glory days, they’ll pass you by

Posted: December 5, 2011 in New Jersey, Photography
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

old carousel house

When I was a kid my family would occasionally splurge and spend a few days and nights in Asbury Park, once a thriving New Jersey beach resort. Nowadays Asbury Park is best known as the town where Bruce Springsteen earned his musical chops. In reality he played ferociously up and down the Jersey shore in those days, but thanks in large part to his debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, this association is permanently etched in people’s minds. I’ve since learned the city had a long and rich musical history before Springsteen. But back then my Asbury Park had nothing to do with music and everything to do with summer and seaside and fun.

original Casino Skating Palace sign

I remember the unbearable anticipation leaving the Garden State Parkway at exit 102 to head due east towards Asbury. It was maybe a seven or eight mile drive, but it may as well have been 100. After the gliding down the parkway at 60 mph county roads with red lights and slow moving traffic made the last part of the trip unbearable. But once the smell of the sea hit – marine, crisp, salty – I could barely contain my excitement.

The entire place seemed like a fantasy land, a come-to-life dream complete with colorful lights, thrill rides, exotic arcades, clean beaches and the requisite boardwalk. Certainly other places had these things too, but Asbury Park had a mystique, you see. Even the name added to it. Asbury Park. It sounded warm and welcoming, like hearing the familiar voice of a treasured relative.

abandoned Metropolitan Hotel

Palace Amusements was the major indoor attraction. It contained several rides and many impossible to win arcade games. But its centerpiece was the greatest Fun House my small brain could ever conceive. Among its many adventures were a hall of mirrors, a rocking and rolling walkway, an angled room illuminated with black lights and groovy posters, like those criminal lairs favored by the Riddler and Joker. It also included a giant slide and an immense rotating barrel which had to be navigated before you could exit. All by itself the Fun House made every visit to Asbury worthwhile.

Baronet Theater

Small pleasure boats could be rented for a leisurely cruises on Wesley Lake, not far from the amazing carousel house which was an extension of the Casino. (The dance scene from The Wrestler with Mickey Rourke and Evan Rachel Wood was shot here.) A classic orange and white Howard Johnson’s restaurant, a rooftop miniature golf course and, of course, games of chance with suave barkers speaking directly to me lined the boardwalk. Spending anytime in Asbury Park was my near wild heaven. I realize memories often romanticize the things we love and I’m sure that applies here. Still, they were wonderful times.

entrance to Asbury Lanes bowling alley

What I didn’t know was Asbury Park was in serious decline when we used to visit. There had been significant civil unrest and businesses were fleeing for more lucrative (and safe) options elsewhere along the coast. Signs of decay were everywhere, but went unseen by my enamored eyes. I’m sure what seemed glittery and magical to me probably angered and profoundly saddened those with longer memories. The decline was rapid. Within ten years Asbury became an acute embarrassment, not only to the state and the city, but to the residents who miraculously stayed behind. It’s remarkable the town wasn’t abandoned.

Various urban renewal projects have sputtered along for decades, most collapsing under the weight of their own ambition. Yet tiny signs of revival are popping up and a glimmer of hope still flickers that this once extraordinary little city can regain a whisper of its former glory.

interior shell of the Casino

Largely because of its crumbling reality and decrepit reminders of the past, Asbury Park is a favorite haunt for photographers. I’m no exception. There’s something about decay which morbidly attracts those of us with cameras. The photos included in this post were all taken over the past five years in this 21st century Asbury Park, a place filled with ghosts and haunted memories.

the beach never gets crowded

Note: Daniel Wolff’s 4th of July, Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land is a good place to start for those interested in the history of this unique American vacation spot.

  1. This really is a beautiful post. The pictures are classic. You almost make me want to cry to see it fallen into such a state of abandon.


  2. whiteladyinthehood says:

    Awesome Post!


  3. kayjai says:

    When we lived in St. Stephen New Brunswick, we would cross the border into Calais, Maine often. We drove to Eastport one day. The downtown was boarded up and what was once a thriving town, now looked abandoned and ghostly, much like your beloved Asbury Park. Such a shame that once lively pleasant little places could become so abandoned and decrepit. Nice photos, all the same.


  4. sparklebumps says:

    I LOVED the Wrestler! But these pictures make me a little sad… it could be so pretty there.


  5. It’s funny that as kids we tend to see the magic of the places we spent summer vacations. It’s nice that you can revisit those places and remember the magic. I’m particularly fond of the black and white image.

    Another lovely post!


  6. Mark says:

    Great post, John. Thanks for sharing these memories. I was just down AP with my kids on Sunday. I really like how the boardwalk area is rebounding now. Lots of ghosts down there….kinda nice that way too, though.


  7. John says:

    Interestingly, it’s the least decrepit


  8. I have to say that the last picture is my favorite.


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