Yvonne Clayton was born and raised on the West Side of Asbury Park and remembers a time when it was the lifeblood of the famed city by the sea.
“The West Side … oh, my God, it was a mecca,” said Clayton, who has served on Asbury Park’s city council since 2015. “It was a vibrant business community. There was the House of Hits, restaurants, pharmacies, the fresh meat shop. And you couldn’t walk down the street without hearing music. Music was part of the fabric of the city. First it was jazz, then doo-wop, then R&B.”
Storied music clubs on Springwood Avenue included the Turf Club, Cuba’s and the Orchid Lounge, where legends like George Benson, B.B. King and Al Green performed.
But the music came to an abrupt end on the West Side after race riots in the summer of 1970 ravaged the city. Most of the clubs and businesses were either burned down in the violence or demolished in its aftermath. Though little remains of the thriving neighborhood that once was, the city is trying to bring back the area through the drafting of affordable housing ordinances and construction of affordable housing.
Yet some question whether true economic diversity can be maintained in a city becoming less affordable as it becomes more popular.
“I would say the West Side has definitely lagged behind the East Side in development, partly due to the need for government funding to spur development,” Clayton said. “At long last there’s affordable housing and that’s sorely needed in our town. What we’re doing is building units and my thought is once you have a population there, businesses will follow. We’re trying to make sure our town will not be gentrified. There has been a lot of interest from developers.”
Cross over, literally, to the other side of the railroad tracks, and it feels like something out of “A Tale of Two Cities,” as Asbury Park’s East Side has seen a fast-moving renaissance that began slowly in the ‘90s and has been throttling at high speed for the last decade.
Asbury Park Deputy Mayor Amy Quinn said while the West Side’s development has lagged, the issue is complicated.
“I’m not saying it’s not a fair criticism, but I’m saying we’re seeing a lot of development on Springwood Avenue,” Quinn said. “The whole idea is to keep economic diversity in Asbury Park and that’s become harder and harder. Affordable housing and economic diversity is a priority but this train is going so fast, it’s hard to put the brakes on it.”
The East Side sits in sharp contrast, as Cookman Avenue — the downtown thoroughfare that boasts dozens of trendy eateries, specialty shops, arts venues and high-end condos — stretches out to the city’s bustling waterfront.
Developer Sackman Enterprises has helped build much of the downtown area, making its first investment in 2002 and completing several residential, retail and commercial projects, with more in the works.
“When we first invested in Asbury Park there was only the tale of one city whose economy had stagnated and contracted over the previous three decades,” said Sackman President Carter Sackman. “During our involvement in the city we have witnessed the economic recovery of the East Side and believe that this growth with facilitate continued growth on both the east and west sides of Asbury Park as we believe that a rising tide raises all ships.”
Sackman said the company is evaluating several projects on the West Side.
Asbury Park City Manager Michael Capabianco noted the city’s growing pains as it continues its resurgence.
“It’s a great group of residents and they understand that progress is painful,” Capabianco said. “The West Side is harder because parcels of land are smaller. But things are definitely happening on the West Side. Springwood is already underway and there is Boston Way and Parkview.
“One of the larger challenges is making sure the residents have a long-term future here,” he said. “We need to make sure taxes are affordable and that we have an affordable housing plan.”
That plan, Capabianco said, should be ready within the year.
“We need to make sure the people who have lived through the pain reap the benefits long-term,” he added.
Thomas Sahlin, executive director of the Asbury Park Housing Authority, cited the city’s efforts in bringing affordable housing to the city.
“In light of the fact that federal appropriations have been declining over the years, we have been faced with a troubling scenario in which we are not financially able to keep up with the capital needs of our aging buildings,” Sahlin said. “In order to overcome this challenge, our long-term plan for our housing stock is to demolish and redevelop our sites by utilizing mixed-finance tax credit funding administered by the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, as well as other federal/non-federal sources as they become available.”
The near-term plan is to gain approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to demolish and rebuild several apartment complexes on the west side.
