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."

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.

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