FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN WROTE A DIRGE ABOUT ASBURY PARK, HIS ADOPTED MUSICAL HOMETOWN, CALLED “MY CITY OF RUINS,” IN WHICH HE LAMENTED THE FATE OF THIS FORLON SEASIDE RESORT…
ASBURY PARK, N.J. — Fifteen years ago, Bruce Springsteen wrote a dirge about Asbury Park, his adopted musical hometown, called “My City of Ruins,” in which he lamented the fate of this forlorn seaside resort:
Young men on the corner
Like scattered leaves
The boarded up windows
The empty streets.
This summer, Mr. Springsteen took note of the city’s changing fortunes during a performance at Asbury’s Wonder Bar. As he introduced another song, “Atlantic City,” he said, “But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” He paused for a moment, before continuing, “Maybe Asbury Park is back?” — to cheers from the crowd.
It is a question that has puzzled beachgoers for decades, as most other towns on the Jersey Shore thrived.
Today, there are still plenty of pockets of abandonment and neglect, but after decades of false starts, Asbury is finally showing signs of a rejuvenation.
In the early 2000s, a handful of summer visitors had the beach to themselves, while the boardwalk pavilions sat shuttered and buildings in the city’s downtown were boarded up.
Now, on any given summer Sunday, the mile-long beach is packed with gay residents who have restored some of the city’s grand Victorian houses, beachgoers swathed in tattoos, African-American and Latino residents, families, retirees, young Orthodox Jews, Christians conducting a mass baptism in the ocean and, at the north end of Asbury, surfers.
The shops on the boardwalk are crowded. Downtown has become a year-round restaurant mecca. The Stone Pony, the music venue that Mr. Springsteen helped make famous, is host to every larger rock concerts, and the New Zealander singer Lorde recorded “Yellow Flicker Beat” for a movie in the “Hunger Games” series at one of the city’s three recording studios.
“It’s finally turning a corner,” said Jennifer Lampert, who first visited here 12 years ago and moved last year from Manhattan to open the Festhalle & Biergarten, a beer garden in a downtown industrial building. “It’s got all the elements you could find in a big city, but it’s a small town by the sea. It’s a liberal, open-minded, come-as-you-are kind of town.”
There still are not many retail shops downtown, but a developer, iStar, the third master developer in three decades, has four projects lined up for empty lots in the beachfront redevelopment area.
In what iStar is calling a pivotal moment, the company will soon seek public approval for its plans to build a 16-story luxury hotel and condominium on an Ocean Avenue foundation where two previous developers failed.
“We believe in Asbury Park’s potential,” iStar’s chairman, Jay Sugarman, said. “I want it to be a cool, creative community where there’s always something going on, where there are always interesting people to run into. To be able to do that in a beachfront environment is the best of both worlds.”
Asbury Park’s revival has more to do with demographic trends and a generational desire to live in more urban areas than a master plan hatched in the 1980s that largely failed to take off. Gay men and lesbians have gravitated to Asbury as a less expensive alternative to Fire Island and the Hamptons. Rail service also makes it easily accessible from New York City and northern New Jersey, and the city has a solid core of downtown commercial buildings ripe for development.
“All these factors came together,” said James W. Hughes, dean of the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. “Great buildings downtown. The gay community was in there very early because they didn’t care about the school system. Now you have millennials suffering fatigue from being raised in the suburbs. The shore still has magic.”
Though they have been disappointed before, there is a palpable sense among elected officials, New York transplants, entrepreneurs and many residents that Asbury’s moment has arrived.
“This is really an exciting time to be here,” said Yvonne Clayton, a retired AT&T executive who moved back to her hometown in 2011 from Manhattan for the first time since 1967.
Asbury Park had been a booming seaside resort since the late 1800s, with about 200 hotels and a carnival-like atmosphere on the boardwalk, stretching from the Casino building at the south end to the Paramount Theater and the convention hall at the north.
The city’s fortunes began a slow decline in the late 1960s, a downturn that was exacerbated by a riot fueled by racial tensions in 1970 from which the city never fully recovered.
“When I came down here from New York 11 or 12 years ago,” Carter Sackman, a developer, said, “close to 90 percent of the central business district was boarded up. No cars. Tumbleweeds.”
