Asbury Park rising blocked by recession

For 15 years, it stood as a rusting, 12-story mockery of this faded shore resort's revival dream. But on April 29, 2006, that would end. The skeleton of the condominium tower that was supposed to spur waterfront renewal, yet foundered on recession and lingered in bankruptcy, would implode.

It was a celebration. By 7 a.m. 1,500 people had gathered on the oceanfront, some with lattes, others Bloody Marys. When a city councilman pushed the detonator and the steel frame collapsed, the crowd roared. "Like the storming of the Bastille," recalls Terry Reidy, the city manager.

The future seemed assured, because on the same lot a new developer was ready to start work on a 16-story luxury condo tower. It was part of another redevelopment plan for a waterfront of homes, shops, restaurants, clubs. And, through that waterfront, for a city reborn.

Three years later, the concrete stub of the new tower sits unfinished on the same lot — one of many such projects around the nation that the recession has stalled, altered or endangered.

It's unclear when construction on the tower will resume, or when life will come to the vacant fields and parking lots around it.

Rarely has land of such potential value sat so empty for so long, says Donald Moliver, a real estate expert at nearby Monmouth University. It helped make Asbury Park one of the New Jersey's poorest cities — dependent on the state for one-quarter of its municipal budget — and the pariah of the Jersey Shore.

Americans know this as the boardwalk amusement town where Bruce Springsteen found his voice and vision four decades ago. Now, many Americans can see in Asbury's question their own as well: Is the recession the end of our dream, or a chance to dream a better one?

Since World War II, a recession has come to seem like a sort of economic timeout, a mere interruption in the march of progress. But hard times can change history and kill dreams. Some will revive when the economy does; some won't.

• New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to transform Coney Island with a 27-acre district of new homes, hotels and amusements — rides, arcades, freak shows — awaits the recovery of the housing and credit markets. The mayor says his plan would "breathe new life into a treasure that's been in decline for decades."

• Funding has fallen through for a $350 million complex of offices, shops and homes in financially strapped Pontiac, Mich., leaving an unsightly collection of unfinished parking garages, theaters and other buildings. The project was more than half leased when construction stopped in November.

• Blaming the economy, medical equipment heiress Pat Stryker has shelved her foundation's plan to begin work on a 2,500-seat performance amphitheater in the Old Town section of Fort Collins, Colo. The venue was designed to bring people to the neighborhood and bolster the city's cultural scene.

And then there's Asbury Park, desperate for a fresh start. Springsteen's first albums celebrated the city's seedy vitality: In a send-up of tourism past, he entitled his first, in 1973, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. Decades later, he wrote a different kind of song about the place that gave him his start. He called it My City of Ruins.

A promised land

The city that became famous for honky-tonk entertainment was founded in 1871 and named after the first U.S. bishop of the Methodist Church, a movement whose founder condemned "vain and demoralizing amusements."

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