The wide avenue was typical in Asbury Park, New Jersey: lined with mature sycamores and restored residences. Soaring above the crown of the sycamores was an osprey, seemingly out of place. As it passed overhead, hugging the sycamore tops, I heard a “crack”, and the osprey flew off with its catch, a branch suited for nest building. I continued to see ospreys throughout my visit to the coast in Monmouth County: a pair flying over a small wetland behind my nephew’s backyard in Shrewsbury, others over Sandy Hook, and repeatedly in Asbury Park – over surf, Deal Lake, and new development.
Our home away from home was an Airbnb on Sunset Avenue in Asbury Park. I grew up eight miles to the north (as the osprey flies) in Red Bank, and in Asbury there were a number of atmospheric elements that made it feel so familiar. Cooler weather, the sound of traffic outside our windows, and the train sounds blocks away.
I have never lived in Asbury Park, though had visited often in my childhood to enjoy the thrills of the amusement park, and movies in the grand historic theaters. In my late adolescence I took in concerts at the Convention Hall, and even a Steel Mill show (an early Springsteen band) at a roller skating rink.
Asbury Park’s decline was dramatic. I was teaching sailing on the Navesink River in the summer of July 1970, and a startling sight appeared to the south – the black clouds of a major fire. I did not know that the source of the conflagration was rioting in Asbury Park, and only learned later that day about these events. But I did not understand the why. Many structures were burned in the predominately African American west side of Asbury. White flight occurred – residents and business owners. A further difficulty for the community was deinstitutionalization of New Jersey state hospitals for the mentally ill, and many of these long term patients came to live in empty residences turned into boarding homes in Asbury Park. These severely mentally ill people put enormous strains on limited social services, since the promise of community mental health care was not a reality. Once the crown jewel of the Jersey shore, Asbury Park came to be perceived as a burnt out and dangerous place to avoid.
A symbol of Asbury Park’s troubles was the waterfront development with much promise and a sad history. One structure stood as an unfinished rusting steel frame for years along the boardwalk: the developer filed for bankruptcy in 1992. Compounding the city’s problems was corruption by a number of city officials, headlined by the conviction of the mayor for conspiracy to bribe and tax fraud charges in 2003. Residences and former hotels sat unused and boarded up.
The 2019 Asbury Park we visited exhibited a vibrant renaissance. Our neighborhood and those throughout the east side had renovated homes and actively maintained landscapes.
In the past several decades people have moved back into the city, and no group was more prominent in these reclamation efforts than the LGBT community. The achievement and pride of the refurbished homes and yards was evident throughout the town.
And there was a special pride on display in flags flying from homes and businesses. A long-term cheerleader for Asbury Park and a generous donor has been Bruce Springsteen, whose impact on the fabric of this town and New Jersey has been significant.
The renovation was most visible on the east side of town; the west side did not have the same level of progress, and this center for the African American community has continued to be plagued by a lack of affordable housing, and the presence of drugs and violence. Efforts are ongoing to address these issues.
While we spent much of our time in Asbury Park, we also visited Raynor family, and other locations in Monmouth County. One of the places I have rediscovered in my return visits to New Jersey has been Sandy Hook, one of the units of Gateway National Recreation Area. (See Sandy Hook surprise
, and On Sandy Hook
). The attractions are many there: a rich and broad history, the MUP (multi-use path), a range of coastal ecosystems, beautiful wide beaches, and of course the spectacular views to Manhattan and beyond.
The MUP was a great venue for exploring Sandy Hook on our bicycles, as it weaved through the narrow park by dunes, historic structures, maritime forest, freshwater marsh, and saltwater marsh along Sandy Hook bay. When I entered the woods I recalled discovering this isolated and unique ecosystem – an American holly maritime forest. Across the very wide beach, numerous areas were closed due to piping plover nesting.
Signs prohibited pets on this area of the beach, and also kites (a first for me). The summer concert series at Sandy Hook was cancelled due to the proximity of the stage to the closed area.
Ospreys were common throughout Sandy Hook, and particularly near Fort Hancock. A number of manmade platforms were in use by nesting ospreys.
Ospreys and nest on platform at sandy hook;
Sandy Hook Bay and Atlantic Highlands in Background
Ospreys have made a dramatic recovery from their status as an endangered species in New Jersey and the East. By 1974, only 50 nests remained in New Jersey. Their decline was the result of loss of nesting sites, and use of pesticides, particularly DDT. By 2003 there were 600 nesting pairs. These increases were the result of the building of man-made structures along marshes; perhaps three-quarters of the New Jersey ospreys have their nests on these platforms. I have seen over the years ospreys building nests in the Carolinas on other manmade structures,
particularly lighting towers for athletic fields, and power line supports. Even a
decommissioned channel marker in the Navesink River had provided a nesting platform for an osprey pair.
This marker had been damaged by a number of storms, including Irene and Superstorm Sandy, and after a plea a maritime business was able to straighten out the sharply angled piling.
Back at Asbury Park, the dunes and “natural” beach are long gone along the boardwalk – in the summer the sands are machine raked every morning. On a north beach access, an entry for morning dog walkers and surfers, a section of dues is not only intact, but signage indicated protection for two endangered species, seabeach amaranth and piping plovers.
There were other conservation efforts in the town, such as the raising of awareness of the Deal Lake watershed, the largest coastal lake in New Jersey running through Asbury Park to Wanamassa. Ospreys fished over these shallow waters.
Of the sights of Asbury Park, none was more prominent than the new Asbury Ocean Club, built on the site of a previous failed waterfront development.
It seems an indicator site for the entire city, exhibiting the high level of development coming into Asbury Park. The developer, iStar, has already invested 150 million dollars in the city in the last decade, and plans another one billion dollars in the next decade. The Asbury Ocean Club will open July 1, and the prices for residences indicate the clientele will be the wealthy, many from Manhattan.
Naturally, concerns have been raised about gentrification and increases in prices throughout the community. One long term critic of this development (Dan Jacobson, Tri City News) identified several positives. Once complete, taxes on the hotel and residences will provide 12% of the city’s budget revenue. Perhaps more importantly, the developer plans intensive local hiring, as it has done with its earlier development, the restored Asbury hotel (recently named best new hotel in America by USA Today.)
Three ospreys, soaring over the Asbury Ocean Club, utilizing the lift of winds impacted by this iconic tower, seemed to represent new life for this species, and for the town where they now make their home.