“Our focus has been and will remain to be on the West Side, where affordable housing is needed most,” Sahiln said. “Once we have addressed our existing housing sites, we would embrace the opportunity to partner with the city to bring new units of affordable housing in any part of Asbury as this would create additional opportunities for us to serve the community’s needs. Unfortunately, vacant land within the city of Asbury Park is sparse so we will have to be patient in waiting for that opportunity to arise.”
The Michaels Organization has invested in the West Side with The Renaissance, a mixed-use, mixed-income affordable housing community slated for completion next year.
“Asbury is definitely coming back very strong,” said Gin Dawson, vice president of development at the organization. “The city now needs to turn its attention to the West Side and give it a shot in the arm and give it some booming days. There’s a lot of investment going on on the West Side at this time. The idea is to try and entice some of the youth and energy to perhaps consider crossing the railroad tracks. The rents will certainly be cheaper.”
But these days, Asbury’s popularity is driving home prices way up, even on the West Side.
Travis Newarski, owner and broker of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Signature Properties in Asbury Park, said he has seen a significant price increase on the West Side over the last few years, specifically the northwest section.
“The southwest section is lagging behind the rest of the town, but has certainly seen an increase of values,” Newarski said. “With the rest of the town becoming so expensive, this still remains a relatively affordable option.”
Brian Cheripka, vice president of land and development for iStar Financial — the company that has been developing much of the city’s waterfront — said growth on the East Side can translate into opportunities across town.
The company just completed the redevelopment of Asbury Lanes, a vintage bowling alley, bar and performance venue that has created jobs for residents through iStar’s youth training program.
“You see the West Side redeveloping,” Cheripka said. “You see a presence.”
Kula Café and Kula Urban Farm — two entities that have sprung up in recent years along the west side’s Springwood Avenue — have tried to take advantage of the opportunities available on the other side of the tracks.
Gillian Edgar, general manager of Kula, cited the company’s hospitality training program.
“We’re trying to help residents take advantage of the opportunities on the east side of town,” said Edgar, noting Kula has trained more than 100 youth between 18 and 24 since 2013.
Edgar hopes Kula will bring other retailers to the area and noted the city’s efforts in promoting development on the West Side.
“A lot of people have had conversations about what can be brought in but it hasn’t happened yet,” she said. “That’s sort of the idea, to show that we’re viable, that you can have a business here. We’ve had a steady increase in sales every year which shows you can have a business here. We’re getting there.”
Developer Madison Marquette, who has redeveloped much of the city’s waterfront starting in 2007, said the city has drawn business owners looking to take advantage of the city’s increasing popularity.
“In the beginning of our development here, they were taking the redevelopment leap with us after the waterfront’s 20-plus prior years of decline,” said Pasqualina DeBoer, director of marketing for Madison Marquette.
But while the East Side has experienced an economic boom, some businesses are struggling to survive as some say increasing commercial rents have driven mom-and-pops out of town.
Lawrence Matarese, owner of Larry Cadillac hair salon on Cookman Avenue, said he has watched Asbury’s retail rents spike right along with its popularity.
“I’m calling it the ‘Red Bank syndrome,’” Matarese said. “Red Bank used to be Dead Bank, and then it got cool. Asbury has the beach and boardwalk but we’re seeing shops that are disappearing because the rents are going through the roof.”
Matarese said the city’s publicity has been a mixed bag; his rent skyrocketed on the heels of a New York Times article about Asbury Park two years ago.
“It was a good thing but it was also the kiss of death,” Matarese said. “I find storeowners that are not able to pay the rent. Cookman is prohibitively expensive for startups. It just seems like it’s turning into a restaurant town. Stores used to be open until 10 but now it’s more of a bar town. It’s good for the town but not necessarily for the business district. It’s going to lose its whole gritty edge. That’s going to happen. The demographic has changed.”
Councilwoman Clayton hopes the city can stave off these changes, expressing optimism about maintaining and fostering economic diversity.
“It’s important that our city remain diverse and that means that there’s a place for our remaining residents and that we welcome new ones,” she said. “I don’t think it will be exactly what it was — it will be better than it is now. It is our job as people responsible for the city to be responsible for our residents and to make sure that it’s a place for everybody. It’s not perfect, there’s a lot yet to be done. But we’re trying.”