Little City, Big Plans: Stories of Asbury Park, New Jersey

By Francesca Russello Ammon

Asbury Park, New Jersey, was once a grand seaside resort town, frequented by visitors from New York City, Philadelphia, and beyond. It was founded in 1871 as a Christian middle class refuge, rooted in conservative values and temperance by the sea. By the turn of the century, the city evolved into a more commercial and carnivalesque working class resort. After mid-century, however, it began a long decline into a state of ruin, buffeted by changing leisure preferences, the rise of suburbs, race riots in 1970, and the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, many of whom migrated to its emptying hotels.

Although attempts to resurrect the city through a revitalization of its built environment date back to urban renewal efforts in the late 1950s, more focused efforts did not commence until the 1980s. This thesis chronicles three revitalization attempts from the past quarter century, each of which pursued physical rebirth in the hopes of stimulating the revival of the city and the reshaping of its identity. These strategies included waterfront redevelopment, preservation and adaptive reuse, and residential renovation. For each of these, the thesis details the approach and outcomes, analyzes about the politics and motivations underlying the efforts, and identifies the larger lessons to be learned from both the successes and the failures.

Although the story told is particular to Asbury Park, its themes and lessons have broad applicability to the struggling American city in general. This tale highlights the manner in which urban communities have been overwhelmed by the behemoth of redevelopment, damaged by local political corruption, and disillusioned by the self-interested agendas of their purported “saviors.” It also demonstrates the continued dominance of real estate developers and investors, operating under the support of state and federal legislation, in the struggle for power in the city. Asbury Park’s difficult past, however, illuminates that the key to urban revitalization need not be a large-scale program focused on reviving the built environment alone. Rather, full resurgence of the city requires social regeneration as well, stimulated by small-scale, grass-roots efforts that combine personal initiative and private investment to achieve progress one property at a time.