Stone Pony: Symbol of Jersey Strong

ASBURY PARK ( TheStreet) -- On page 2 of this article, you'll find a photo of the famed Stone Pony, one of the main rock clubs at the Jersey Shore and one of Bruce Springsteen's most famous haunts.

It's a historic place, although you wouldn't know that to look at it.

The only real clue would be idiots like me standing outside taking pictures of it. And there are plenty of those.

The Pony has hosted hundreds of famous bands since the club opened its doors in 1974. More importantly it continues to serve as a venue for smaller acts, an incubator of sorts.

Stevie Van Zandt got his start playing there before he joined Springsteen's band. The Asbury Jukes, of course, who Van Zandt managed, came to prominence there. A whole ocean of bands you've probably never heard of entertained crowds there, specializing in new wave, hard rock, classic rock, reggae, cover bands, originals, tribute bands . . . . you name it. All the while, national acts like Sam & Dave, Gary U.S. Bonds, the Talking Heads, The Ramones, Blues Traveler, They Might Be Giants, the Black Crowes, Snoop Dogg, Weezer, Jimmy Eat World, Bouncing Souls . . . Those names are selected arbitrarily. It might be easier to list who has not played there.

Rocco Pendola wrote a recent article on TheStreet talking about how difficult it is for local bands to survive in the L.A. club scene. It's a little easier in New Jersey, but not much. The big problem here is there are just too few venues like the Stone Pony where groups can gain the visibility they need to build their audience. Too few college radio deejays that have both the freedom and the inclination to weed through thousands of demos and then play the hell out of the ones they like. Too few bars offer live music at all and the ones that do tend to stick with those performing watered-down cover tunes.

Asbury Park is different in that respect. Most of our businesses are mom-and-pop shops, one-store enterprises, and there is a lot of interest here in live music and the arts in general. As a result, scrappy coffee houses and bars with cramped stages pop up all the time, around every corner.

But a place like the Pony is in a class by itself. It's larger and has an international reputation. It won't, on its own, make a band's career. But it can help give a good band a necessary boost.

Given that bit of background, take a close look at that photo. Dirty little white brick facade sagging under the weight of too many cheap fixes. A famous nightclub? In a highly commercialized resort, the place wouldn't pass muster as an outhouse.

I don't think I'm exaggerating. Even people who love the place, as I do, know that it's a crappy little building. Importantly, the structure you see in the photo is directly across the street from the beach and the boardwalk.

A huge ruckus developed a few years ago because the Stone Pony falls squarely into the city's eminent domain jurisdiction. That means the city could force the owner to sell the place to developers with the expectation that it would be torn down to make room for condos or a hotel or a parking garage -- something that could monetize that prime piece of real estate to its maximum potential and bring in much needed tax revenue for the city.

So far, those efforts have failed where the Pony is concerned. Yes, nearby homes and small businesses were lost to eminent domain and the developers' wrecking ball. But there was just too much outcry from too many public interests when they talked about taking the Pony. The building, eyesore though it may be by commercial resort standards, remains where it is.

We like it that way. Even President Obama, in his recent visit to Asbury Park, couldn't help but note the Jersey Shore's "special character" -- a euphemism for a kind of beautiful shabbiness, all our worn laundry hung out and bleached in the sun in the full view of the flip-flopped crowd.

In an article this weekend, Jason Notte talks about the threats to that "special character" in loving detail, as he remembers the summers of his youth spent in Ocean Beach bungalows. The Jersey Shore has the air of a village where full lives are lived. Some commercial resorts hide the mundane, push it out of the way to create clean surfaces for the entertainment of visitors. In our resort, the mundane is part of the pleasure, etched into the architecture, baked into the food, audible in the music.

How long can that last? How long can mom and pop hold out against the aligned pressures of more frequent, stronger hurricanes, stressed tax ratables and drooling heavily financed big business interests? The answer varies from town to town.

Citizens on the councils and planning boards need to be honest with themselves about what the character of their towns mean to them and resolute when negotiating with commercial interests. An Asbury Park neighbor, Long Branch, capitulated to those interests, as Notte describes, and created a wall of condos and malls along what used to be a boardwalk, blocking the beachfront from the homes in town. "Special character" sold down the river.

In addition to politics, disaster plays an important role. Many here firmly believe Hurricane Sandy was a "hundred-year storm." But then again, it could turn out to be representative of a new normal in severe weather patterns. If so, it will become a lot harder for small businesses. Many survived Sandy by borrowing to the hilt, betting everything on the coming summer's revenue. They won't be able to do that twice.

Meanwhile, many believe developers should get their hands on some of the damaged property, to rebuild as they see fit, as they could turn it into something more spectacular. The developers are often waging PR campaigns toward that goal, with visions of dollar signs dancing in their heads. Those pressures return every time there's an opening, like a serious storm.

Also, as Notte points out so eloquently, some regular visitors will decide to skip coming this year. How many? No way of knowing. Will others, the newly curious, come in their place? There's no industry to replace tourism in the economy here. No backup. Nothing.

An economy built on tourism is a house built on sand, a lesson we at the Shore relearn each year. Not enough tourists, too many tourists -- either could cause the foundation to shift. Recently Maxwell's -- another legendary rock club farther north, in Hoboken, N.J., across the Hudson from New York City -- announced it was closing. The reason? The town's gentrification and commercialization, particularly its popularity from TV shows like "Cake Boss," have left it so crowded a destination that it can no longer provide adequate parking for the once-thriving venue. The Stone Pony and other embattled features of life at the Shore could easily be the next, unintended victims of a surge toward prosperity.

Whatever the reason, sooner or later, somebody with their hands on the reins over at the Pony will again try to tear down its several-times-repurposed white-brick hovel and move the club or replace it with a Taj Mahal, a hotel with the club located on its ground floor. They could say they are creating a towering edifice to match the little Pony's outsized reputation.

Of course that would be exactly the wrong thing to do. The music that we associate with the Stone Pony belongs in the Stone Pony, just as it is: fierce joy, homemade determination. Our lives as Shore residents -- even part-time residents -- are bound up in that grimy exterior, that flawed, organically evolved functionality. Trying to glorify it would only dilute the building's potency.

On the other hand, if it ever stops being a living building and becomes solely a venue for nostalgia -- if the camera-toting tourists have their way unfettered by the local community -- then let the wrecking ball come. We don't need that either.

-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park.

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