Asbury Park rising blocked by recession

The new resort had a mile-long beach and avenues that flared out as they approached the water, affording excellent sea views. It became a year-round community, with a downtown business district and fine single-family houses.

But after World War II, everything conspired against the city. The Garden State Parkway opened in the mid-1950s, allowing access to other spots on the shore. A mall opened in a neighboring communityin 1960, luring downtown shoppers. A race riot in 1970 scared away much of the white middle class. Patients released from nearby state mental hospitals flooded the old hotels and rooming houses.

Asbury Park sealed its own fate over the years with corrupt and inept governance, says Tom Gilmour, the city's economic development director. "There was no reinvestment in the city," he says. "They just let it slide."

Decline had one positive effect. Low land values and lax law enforcement meant cheaper rents for musicians and lots of bars in which to play. The result was the music scene that produced Springsteen, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and a Shore sound that eventually provided a seed for Asbury's rebirth.

Yet by the early 1980s, as Springsteen would recall, the city "started to close down." The Ferris wheel and the carousel were sold off.

The city eventually adopted a redevelopment plan, and the 12-story condo tower began to rise in 1989. Then work stopped in 1991, and tortuous bankruptcy litigation kept the site in limbo until 2006.

No one planned for the city's single ray of hope: the renovation of its gracious homes by gay out-of-towners who weren't put off by its reputation for unsafe streets and bad schools.

The new century brought a new waterfront development plan, including a new condo tower. The developer wanted to call it "The Rising," after a Springsteen song. When Springsteen objected, a $10,000 savings bond was offered to the student who came up with the best name. The winner was "Esperanza," Spanish for hope.

Before the Esperanza had risen three stories, almost one-third of its units were spoken for. Then, two days after a penthouse went for $2.45 million — a city record — the developer announced that because of the mortgage crisis, work would stop indefinitely.

That was December 2007 — the official beginning, as it turned out, of the recession.

Hard times, good times

This year's Fourth of July parade and fireworks — a tradition commemorated in Springsteen's 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)— had to be financed out of rainy day funds. Contributions from businesses had dried up.

Some worry what the recession will do to plans for the waterfront. Gilmour, the city development official, says he hears the rumors: Banks are foreclosing. Developers are pulling out. The Esperanza site is cursed — an Indian burial ground, according to one nervous joke.

Gary Mottola, president of the Washington-based development company that has revived the boardwalk, is reassuring: "This doesn't feel like a recession. There's almost a euphoria here."

The boardwalk, rebuilt four years ago, is jammed on weekends with people from New York, Philadelphia, all over Jersey, and most of its 40 businesses — up from zero a few years ago — report solid sales. On the Fourth of July weekend alone, the city sold $52,000 worth of beach passes, compared with $35,000 worth in all of 2002.

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