drakkar91.com presents... Asbury Park "Then & Now"

Asbury Park History
Albion Hotel
The Boardwalk
Empress Hotel
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A History of Asbury Park

1800's     1960's    1970's     1980's    1990's     Early 2000's   2008

Once a thriving boardwalk and beach along the great Atlantic Ocean, Asbury Park has fallen on hard times over the past 10 to 15 years - very hard times.  Yet literally footsteps away, Ocean Grove, a vibrant seaside community thrives.  Asbury Park once served as the vacation destination of many from northern New Jersey and New York City.  My mother remembers visiting this charming coastal resort in the late 40's and 50's.  As a child myself in the 1970's, I remember Mom & Dad taking my sister and I on shopping trips to Steinbach's Department Store in Downtown Asbury Park.  In those days, there was no Ocean County Mall in Toms River.  Sadly, Steinbach's has long since closed.

Another institution in Downtown Asbury Park was the Asbury Park Press.  My father worked many years for the press before being "strongly encouraged" into early retirement in the late 1980's.  In the 1980's, when the going got bad in Downtown, the Asbury Park Press closed up and moved out of town - abandoning the city for which they were named.   Ironically, this same newspaper did several special reports on "the fall" of Asbury Park in 1998.  Although I did not personally read each article, I am told that the paper made no mention of their part in "the fall" of Asbury Park.   Though it stood vacant for at least a decade, the building once occupied by the Asbury Park Press is now almost full with tenants.  This information courtesy the people at: http://asburypark.net/index.html.

The boardwalk is deserted and in decay.  Many beaches are closed and unsafe for bathers. The buildings still standing are boarded up or falling down.  With few exceptions, the city is truly a ghost-town.  Though closed through most of the 1980's, the Berkeley-Carteret Hotel still stands and continues to operate as a first-class hotel in what appears to be a war-torn third-class country.

No one can understand the incredible heart-breaking demise of what was such a vibrant seaside resort.   In July 1999, my parents and I visited Ocean Grove and the Great Auditorium.   We also drove through Downtown Asbury Park and along the boardwalk.  My parents, long-time residents of New Jersey were grief stricken to see the decay. 

The Late 1800's (Top of Page)
It all started in 1871 when James A. Bradley, a New York manufacturer bought an uninhabited 500 acre tract of woodland for $90,000.  In poor health, Bradley sought refuge and peace in this restful place.  After a short stay in Asbury Park and with his health restored, Bradley threw all his energies into building a seashore resort that would be "second to none".  The city was named in honor of Bishop Francis Asbury and Asbury Park was incorporated as a City on March 25, 1897.

Monterey Hotel

The assessed valuation of Asbury Park climbed from $15,000 in 1869 to $1,500,000 in 1883.  In 1883, 600,000 visitors arrived and departed by rail during July, August & September.   In it's earliest years, the boardwalk was a narrow makeshift affair laid in portable sections and taken up during the winter months.  In 1917, Asbury Park, like many resort areas, lost 4 blocks (about 50 buildings) to a great fire.   Many hotels, homes and even sections of the boardwalk were destroyed.  But the city would prosper in the 1920's with new growth and building.  By the middle 1900's, Asbury Park claimed to have "the finest boardwalk in the world".

We have collected several images from Asbury Parks past and present.  These include images taken during our visit in 1997.  The others are from postcards and an Asbury Park Chamber of Commerce guide (much of which our history is taken).  Unfortunately, we do not know exactly what year the guide was produced, but we think it was 1976.  This is based on an advertisement for Monmouth Park Racetrack that reads "...the racing season extends from June 11 through November 13 during this Bicentennial year."  According to the guide, Ray Kramer was the mayor and Thomas Smith was the Police Chief.

