asbury Park and its neighbor, Ocean Grove. I've been to both a few times over the last year, but wanted to get a good look at what was new/old/opened/closed, and the best way to do that is on foot (even if it was hot and humid -- I'm trying to acclimate myself to hot weather running...we'll see).
Then it was off for an early dinner at Langosta Lounge (love love love the edamame). I had lunch here in January, and liked the food, the space, and the vibe. It had opened in December and I hoped for good things, which I found on Friday. I sat at the bar among people waiting for dinner and happy hour patrons. The crowd grew for as long as I was there, and the place was three deep with bar patrons when I returned after I finished my interviews.
Here's the set up behind the bar:
Once "work" was over, I met up with Michael Streko, who runs cheapatlanticcity.com, and his crew and set off to the Annex, which is where the first picture of this post was taken. They have a chalkboard wall, and I left my mark (it was still there on Saturday night, too). Fun bar -- very cool vibe.
It picks up on the alternative crowd that's come to Asbury recently (LOTS of cool ink on folks around town). They keep the music scene alive and well, and support recent development. Most of the places I'm writing about are new this year, and they've all had fruitful off seasons (one bar owner is wondering how he's going to deal with the summer crowds because he's crowded already). I started reading 4th of July, Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land on the trip, which is a history of Asbury's shadowy past. It was odd reading the book then walking through the streets that Daniel Wolff writes about, and seeing the skeletons of some of the buildings that was supposed to mark Asbury's progress. But more on that in a minute. Can we talk about sangria?
I love sangria. I seek it out at restaurants and bars, and make my own in the summer (secret ingredient: fresh jersey peaches). The sangria at the Annex is the BEST sangria I have ever tasted. I wouldn't expect to find it in this kind of bar, but there it was. I liked it so much that I went back on Saturday night after working to get another one -- and convinced a heavily tattooed gentleman to do the same (though as his head is shaved, he couldn't stick the umbrella decoration in his ponytail).
We capped off the night at Asbury Lanes. The Annex is a nice place to hang out and drink, but Asbury Lanes is the coolest place I visited in Asbury. It has one thing that other bars don't: a bowling alley.
I'm still trying to find out the 'official' history of the place, but the gist is this. It opened as a regular bowling alley in the 1960s. It did OK but eventually went out of business. Whoever bought it last re-opened it AND BARELY CHANGED A THING. They did add a concert stage in the middle lanes, so "the Lanes" is a big part of Asbury's music scene.
Look at this place:
It has what those new "retro" bowling alleys try to recreate: REAL retro. Can't wait to go back.
On Saturday, I wandered around Ocean Grove, worked on my story, and, before dinner, went on a six mile run through Asbury, Ocean Grove, Bradley Beach, Avon-of-the-Sea and Belmar -- almost entirely on boardwalk. Then it was off to Long Branch and Sea Bright for more work. I checked out the Wonder Bar when I got back, which I think is something you MUST do if you're in Asbury Park, then had one final sangria at Annex before heading back to the boardwalk. I'm glad I brought my camera.
You'll notice two things when visiting the Asbury Park boardwalk. The first is Convention Hall at the north end of the boardwalk. The second is the Casino, which was never a casino but more like a convention hall. I'm still reading up on the history and don't known enough to be an expert, but they are GRAND buildings. Convention Hall is used (I slipped into a fundraiser Friday night being held inside), but the Casino is not as of right now. The room that held the carousel (which a few people I talked to remembered from their childhood) is full of construction stuff. It looked like a very different place at night (JEN NOTE: I'm not going to pretend these are the best pictures you're going to see of Asbury Park -- I saw about 10 photos shoots taking place in the two days I was there).
I felt like I was walking through a ghost, which might not be far fetched. I had just read about the era of the Casino, and tried to imagine it in full swing, with couples in their finest turn of the century dress waltzing through while kids rode endless circles on the carousel, reaching out to grab the brass ring. Maybe it was taking the pictures at midnight or the exhaustion of work from that weekend, but it was a very surreal experience.
Anyway, a few more notes from the trip:
1. I stayed at the Berkeley, which was OK. I only paid $110 a night and had a view of the water, which was great. But as a chap commented in the elevator this morning, "it's like a B-movie." Parts of it have been upgraded, but it doesn't feel completely done. The TVs didn't really work. Part of the shower fixture was falling off. My room never cooled down, and my reservation was wrong. It was a place to hang my hat, but that's about it. I wouldn't book a room there and expect the Chelsea, for example (though a few of you have written me about the so/so condition of the annex portion of the Chelsea). Would I stay there again? Probably -- but I hope with better AC.
2. In honor of the location, I cued up Springsteen's Born to Runon my ipod for my Saturday run. As I crossed into Convention Hall, I felt this odd flutter in my chest. When I broke through onto the rest of the Asbury Boardwalk and saw the scene -- kids on bikes, couples strolling, teens eating water ice, the ocean to my left and Asbury to my right, "Thunder Road" in my ears -- it FINALLY hit me: my job is to write about the Jersey Shore. This is what I do for a living. I know that sounds like an obvious fact (the blog is "Down the Shore with Jen," after all), but for some reason the setting of that run and the assignment that brought me here gave me a new self-awareness of what it is that I do and why. I felt that way as I crossed onto Belmar, too -- sprinted, actually, to "Born to Run," turned around and was overcome by this serene feeling as I ran back to Asbury listening to Pete Yorn (another Jersey guy who counts the Boss as an influence). I felt that same flutter as I stood on the deck of the Avenue in Long Branch on Saturday night, looking over the ocean as people partied behind me.
I like Asbury. A lot. I think I'll be back a few times this summer. It's only an hour and a half drive away -- that's closer than Cape May. I want to see if the redevelopment takes this time, too. One person I interviewed talked about the redevelopment attempt of the mid-80s and how it flopped. She feels different this time, and has the numbers and receipts to prove it. I hope she's right.
And I MUST go bowling at Asbury Lanes. That alone is enough reason to come back.
So what's next? I'm in Cape May all day on Tuesday. Then on Thursday, Bill (who took some excellent pictures in Sea Isle this weekend) and I are off to Key West on Thursday (via the Atlantic City Airport, flying into Ft. Lauderdale).
John Shabe joked about me going to a beach not in New Jersey (I replied that the state gave me a temporary pass to leave). But it'll be nice to go somewhere that I don't write about. I love the Jersey Shore (obviously -- did you read number two from above?) but I always feel like I'm working. The assignment I'm working on requires night reporting, but I still felt like I was working during the day. When I tried to take a few days off while in Cape May last May for my dad's wedding, the general manager of the hotel sat down next to me as I tried to take a nap in the sun. In Key West? I'm not doing ANYTHING. It's only a four day break, but I think it'll be enough to get me ready for the start of the shore season. I hope.
**UPDATE** Caren Chesler's article about Asbury Park for New Jersey Monthly is now online. Worth the read. I did a similar piece on Atlantic City -- but I'll dedicate an entire post to the June issue once I have a copy in my hands. I can only read it online right now, but from what I see? It looks fantastic. I know how much work went into it from the writing, editorial and photography sides of the magazine (a lot of this was photographed last summer). Stay tuned for more!