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New Jersey's Asbury Park boardwalk is more crowded than it was a year ago, that much is for sure.
New Yorkers keen on adventure are ignoring the silly Jersey Shore stereotypes and hopping on the train from Penn Station in droves for summer weekends of sand, surf, and shopping. On a recent Saturday the main strip of Cookman Avenue was filled with attractive people sipping cold brew, sporting oversized dark sunglasses on their perfectly coiffed heads — a far cry from the empty boardwalk scene I visited as a teenage New Yorker, when Asbury Park was known as Coney Island's grittier cousin.
This beach town is revamping its reputation and bouncing back from the recent devastation of Hurricane Sandy. But despite what you might guess by looking at the new clientele, the community hasn't sacrificed an ounce of its local character.
There may be a vegan eatery or two, and a new gloss over the city, but "Williamsburg by the sea" this is not. As retail has returned to Asbury, the charge has been led by community leaders who have filled the once-empty pavilions of the boardwalk with locally owned boutiques and restaurants manned by New Jersey natives.
Take The Market for example, a glossy shopping hall that recently moved to Convention Hall, the beating heart of the boardwalk. This little alcove houses wares from about 60 local artisans and purveyors, and the closet-sized shops that spill out onto the grand arcade are curated to feel like one collection in sync with the boardwalk: chic and high-end, but right at home among bikinis and flip flops of shore dwellers.
Inside, roughed-up vintage denim pieces live seamlessly next to shimmering hammered silver in one ecosystem; there is no competition, they both make up the story of this shop.
This juxtaposition feels so much like the Asbury skyline — the menagerie of restored buildings and those still in disrepair — and certainly feels reminiscent of the consortium of varied kinsfolk cohabiting the boardwalk. Those who have seen the worst days sunbathe side by side with those who arrive only in sunshine.
But even the new imports are contributing to the community feel. Across from the colorful, mural-lined carousel house on the opposite side of the boardwalk, Philadelphia-based outdoor brand United by Blue's new Asbury Park pop-up is stocked with classics from its traditional line. There are soft T-shirts and bandanas, and flannels that you could as easily wear hiking as you could to the office. But there's also an entire section of Jersey Shore–inspired products proudly (and tastefully) declaring allegiance to "Asbury Park," including a cozy sweatshirt for chilly nights on the beach that this author may or may not own.
Yes, a few flashy storefronts have popped up where there were once abandoned ruins, but you can still sense the community — and the grit — even during the warmer months when out-of-towners outnumber the locals.
There are still parts of the beach that can feel a little haunted at all hours of the day, and sections of the boardwalk that still need love after enduring storm after storm.
For every chic boutique that fills a space in a historic boardwalk pavilion, there's a retro pinball machine ready to clank and buzz after you feed it quarters. For every margarita guzzled by daytrippers at the slick Langosta Lounge (which reopened post-hurricane utilizing wood from homes and businesses that were not so lucky), there's a porkroll, egg and cheese sandwich being wolfed down at Frank's, the kind of diner where you can settle in with a cup of coffee and see the same folks every day.
And though the pièce de résistance hotel, the ultra-cool Asbury, has finally moved in, thrown open its doors, and hosted the hipster rooftop party to end all hipster rooftop parties, there are still rows of candy colored homes and B&B's right off the beach in nearby Ocean Grove waiting to host you after you spend a warm summer night flying kites on an empty beach. It's all happening here. This town is contrast in motion.
Between the plethora of pinup style bathing suits for sale at Bettie's Bombshells and the twinkling curios on display at Foolish Ginger, stepping onto this boardwalk is a bit like entering Erin Morgenstern's "The Night Circus;" there's a little bit of fantasy mixed with the harsh reality of this setting that has been beaten down so many times.
There may be more to do, more to buy, and more visitors than this town has seen in years. But the carousel house is still covered in murals and the locals still live within earshot of the waves. This is still Asbury Park.
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