Monday, October 13, 2014

Salvation in Asbury Park?

October 8, 2014

We’ve become obsessed with Asbury Park – so much we rescheduled our annual trip there instead of Cape May.
We’ve only deviated from Cape May twice in 25 years, once going to Atlantic City (in 1995), a dreadful mistake since we traded a historic city for one that was dying. This came even before it became obvious to the gambling industry that the casino experiment was bound to fail, and that dependence on any single mode of economics drains the life blood from a city (a lesson the developers in Asbury Park should take to heart before going down that same unfortunate road in hoping to build condos where amusements once existed).
The second time we didn’t go to the shore at all, a worse mistake since this is a ritual we need in our lives, allowing us to close out one year, refresh, before plunging into the next.
Going to Asbury Park is slightly different from going to Atlantic City since we already know the city has been ransacked and its history held hostage by a developer who has little or no respect for what Asbury Park once was except as a marketing tool for future development that will – like all new development – totally change the character of what the place is, and so make it unacceptable for those who live and breathe the air as it once was or may still be.
This is a conscious manipulation by a developer who has bought up all the sacred icons of the music scene, and hopes to broker it into a successful campaign to attract what city planners everywhere call “walking wallets,” young professional with a lot of money to spend but not much in the way of culture.
Artists have always been used as shock troops for redevelopment – although in most other places less consciously than in Asbury Park. Artists move into dying neighborhoods because they rents are cheap, make them safe and attractive for the clueless professionals who are attracted to the bohemian lifestyle, and then price the artists out. In Asbury Park, the process is conscious, a takeover of The Wonderbar, The Stone Pony and even the once public convention hall as a lure to the next generation that will eventually drive out those artists that have lived their lives here or have come here seeking to collect the threads of former greatness.
We are no different. We seek the music because it is part of the history of our lives, and what threads we find are part of a fabric in which we played a part – if not here on this particular holy ground, then connected to it by threads that are weaved to other threads that go all the way to the core of where we were at the time when real greatness happened here.
And in coming here, we encounter those artists and others with still closer attachments, people who have lived in the shadow of The Stone Pony, or even inside it, for a generation, and have collected its relics to display, and to bring people in to admire and to provide some kind of buffer against the inevitable exploitation that developer intends. They live with the hope that the developer will eventually “do the right thing” when history shows developers never do.
SOAP (Save Our Asbury Park), an organization of big and small musical stars, lacks the real political wherewithal to take on the developers, or the expertise in property rights needed to block the ambitious plans in order to exact the necessary give backs and assurances that The Stone Pony, the Wonder Bar and the character of the Asbury Park won’t vanish once the developer has gobbled up the whole city and turned it from a mecca for music to an exclusive mecca for the wealthy – which is what condo development means.
This is all about money and power. And Bruce Springsteen and his friends are finding out the way John Lennon did, how popularity even wealth does not always equal political power. Springsteen, of course, gave up the fist in the air revolutionary rhetoric after the disaster at the swim club, and is learning apparently the next lesson in how artists can be used for the absolute wrong purpose. (This is a lesson to Springsteen about just how vicious Monopoly is played when it comes to developers).
Even in this shadow of doom, I’m drawn to this place, hoping to collect enough pieces of the mosaic before the bulldozers and wrecking balls completely demolish any sign – such as the building around the corner for the old Student Prince slated for demolition over the next week.

These memories here are part of a personal history that anyone growing up in New Jersey during the years when Southside, Bruce and others rode the waves not just to fame and fortune (although that happened, too) but into immortality, and the fragments of their passage have become monuments as solid as the stone statue mounted in Sunset Park and our going there is very much a pilgrimage in which we hope to wash ourselves the healing waters of its sound, and perhaps find salvation.

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