Other events and highlights in the guide include:

    • Great Adventure Amusement Park was a nearby attraction
    • Theatre advertisements included the Paramount, the Savoy and the Strand at Boardwalk and Lake, Ocean Grove
    • Business advertisements included the Lerner Shops, McCullough's Coney Island, Keystone Savings, The Stone Pony, the Asbury Diner at Asbury Ave. & Main St. and The Whitfield Hotel at Surf & Beach Avenues in Ocean Grove.

Here now is a more recent timeline (to the best of my knowledge).  As more is learned from the archives of history and from so many who have written with their personal stories, this page will be updated.

1960's (Top of Page)
A visitor to this site took time to share her memories and experiences relating to the decline of Asbury Park.  While a few hotels remain today (most boarded up or closed), many were demolished or burned down in the 1960's.  Some were replaced with garden apartments which are now either closed, slums or used for low-income housing and welfare recipients.  Certainly the loss of beautiful hotels in Asbury Park may have been a contributing factor to people vacationing in other New Jersey Shore towns.

1970's (Top of Page)
We know that into the 1970's, the city was still thriving.  I imagine this continued into the later 70's.  Several who have emailed or written indicate race riots started much of the decline of Asbury Park.  I am told the riots occurred July 4th weekend in the summer of 1970.  They lasted 5 days.  The riots moved to the downtown area where 46 people were shot.  I do know that in the early 1970's, there were actually riots (minor in comparison) at my High School, Central Regional in Bayville NJ (I was not there as I was only 7 or 8 years old in the early 70's).  It wouldn't surprise me that the riots in Asbury Park would have hurt "tourist business".  Most probably visited from more wealthy areas (this is only my opinion, but it seems logical based on Asbury Park's makeup).  Riots may have "started" the decline in visitors to Asbury Park, while increasing it to nearby shore resorts.

1980's (Top of Page)
If the decline began in the late 70's, it certainly continued into the 80's (and obviously the 90's). At some point in the very early 80's, both Steinbach's Department store (which opened in 1912) and the Asbury Park Press, also on Cookman Ave (opposite Steinbach's) closed up business in Asbury Park.  The Press moved to another location. Steinbach's closed their doors in Downtown Asbury Park after opening another store at the nearby (and modern) Seaview Square Mall.  I believe they have now gone completely out of business.  Without the "anchor" store Steinbach's, smaller merchants and Mom & Pop stores that experienced vibrancy and prosperity for years closed their doors.  This began a trend that Asbury Park could not recover from.

In addition to the loss of shopping, the Garden State Parkway provided a quick means for travelers to reach other shore resorts, Long Beach Island, Seaside Heights and Atlantic City.  Coincidentally, as Asbury Park declined, Atlantic City was on the rise as gambling became legal in the late 1970's with the first Casino-Hotel opening in 1978.  A "gamble" in one city would certainly "gamble" the future of other New Jersey cities including Asbury Park.

Corruption and greed from city officials played a part in the fall.  Bad (or improper) business decisions have resulted in the "Ghost-Town" one might see today in 2000.

Late 1980's (Top of Page)
In 1988, and 1989, I would visit Asbury Park on an irregular basis.  I was working about 45 minutes west in East Windsor NJ at the Clarion Hotel.  I would visit with friends.  A spattering of businesses still operated around town and on the boardwalk. It was a scary town.  I would go to the bar "Down The Street" which closed in 1999 after more then 10 years of success.   "Down The Street" sits just a few hundred feet from the Palace Amusements.  In 1989, the Empress Hotel was still open (it soon closed, and reopened again in the late 1990's).  A few other hotels were also still open - they looked scary.  The Berkeley Carteret was and is still open.  I'm not sure how they do it - but God bless them for not giving up on Asbury Park.

It was my understanding that during the 80's, there were many a bad deal from investors trying to save the town. There is a newer, unfinished and abandoned structure near to the Berkeley Carteret Hotel.  It was part of the recovery that never came.

The icing on the cake was in 1989 when the Palace Amusements, home of "Tillie" closed.

