Jersey Shore's Future Needs More of Its Past

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Just up Route 35 from what the rest of America knows as Gym, Tan, Laundry country is a little collection of modest bungalows known as Ocean Beach. For my family and hundreds of others in New Jersey, it was the summer home we could afford.

The sand-and-pebble roads are marked with names like Sandpiper and Cormorant. My family rented a teal green two-bedroom on Swordfish for many years, but would pick different bungalows year after year depending on what was available in late August or Labor Day weekend. When asked if she and my stepfather would make the trip down this year in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, my mom replied that it didn't seem likely. Not only are bungalow owners still rebuilding their Shore properties, which limits supply, but my mom implied that it might be too sad to see a place she's loved for decades in such rough shape.

For her sake and the sake of anyone who owns a bungalow or business on Ocean Beach's little barrier island known as Barnegat, I'm hoping she reconsiders.

My family has been renting bungalows in Ocean Beach since just after World War II. My great uncle was reportedly turned away from owning a bungalow there due to prejudices about the number of vowels in his last name -- a story few people with firsthand knowledge of that incident are around to recall -- but my uncle and Ocean Beach set things right when he purchased a bungalow by a pool-sized marina just off the bay about 20 years ago. That cultural hiccup aside, the thing that appealed most to my family about summers at the shore was how little they changed from year to year.

People aged, children were born, pinball gave way to Pac-Man, the pop-culture prizes on the boardwalk wheels changed, but the beach, bay, bungalows and even boardwalk businesses like Frank's Amusements in Point Pleasant or Lucky Leo's in Seaside Heights tend to stay the same.

It wasn't something I really took notice of until I watched the damage reports come in from my new home in Portland, Ore. Brian Donohue, a former colleague of mine from our days at The Jersey Journal in Jersey City, walked around Barnegat Island in January and compiled what he saw into a video entitled Splinters and Sand and saw the Jet Star sitting in the water just off its former perch on Casino Pier. He sifted through waterlogged Frogger and Super Sprint video game cabinets at Barnacle Bill's in Ortley Beach. He also saw the wreckage of the bungalow where he and his family spent his childhood summers.

As my mom says, it's too sad. It's also a reminder that it can get a whole lot worse. Donohue's travels also took him up to Long Branch, N.J., which was just as much a honky-tonk little shore amusement town as Point Pleasant, Seaside or Belmar when I was younger, but was changed forever on June 8, 1987, when a fire completely its amusement pier, boardwalk, haunted mansion and Kid's World Amusement Park.

In devastated Long Branch, as in Shore communities after Superstorm Sandy, there were vows to rebuild. Those promises were fulfilled, but the games, rides, taffy stands and little ramshackle businesses were replaced by condos, offices, parking garages and the Pier Village complex that is, as one Yelper so delicately put it, "less of a Jersey Shorish place." It's lovely, but it's every shoregoer's worst nightmare: A prohibitively expensive mall that used eminent domain to trade families of working class vacationers for transient residents who want a beach in the front yard and a Rocky Mountain Chocolate Company downstairs.

The Jersey Shore usually changes like its beaches: Taking and replacing with the ebb and flow of the tide. A variety store gets torn down to expand Wawa convenience store parking. A place that rents wooden boats on the bay closes shop one summer and gets replaced by a marina that repaints those boats and rents them for $10 extra the next. Sometimes, even a Stewarts or Windmill Drive-In shuts down and a bank takes its place.

Outside of those brief instances, however, the Jersey Shore isn't unlike the Portland I live in now. The restaurants largely aren't chains and, if they are, they're local outfits like Kohr's Custard or Three Guys From Italy Pizza. The hotels, especially those in Seaside and Point Pleasant, aren't Ramadas or Marriotts, but small independent affairs. The mini golf courses keep the same owners (and, in many cases, the same paint and Astroturf) and the one Dunkin' Donuts is outnumbered by Donuts Plus, Beach Bum Bagels and Bakin' Bagels.

These are the facets visitors love and, unfortunately, they'll be the first to go if Shore regulars don't come back. NorthJersey.com noted that many towns weren't ready to open their beaches by Memorial Day weekend. The small business owners who were able to open up this summer are pouring just about everything they have into doing so. These are businesses that are leveraged out, running on fumes and desperately hoping for a long, hot summer.

If those corners of the Jersey Shore can't hold on this summer, then the Jersey Shore of Bruce Springsteen songs and its dusty arcades, pleasure machines, pier lights and carnival life on the water are over. That he sang about all of that in a song called "Sandy" should only make Jerseyans, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, Canadians and other shore visitors want to cling to those comforts all the more.

The alternative is what's happened in Long Branch and, to a somewhat lesser extent, in Asbury Park. The town that helped launch Springsteen and lent its name to his first album saw a race riot in 1970 scare visitors away from its boardwalks, rides and arcades for good. Amusement sites and hotels shuttered in the late 1980s and were torn down in the early 2000s. Asbury Park's casino on the pier, long in disrepair, was partially demolished six years ago. Failed attempts to build condos by the water blocked Ocean Avenue by the boardwalk and sat half-built for years.

While many of the ruins are gone and Asbury Park's boardwalk is going though a mini revival that's brought the a pinball museum on the planks, more events to the Asbury Park Convention Center and guests to the recently renovated Carteret waterfront hotel, visitors are still far more likely to come into town for a show Live Nation ( LYV) is booking at the convention center or Springsteen stomping ground The Stone Pony than for a weekend at the beach. As President Obama's mention of a Gaslight Anthem show during his Memorial Day weekend visit there showed, Asbury Park isn't a vacation destination: It's a concert venue.

The beaches, boardwalks, bagel shops and boats pulling up blue crabs in Barnegat Bay may be a little beaten up right now, but the folks who own them and care for them are trying their best to maintain them this summer. For three months a year, the things they're preserving let people leave behind the alleys of strip malls and multiplexes that choked out their favorite char-broil places and drive-ins. They block out the blaring logos of casual dining joints trying to take the Taylor ham, egg and cheese out of their hand and close down the local diner.

They give the place character, and they've been doing so for as long as most visitors can remember. It's now up to those visitors to decide if a little personal discomfort is worth the price of keeping this year's mid-summer bungalows and lobster shanties into next year's room at the Holiday Inn and table at Joe's Crab Shack.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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