Many of the new visitors are really old ones — former residents or people who remember coming for their first rock show or carousel ride or dip in the ocean. "People have a soft spot for Asbury Park," Mottola says. "They're rooting for it to come back."
Marilyn Schlossbach, who runs a surf shop and two restaurants on the boardwalk, says the city will make it in part because "we're kind of used to recession here. We've been through so much over the years, nothing much fazes us."
'Take a deep breath'
Many people here insist the recession is a time to refocus a civic revival dream that's almost a decade old. Already, the drop in home sales and prices has reduced the speculation that left some houses empty for months until absentee owners resold them at a profit. "People are buying to settle," says the Rev. David Stout of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.
Brigitte Cali, a 30-year-old waitress, was able to buy a big third-floor loft with a balcony three blocks from the ocean for $175,000. She says she could never have afforded it a few years ago, when the price might have been almost $100,000 higher. "This is the only place on the shore where I could be this close to the water," she says.
Stout says he sees a change in attitude since the bubble burst: "It's less about the individual, more about the community. It's not all 'bigger, better, more.' That's the thing about a small community in tough times — you're forced to come together."
As for the waterfront, City Manager Terry Reidy says it's "time to take a deep breath and see where we're going." Like most officials, he says the redevelopment plan should be amended to allow developers to build less expensively, in smaller increments, "to keep our momentum going."
There's a consensus that as Asbury changes, it must not lose its funky, eccentric side. That means keeping its diversity and its music.
David Parreott, 75, is a retired police officer and minister who lives in the house where he was born just off Springwood Avenue, whose empty lots are reminders of the riots 39 years ago that ravaged the city's poor, largely African-American West Side.
He says that until Springwood comes back, the city has not come back.
"There has to be development of the waterfront, because that will support development on Springwood," he says. "I hope I live to see it."
Lance Larson, 56, is a veteran rock musician who helps run the Wonder Bar, a music club. In the '70s he tended bar at the Student Prince, where for a $1 cover you could hear Springsteen five nights a week. The red baseball cap in Springsteen's back pocket on the cover of the 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. is Larson's.
Larson grabs a list of summer concerts in the city and jabs his finger at the names, which include Peter Frampton, the Pretenders and an array of up-and-comers. "That's Asbury coming back!" he exclaims. "Without the music, this is just another shore town."
No one knows the future of Asbury Park's dream, except possibly the successor to the late Madame Marie, the boardwalk fortuneteller whom Springsteen says in 4th of July, Asbury Park was busted by the cops "for telling fortunes better than they do."
Lisa Castello identifies herself as Marie's 23-year-old granddaughter. She's sitting in Marie's old concrete booth. "The future of the city looks good. It's an up-and-coming place," she reports.
Asked whether her forecast is based on astrology or economics, she looks out to where the waves are breaking on the beach — away from the stalled construction site across the street.
"Both," she replies.
•Contributing: Kathleen Gray, Detroit Free Press; Trevor Hughes, Fort Collins (Colo.) Coloradoan