Displaced by Tourists — A Review of “Gentrification Down the Shore”

Makris, Mary Vollman and Mary Gatta. Gentrification Down the Shore. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2020.

Reviewed by David J. Goodwin

During the virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy stood in front of Asbury Park Convention Hall and pledged the state’s delegates to then-presidential candidate Joe Biden. Just an hour from New York City and sitting beside the Atlantic Ocean, Asbury Park figures prominently in the public imagination and the identity of the Garden State. Music lovers know it as the spiritual home of Bruce Springsteen. Boardwalk aficionados rhapsodize over the grinning (and slightly terrifying) former amusement park mascot, Tillie.  

Founded in 1871, Asbury Park flourished with seaside attractions and hospitality well into the 1940s. The city’s fortunes sharply declined during the second half of the twentieth century, suffering decades of disinvestment amid New Jersey’s postwar suburban boom, white flight, and changing leisure tastes. The downtown hemorrhaged shoppers and businesses. Riots racked the city in 1970. The historic, yet long-shuttered, indoor amusement park, Palace Amusements, was razed in 2004. The boardwalk fell into decay. Asbury Park’s future looked bleak.       

Today Asbury Park is undergoing a resurgence, originally spurred by its LGBTQ and creative communities. The beachfront and the downtown bustle with visitors throughout the summer, never falling entirely dormant during the off-season months. Suburbanites and hipsters alike flock to Asbury Park’s bars and restaurants. New hotels and nightclubs attract affluent guests from northern New Jersey and New York City. Throughout its history, Asbury Park has regularly reinvented itself as a center of entertainment and recreation. Are these recent changes the next phase of this cycle or an entirely novel phenomenon? 

Paramount Theatre and Asbury Park Convention Hall have anchored the boardwalk for nearly a century. Acroterion, 2019, Wikimedia Commons.

In Gentrification Down the Shore, Molly Vollman Makris and Mary Gatta chronicle Asbury Park’s recent redevelopment, which began nearly twenty years ago, as well as the growing fears of displacement expressed by many city residents. The book begins by describing the commuter rail tracks both literally and figuratively dividing Asbury Park. The city’s east side, which includes the downtown and beachfront, attracts new businesses, public investment, and media attention. The west side, predominantly Black and Hispanic, contends with poverty, irregular employment, and high levels of crime. A deep disconnect and distrust exist between those living and working on opposite sides of the tracks.

By interviewing a cross-section of residents, employers, government officials, and tourists, the authors present a nuanced and complex ethnographic study of this small oceanfront city and capture the anxieties and hopes of its diverse population. Although many of those interviewed offer widely conflicting views and assessments of contemporary Asbury Park, a familiar refrain appears throughout the narrative: longtime Black residents, members of the LGBTQ community, and independent business owners all perceive the rapid investment reshaping their city as a genuine threat.

The historic and now demolished Palace Amusements, Asbury Park, New Jersey. John Margolies Roadside America photograph archive (1972-2008), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Makris and Gatta argue that Asbury Park serves as both a universal and a unique case study. The challenges besetting Asbury Park–uneven development, economic inequality, failing schools, affordable housing–can be witnessed in municipalities of every size across the country. However, Asbury Park’s gentrification strain appears to be somewhat atypical. While the city’s housing market, consumer economy, and public policies benefit part-time residents and outside interests, Asbury Park’s permanent citizens seem to gain little. Makris and Gatta define this phenomenon as “seasonal gentrification.” Arguably, this dynamic has always reigned in resort towns such as Asbury Park.                  

Makris and Gatta present an informative and compelling portrait of a storied city undergoing its latest transformation even as long-committed businesses and residents struggle to find a place within it. Gentrification Down the Shore deserves a place on the reading lists of cultural historians, gentrification scholars, and above all fans of Asbury Park. 

David J. Goodwin is the Assistant Director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University and an Allen Room resident at the New York Public Library. Currently, he is working on a biography of the author H. P. Lovecraft and New York City. He blogs at anothertownonthehudson.com and tweets @DavidJHudsonJC.

Featured image (at top): Asbury Park Convention Hall greeted visitors amid the ongoing pandemic in autumn 2020. Image by author.

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