Mr. Sackman, who now owns many downtown buildings, converted the dormant Steinbach department store into apartments.
Today, his daughter, Morgan Sackman, 26, is renovating an old downtown vaudeville theater, the Savoy, into a performance space, with 64 micro-apartments on the floors above for musicians and artists.
Steve and Shanti Mignona found a home in Asbury. They were living in Brooklyn and working in the restaurant industry when they started looking for a more affordable location to open their own place. They considered Beacon, N.Y., in the Hudson River Valley, but last year settled on Asbury because there was a larger community of artists and young entrepreneurs.
In November, they opened Talula’s, an artisanal pizza parlor downtown. “We’ve been in the green every month,” Mr. Mignona said. “Part of it is the community supporting us.”
Despite the boom downtown, unemployment remains stubbornly high in this city of about 16,000. The percentage of people living below the poverty line, 34.2 percent, is down only slightly from a decade ago, as is the crime rate. And the main route through the city’s largely African-American neighborhood in southwest Asbury Park looks tired and spare.
Still, 22 shops have opened downtown since 2008 and boardwalk businesses generated $30 million in sales in 2014. Waterfront parking fees soared to $1.7 million last year, from zero in 2008.
Ms. Clayton, who was elected to the City Council last year, said it was focused on extending the city’s revival to southwest Asbury, where she grew up and where she now lives in her parents’ home.
The city does not have a large commercial base to generate jobs, but she expects that developers will hire locally for new hotels and townhouse developments.
The beachfront revival underway comes after nearly 30 years of fits and starts. The original idea was to restock the nearby blocks with condominiums, wiping out the amusements, restaurants, clubs like the Saint and the Stone Pony, and the musical heritage so critical to Asbury’s identity, said Werner Baumgartner, the city historian.
The developer selected by the city in 1984 fell into bankruptcy in 1992, tying up the land in court for nearly a decade.
A second developer, Asbury Partners, picked up the baton in 2001. Builders erected roughly 300 townhouses and condominiums at the north and south ends of the boardwalk, before that developer succumbed to the recession in 2007.
Asbury Partners’ lender, iStar, took over the project and became a developer. Mr. Sugarman, the founder, took a personal interest in Asbury, hiring the architect Gary Handel and a designer, Anda Andrei, who had been a creative force behind Ian Schrager’s boutique hotels.
The boardwalk was taken over by another company, Madison Marquette, which has rebuilt the pavilions, brought in restaurants and shops, and operates the Stone Pony and the Wonder Bar.
IStar created three new parking lots this year to handle what is now 1.5 million annual visitors. The lots are already full on the weekends. Last year, iStar completed 28 townhomes that sold out in two days at an average price of nearly $500,000. The company now aims to build 200 units a year on the waterfront.
The company has landscaped many of the hardscrabble vacant lots on the beachfront, has started work on converting a long vacant Salvation Army residence hall into a chic, 110-room hotel with a rooftop event space, and plans to renovate the nearby Asbury Lanes, a bowling alley that features punk rock, bingo and burlesque.
IStar has started work on the Monroe, a 34-unit condominium that has won praise from local residents for its stylish design. But many Asbury boosters did not feel the same way about the company’s decision to bring in K. Hovnanian, a national homebuilder, for another smaller complex.
Critics feared that the company would build what it is known for, cookie-cutter apartment complexes, and wipe out Asbury Park’s quirky qualities.
The developers insist that the architecture will vary, and Brian Cheripka, iStar’s senior vice president of land and development, said it was important to lure a national builder to Asbury. The company, he said, is committed to preserving the diversity and musical heritage that distinguishes Asbury from just about every other beach town, monochromatic and wealthy.
Then there is the planned 16-story building on Ocean Avenue, where the columns of the last failed project are still visible. The new building would have 130 condominiums and a 58-room luxury hotel.
“That’ll be our first oceanfront development,” Mr. Sugarman said. “It has an unfortunate history. We’re taking the long view. It requires us going all in, to get the people to believe in it and to gather the talent to make it happen.”
Correction: July 31, 2015
An earlier version of this article misidentified the country that the singer Lorde is from. It is New Zealand, not Australia.
July 31, 2015