Reclaiming the Jersey Shore

Everyone loves to poke fun at the Jersey coast, but the fact is, the joke's on them. Brian Hiatt explores three legendary—and recently spruced-up—shore towns that still promise the classic American summer.

Just another day on the Asbury Park boardwalk (Ball & Albanese)

Until late last year, it was hard to imagine how New Jersey's image could get much worse. Bon Jovi, 148 miles of turnpike, The Sopranos, Real Housewives—it all added up to a big-haired, acid-washed caricature of the state. Those of us from Jersey could do little more than shrug and laugh. I mean, Whaddayagonnado? But then, in December, MTV unleashed Jersey Shore.

The wildly popular reality show, whose second season debuts this month, follows the summer-rental adventures of eight overtanned, overmuscled, undereducated young people in the shore town of Seaside Heights. No matter that "Snooki," "The Situation," and the rest of the cast mostly hail from places like Staten Island and The Bronx: It seemed that the trashiest place on earth had found the mascots it deserved.

For someone who actually grew up on the shore, MTV's live-action cartoon was one insult too many. My fondest memories are dusted with sand and clotted with saltwater taffy. And while Bruce Springsteen's "carnival life on the water" might have been an overly romantic depiction even in the best of times, it was still my romance. I'll admit that the Jersey burbs can verge on the generic, but the 130 miles of beaches and towns along the coast are all color, from the wilderness of Sandy Hook to bed-and-breakfast-studded Cape May. And as I've been hearing, two of the shore's best-known towns—the once-glittering resorts of Asbury Park and Long Branch, both in my native Monmouth County—are in the midst of unexpected revivals. So as any spurned local might, I grabbed my fiancée, Jen, hopped a ferry from Manhattan to Atlantic Highlands, near Sandy Hook, and set out on a journey to redeem my home state's battered reputation.

Of all the towns on the Jersey shore, Asbury Park is the most famous—and not necessarily for good reasons. Over the span of a few decades, the city transformed from flashy resort to gritty rock-music mecca to poster child for urban decay. Yet when Jen and I pull into town, it's as if history has somehow reversed itself.

Our first stop is Convention Hall, just off the boardwalk. The hulking beaux arts structure was built with Jazz Age exuberance in 1929 to house acts like Benny Goodman and the Marx Brothers. Terra-cotta sea horses and serpents swim over its brick-and-limestone façade, and a copper model boat sits at its peak, a memorial to a cruise ship that ran aground here in 1934. Just three years ago, the venue, which once hosted the Doors, Janis Joplin, and the Who, was visibly falling apart, rotting in the salt air after years of neglect. But today, thanks to extensive restoration, it gleams like new and draws a fresh crop of big names—from Jeff Beck to Tony Bennett—to its adjacent Paramount Theatre.

Over on the boardwalk, things are spiffed up and the same all at once. In a storefront, I spot the visage of Tillie, a leering, Alfred E. Neuman–like clown who is the closest thing Asbury has to a mascot; the character even inspired protests when a building with his image on it was torn down a few years ago. At the site of a once tragicomically decrepit Howard Johnson (TV host and chef Anthony Bourdain visited in 2005 and was afraid to order anything more elaborate than a grilled cheese), we duck into the bustling McLoone's Asbury Grille for a Bloody Mary before heading down the boardwalk to the Silver Ball Museum—home to 100 or so vintage pinball machines. Inside, it's a riot of bells and clanking metal, and we hand over $7.50 apiece for 30 minutes of unlimited play.

In some senses, the story of Asbury Park's revival can be told through the Hotel Tides, where we're staying the night. Tucked away on a residential street, the hotel is an unlikely labor of love, as I learn when I meet co-owner Martin Santomenno. A real estate investor who was once maître d' at the World Trade Center's Windows on the World, Santomenno, along with a few partners, converted a dowdy guesthouse into a modern 20-room boutique hotel. "It started as a minor renovation, then it turned into a minor rehab, and then a major rehab," he recalls with a laugh. An airy lobby now doubles as a gallery that showcases work by Asbury-based artists. The rooms are smartly designed, with iPod docks, ultra-high-thread-count Anichini sheets, and rain-forest showers with river-rock floors.

Santomenno began weekending in Asbury in 2001, a couple of years after a residential resurgence led largely by the gay and lesbian community. Attracted to Asbury by its cheap real estate, broad beach, and the 90-minute drive to New York City, these new residents bought big, run-down houses and restored them piece by piece. As the community grew, home owners lobbied for civic improvements and eventually opened businesses. Their vision of Asbury isn't just about tradition: Santomenno is far more excited about the time composer Philip Glass stopped by the hotel than when Springsteen's people scouted his house for a music video. "We consider ourselves a cultural center," he says. "People come to Asbury for the music, the art, and the food, not just for the beach. Right before last summer, 21 new businesses opened—we're keeping mom-and-pop stores alive."

A SHORE THING

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