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The 1990's (Top of Page)

A big real estate scandal in 1997 resulted in indictments to mortgage companies, appraisers and real estate investment companies.  This was due to shady "flipping" of distressed properties and inflated real estate prices. 

The decline continued bringing Asbury Park to it's present day. In July, 1999, I visited with my parents. We drove through town and shopped a bit in Ocean Grove.  We then ate at the Ocean Pavilion restaurant on the North End of the Ocean Grove boardwalk - it is the LAST section of businesses before you cross into Asbury Park.  It's as if an imaginary line exists from which no good may cross.  While dining, we asked our server what she knew about the restaurant.  It apparently opened years ago as a Perkins Restaurant.

Cover-ups and scandals in government have likely plagued the city.  Why if so many with so much money have offered to restore Asbury Park has it NOT happened?

New Jersey Pride Celebration

Like in many troubled cities, the gay and lesbian community have tried to embrace and restore Asbury Park. 

One nightclub, Down The Street, has been serving the community in Asbury for over a decade!  PRIDE New Jersey is held annually every June in Asbury Park.  The image to the left is from the celebration held "on the boardwalk" in 1999.  Just as in The Castro neighborhood of San Francisco and many southern Florida towns, the gay and lesbian community have tried to keep Asbury Park alive before it truly reaches extinction.   Sadly, "Down The Street" closed in 1999 after a new nightclub "Paradise" opened.

Early 2000's (Top of Page)

Businesses do exist in Asbury Park!  Slowly, life is breathing its' way back into the city.  It will take time, perseverance and most importantly support - support of the people to visit these businesses and to spread the word.  A new owner of the Berkeley Carteret Hotel has plans to renovate, open the restaurant on more then just weekends and enclose the pool for year-round enjoyment.  Efforts are underway to try and save, preserve or rebuild the Palace Amusements.  In early 2000, efforts underway to reopen the Albion Hotel failed and the hotel was demolished in late 2001 or early 2002.  The Empress Hotel survived and is currently being renovated.  The motel section is slated to open in late summer 2004. 

2004 to 2006 (Top of Page)

May, 2004:

I am temporarily residing in New Jersey during the summer of 2004.  I am planning to visit Asbury Park and see just how the redevelopment is coming along.  I last visited in June of 2003.  Information on this site was created in the late 90's, and some updates have been made since then.  I also visited Asbury Park in April 2002 - after that visit, I wrote:  The Albion Hotel is gone; the Empress Motel (now home to Paradise Nightclub) is under renovation; several small shops and cafes are returning to the downtown area.  Lots of redevelopment conversation in town. A section of Boardwalk near the Convention Hall has been replaced.  There were trucks working on the beach (big pile of rocks, new sand?).  The Howard Johnson Restaurant is still open part-time. 

Redevelopment begins in Asbury Park.  I visit the city every summer and watch the (slow) progress.  As part of the redevelopment, many historical structures are demolished, most to make way for condo's.  The Empress Motel, home to Paradise Nightclub, which opened in 1999 thrives and has been completely remodeled.  The hotel section opened partially in 2004 as renovations continued.

May 26, 2004:

On this day, the history of Asbury Park, and the future of it's corporate development were forever changed --- the wreckers have demolished the Palace Amusements, home of the famous "Tillie" face.  Efforts underway for years failed, and the fact that the building was on the Historic Register apparently had no bearing (see my Christian Admiral pages for another failure of the Historic Register status).   The developers, Asbury Partners LLC, say that the demolision of this (and I believe 10 more sites) are "necessary" for the future development.  Apparently the land on which the Palace Amusements sat is a good location for a new hotel.

Though this may mark the beginning for many, even a triumphant return in years ahead for this deserted shore resort, for me, this begins to mark the end for the Asbury Park of years past, the end of a time, a period.  The "future" Asbury Park will not likely be anything like the once thriving seaside town it once was.

