Greetings from Asbury Park. Now Let’s Talk About Gentrification and Racism
By BETH HARPAZ
A new book, Gentrifiction Down the Shore, by Professors Molly Vollman Makris and Mary Gatta (Guttman Community College), looks at the revival of Asbury Park, New Jersey, and the ways in which its Black community has been left behind.
Train tracks have long divided Asbury Park, with beaches and amenities on the East Side and poorer African American neighborhoods on the West Side. From the Victorian era to the 1960s, the East Side boomed as a destination, with a boardwalk, rides, and other attractions. But while Black workers “toiled as waiters, entertainers, desk clerks, busboys, dishwashers and housekeepers in the establishments that attracted vacationers to the city,” they were not welcome to partake in these diversions, Makris and Gatta write.
In the late 20th century, like many American cities, Asbury Park was hit hard by disinvestment and decay. Racial tensions boiled over into riots in 1970. Tourism dried up. But despite its decline, Asbury Park managed to maintain a hipster image, partly sustained by its music scene. Legendary clubs like the Stone Pony and Fast Lane hosted everyone from U2 to Jon Bon Jovi. Bruce Springsteen’s iconic 1973 album Greetings from Asbury Park enshrined the city in rock’n’roll history.
That hipster edge helped drive Asbury Park’s 21st century revival. But its quirky cool has now given way to full-blown gentrification, with upscale shops, cafes, hotels, and pricey beachfront condos. And just as Black locals were excluded from fully partaking in Asbury Park’s initial era of prosperity, Makris and Gatta show that West Siders have also been left out of the contemporary boom.
Asbury Park’s newfound gentrification is further complicated by seasonality. Many jobs exist only in summer; affluent vacation homeowners push up real estate prices but have no stake in public schools. Other issues explored by the book include tensions between African American locals and Latino and Haitian immigrants; how the LGBTQ community went from being a marginalized group to the leading edge of the city’s comeback with gay newcomers buying up Victorian homes; and intersectional struggles, where older Black residents aren’t hired by trendy hotels and shops, but cool young people of color with tattoos and dreadlocks are, because they represent Asbury Park’s hipster brand.
Steps are being taken to ameliorate some of these problems. There are successful job-training programs for West Siders and free beach passes for low-income locals, and the authors observed diverse crowds enjoying the ocean and boardwalk. Still, many Black residents say they don’t feel welcome on the East Side and can’t afford its offerings.
“As Asbury evolves, it will be essential to find a common ground uniting Asbury’s East and West Side residents,” the authors write. “It is our hope that the people of Asbury have the momentum and support to create a more inclusive and equitable model city as opposed to just another ‘Brooklyn on the Beach.’”