Story and images: http://asburypark.net/news/2004/05/0527palace.shtml

September 2005:

The structure just south of the Berkeley Carteret Hotel, a skeleton that has stood since the failed development of the very late 1980's, and slated for demolition prior to Memorial Day Weekend (of 2004) still stands.  Footnote: The structure was finally razed in the summer of 2006.

2006 (Top of Page)

As of August 2006, The Empress is virtually the only thriving business near the boardwalk section.  Many other clubs and bars open in the vicinity.  The boardwalk remains relatively void of business, a few vendors do operate.  The boards of the once famous boardwalk are replaced, new sand is added, and sections of the ocean side beach are opened between the old, closed (still) decaying Casino building and the open Convention Hall.

On Cookman Avenue in the downtown section, one of the first areas to see new life, the Antique Emporium and several art shops, and restaurants operate.  Indeed this is the best section of town, but has a long way to go.  The once vacant Steinbach building continues to be renovated.

As you drive from downtown towards to ocean and boardwalk, you will see brand new luxury condo's being erected on your right, and boarded up buildings (probably slated for demolition) to your left (see images below).

Asbury Park NJ - Summer 2006

August 17, 2006:

I made my official summer journey to visit family in NJ.  During my visit, I visited Asbury Park and took several photo's, showing BOTH the new development, and the continued blight within the city.  I have been documenting the city through visits, and photography since 1988 --- 18 years before many who are buying new half-million dollar condo's even knew Asbury Park existed.  Many I imagine would have never even set foot in the city some 10 years ago.  While the "rebirth" is coming (slowly I might add), the NEW Asbury Park of the future will hold little of it's past.  Forget grand hotels, forget swan boat rides, forget boardwalk amusement rides; to me, the future is centered around money - how much money can developers get by selling condo's for $400,000 to over 1 million in price.  Therefore, my focus of this site will be to recall the original Asbury Park, a Jersey Coast resort, once thriving, once a resort destination for all.  I find it particularly odd that several shops in the the city feature bountiful displays of the city's past, through images and photo's.  Most of the the photo's are are places that have been destroyed as part of the redevelopment.  Namely, the Palace Amusements.  Of all the places demolished, this loss is the saddest for many.

The image below captures the scene well.  A "proud" Asbury Partners LLC sign erected in a vacant lot.  The building to the left housed a bar "Down The Street" from the late 1980's until it closed in 1999.  A new business "Anybody's" opened in that location in the early 2000's, and was still open in 2004.  It is now closed.  My understanding is the building will be demolished, like almost every other around it already has --- including the Palace Amusements which sat almost directly behind the sign.

Asbury Partners LLC Sign - Summer 2006 

And what about the famed Howard Johnson Restaurant?

It still stands, and was open in August 2006, but the famous blue and orange lettered sign is gone.  I believe the fate of this operation is still in jeopardy.  Image below of the Howard Johnson's Restaurant (on the boardwalk) photographed by Chris in 1997.  I am told that as of January 2000, the restaurant remains OPEN for business on a part-time basis!  This was also so in April 2002.

Howard Johnson's on the Boardwalk

July 2008:

I visit the famous city by the Sea during my week long visit to see my family.  My Mom and I spend an afternoon walking along the boardwalk and through Downtown.  We enjoy a bite to eat in the old Convention Hall, now home to a few eateries.  A few shops line the boardwalk area - everything from specialty food items to gift items and knick-knacks.  Certainly nothing like a scene from the city's past, or even anything close to most Jersey Shore resorts.

In town, along Cookman, most storefronts are occupied, and we snap a photo in the old Photo Booth (saved from the Palace Amusements).

I text my friend Dennis who has been my eyes and ears for so many years and tell him "it's the best I've ever seen".

While much work remains, 1988 to 2008 has been a remarkable 20 years.  The recent stock market "crash" in he Fall of 2008 has reportedly brought condo development and sales to a halt.  I'll be back in the summer of 2009 ... stay tuned.

Take a look at some photo's from July 2008 on the main page.

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Updated: Tuesday February 08, 2011 ęChristopher Clay